March 4, 2021
Science moved at unprecedented speed to develop vaccines against the new coronavirus. It was too fast for some Latinos—especially those egged on my myth and misinformation.
By: Diverse Elders

By Jenny Manrique. This article originally appeared on Palabra.

Read in Spanish and see the video in Spanish with English subtitles:

Credit: Palabra

On the ranch where Gabriela Navarrete was raised in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, she learned early on that the land could provide what she needed to cure her ills. Mesquite bark, olive oil, corn vinegar and baking soda were useful for treating everything from joint pains to throat infections. In case of indigestion, the medicine was a good old stomach rub.

Navarrete, 69, passed on to her three daughters and one son the lesson that “everything natural is what is good for the body.”

So when the COVID-19 pandemic began, she quickly stocked up on Vitamin C, infusions of ginger, chamomile and peppermint, and linden tea for sleeping.

And while this arsenal failed to defend her against the coronavirus last year, she remains resolute: Her principle of “consuming everything natural,” she said, is more powerful than the idea of getting vaccinated.

That’s why she’s decided that the new COVID vaccines are not for her.

“Getting the vaccine is going to be very bad for me because I think they are made from the virus itself,” Navarrete said, talking from her home in Anthony, New Mexico, a small town on the border with Texas. “The only time I got the flu shot, I got a lot worse and I don’t want to do that to my body anymore.”

The coronavirus reached Navarrete’s family through her 17-year-old daughter, an athlete who resumed volleyball practice once the school gym was opened after the lockdown. Everyone avoided hospitalization. They were treated by the family doctor with antibiotics, ibuprofen and albuterol in inhalers.

“The virus gave me very bad headaches and I still struggle when walking, so I accepted the medicines. But I am definitely not getting vaccinated.”

Like others her age, Navarette is at a higher risk of infection. Yet that’s not enough for her or her children to discount messages they’ve gotten via WhatsApp, complete with videos, that claim, for example, that vaccines are made with tissues of aborted fetuses.

Doubts and Fears

Nationwide, people across demographic lines have lingering doubts about the new COVID-19 vaccines, according to a new survey by the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Half of the survey respondents said they plan to get vaccinated as soon as they’re allowed to. But 19% say they want to first see how others react to the inoculations, while 24% say they will avoid the vaccine if they can.

Among Latinos, according to recent data from the COVID-19 vaccine monitor launched by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) to track attitudes and experiences with the vaccines, 18% of adults said they will definitely not get the vaccine. Another 11% said they will only do so if it’s required by employers. And, among those who have decided that they will get vaccinated, 43% said they want to wait and see how the inoculations affect other Latinos.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latinos are nearly twice as likely to be infected by COVID-19 as non-Latino whites. The same population is more than four times as likely to be hospitalized and almost three times as likely to die of the virus. This is due, partly, to the large number of Latinos working in essential jobs that expose them to co-workers and the public. Other factors, like access to health care, also play a role.

Despite the higher risk, some Latinos remain uncertain about the safety of the new coronavirus vaccines.

An example: Navarrete in Texas, said she believes the myth that vaccines carry bits of an actual virus.

“There are other vaccines that have virus particles, including live virus particles,” said Gerardo Capo, chief of hematology at Trinitas Comprehensive Cancer Center in New Jersey. “This vaccine is more modern. It has internal proteins of the virus that are not considered to cause an infection. It is impossible.”

Vaccine hesitancy among Latinos in the U.S. is not necessarily an ideological issue or a belief in the anti-vaccine movement. “It has more to do with not having enough information or having inadequate information,” said Nelly Salgado de Snyder, a researcher with the University of Texas at Austin.

Doubts exist even among Latino health care professionals.

Ada Linares, a nurse in the New York area, told Palabra. that it’s not the suspicious messaging seen on social media or via WhatsApp texts, but her own unfamiliarity with this vaccine — how it was developed and potential side effects perhaps overlooked in testing and trials that moved at unprecedented speed.

“I have always been pro-vaccine, and I think this is why we are here today,” she said. “But at the same time, I don’t know much about (the vaccines).”

Avoiding the Needle

In Texas, officials started by vaccinating health care workers, residents of nursing homes and some people older than 65 years.

Throughout the state, according to the KFF monitor, only 15% of vaccines have reached Hispanics, even though Latinos account for almost 40% of the population, 44% of coronavirus cases and almost half of COVID-19 deaths.

“We need to focus on equity as part of the COVID-19 vaccination effort,” said Samantha Artiga, director of KFF’s racial equity and health policy program. “It is important to monitor data by race and ethnicity to understand the experiences of the communities … , who is receiving the vaccines, and who has been the most affected by the pandemic.”

But it’s more than just reluctance. Studies into low flu vaccination rates among low-income Latino seniors show that being uninsured — and even the lack of transportation to get to vaccination centers — are huge barriers.

Experts suggest that no-cost COVID-19 vaccines, available to everyone regardless of health insurance or immigration status, could help close the gap, “if the information is available in linguistically appropriate materials and the concerns of people are clearly addressed. Immigrant families should be assured that their medical data is private and will not be used by federal agencies,” Artiga said.

Conspiracy Theories

In addition to debunked conspiracy theories that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can alter DNA, or contain microchips implanted by Bill Gates to monitor people with 5G technology, other rumors specific to the Latino community have spread through social media.

“The viral disinformation includes anonymous voice messages on WhatsApp that say that since Trump does not like Mexicans and built the wall, he wants to vaccinate us so we cannot have more children, or that the vaccine is a poison for those of us who are here undocumented, that it is a way to get rid of us,” Salgado de Snyder said.

She suggested one possible reason such disinformation is embraced: “People believe it because they don’t have the level of education or the institutional support to confirm this information that they hear from other Latinos. Many of them do not speak English and most of the scientific information is not available in Spanish,” she said.

Salgado de Snyder is the co-author of the study, “Exploring Why Adult Mexican Males Do Not Get Vaccinated: Implications for COVID-19 Preventive Actions,” conducted by the Migrant Clinicians Network and published last September.

Data was collected in 2019 at the Ventanilla de Salud at the Mexican Consulate in Austin. Before the pandemic, the clinic offered free vaccines against maladies like influenza, tetanus, hepatitis A and B, and human papilloma, in association with Austin Public Health.

Some 400 patients gave researchers a variety of reasons for not getting vaccinated, including lack of time or money, fear of injections and of potential side effects, insufficient information or motivation, and the perception that they are healthy and don’t need inoculation.

“While women are more familiar with the health system because in Mexico there is a universal voluntary and free vaccination program, men have the mistaken belief that vaccines are the cure for a problem, they do not see (a vaccination) as a preventive tool,” Salgado de Snyder said.

“As breadwinners, they do not want to miss a day of work to go to get vaccinated,” she added. “That is why our recommendations in times of COVID are that through some type of mobile clinic, employers offer vaccines in workplaces such as construction companies or meatpacking plants,” she said.

Moving Too Fast

María del Rosario Cadena remembers that during her childhood in Tampico, in Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, she received vaccines against hepatitis and polio without any side effects. But she is “very suspicious” about the COVID-19 vaccines that seem to have been developed and approved so quickly.

“I’ve seen on TV that it affects various parts of the body and people get very sick after receiving it,” del Rosario Cadena said.

Apart from her doubts about the vaccine, del Rosario Cadena insists she follows all recommendations to guard against COVID-19: She wears a mask, she practices social distancing, and she’s always washing her hands. And, since she doesn’t go out “at all,” the 71-year-old said she believes that “isolation is my vaccine. I feel I don’t need it.”

Her daughter, Rocio Valderrabano, 55, is diabetic, so she will soon have access to a COVID-19 vaccine. But she has doubts, so she’ll wait and see how some friends — nurses — react to their second doses. “I know people who have had COVID and spent four days with oxygen. I know they had a very bad time … but I still want to wait and see if there are side effects (to the vaccine).”

Clinicians said mistrust also comes from knowing there were few people of color in the vaccine trials. In the trial for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, participants were 13% Latino, 10% African American, 6% Asian, and 1% Native American. Moderna’s trial population was 20% Hispanic, 10% African American, 4% Asian.

“We hope that the labs that are developing new vaccines will include more Latino patients in their trials,” said Dr. Lucianne Marin, a pediatrician at Los Barrios Unidos Community Clinic in Dallas, one of 75 community centers in Texas that will provide vaccines in immigrant neighborhoods.

Marin and the rest of the Barrios Unidos staff have already received both doses — injections that caused her “a bit of discomfort, fatigue, and a headache.”

“Anything strange that enters the body can cause a reaction,” she said. “But one has to understand that the vaccine is not made from the live virus. It’s from genetic material that will help to generate antibodies. … I tell my patients that a fever or a pain in the body cannot be compared with the exposure to the coronavirus.”

The community clinics are out to debunk myths and dispel fears. They emphasize the greater risk of infection for Latinos who have chronic health problems like diabetes, hypertension, and excessive weight.

In doctor’s offices or in telemedicine visits they invite grandmothers to be champions in their families and spread the message about the need to get vaccinated. “Among Latinos, the elders of the family are highly respected and they are listened to; if they are convinced (of the vaccine), the family will be too,” Marin said.

Community health workers also share messages on Facebook, or partner with local Spanish-language media on virtual discussions featuring doctors and public officials — even representatives from consulates of Latin American countries.

“It is our job to be the reliable messenger,” Marin said. “Vaccines are safe and free.”

Jenny Manrique wrote this article with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and The John A. Hartford Foundation. Jorge Melchor contributed reporting and photography to this story from New York and New Jersey.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.