As few Delaware Latinos get COVID-19 vaccination, advocates cite frustration with state

Meredith Newman
Delaware News Journal

Delaware Latinos have received significantly fewer COVID-19 vaccine doses compared with white residents despite being hit disproportionately harder. But the reason isn't that Latinos don’t want the vaccine.

It’s that many don’t know how to sign up or face barriers every step of the way, longtime Delaware advocates say. 

Only 2% of Delawareans who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine are Latino, according to state data. Just 1% of those who have signed up for a vaccine identify as Latino.

Yet, Latinos and Hispanics account for about 10% of the state population and make up 17% of overall COVID-19 cases. 

BACKGROUND:Governor orders Delaware vaccine providers to fix race reporting, as disparities emerge

In interviews with half a dozen advocates, all expressed varying degrees of frustration with the state’s COVID-19 outreach in the Latino community. Many felt the state hasn’t done enough to gain the trust of the community or educate and properly communicate with its residents, especially about the safety of the vaccine.

They say these are issues the state has struggled with for years. 

The language barrier is one hurdle. Many elderly residents are dependent on their children or grandchildren to find and translate information for them.

And all of the advocates interviewed said the state's reliance on technology to get people to sign up for vaccines has prevented thousands from getting the shot. 

This is all similar to what Latino, Hispanic and Haitian residents experienced last spring when those communities in Sussex County saw an explosion of COVID-19 cases. Limited capacity then was compounded by language barriers, access issues and some mistrust.

Advocate Diána “Lola” Acevedo said these chronic issues come down to one thing, which predates the pandemic: the state government’s lack of outreach and investment in Latinos.

“I have no shame in saying this: Nothing changes if nothing changes,” she said. “So, until they decide to make that a priority, it never will be a priority.”

Gian Rizzo with his grandparents. Last month, Rizzo was instrumental in his grandparents receiving their first vaccine dose. They are among many Delaware Latinos facing barriers to accessing the vaccine.

This has led to a small army of advocates doing their own vaccine outreach in recent weeks, often answering phone calls and texts at all hours of the day. They post information to popular Facebook groups and dispel misinformation in Spanish about the vaccine in videos on social media.

They know they are not reaching everyone. Not even close.

For the past year, Gian Rizzo’s grandparents have mostly stayed in their Pike Creek home to protect themselves from contracting the virus, relying on Spanish-language TV news networks Univision and Telemundo for information. When Delaware opened the vaccine to residents age 65 and older, they wanted to get it. 

But how?

Rizzo’s grandmother and grandfather, in their late 70s and early 80s, do not speak English. They have smartphones but are not comfortable using a computer. And they don't have any go-to Spanish media outlets telling them where they can get a vaccine in Delaware. 

It was up to the 23-year-old student to sign up his grandparents for the vaccine last month. He then drove them to the mass vaccination site at the nearby Division of Motor Vehicles center and served as their interpreter. Rizzo said he didn’t see anyone at the site who spoke Spanish. 

The education materials his grandparents received after getting their shots were in English, Rizzo said. So were the follow-up text messages they received, inquiring about any symptoms, he said. 

“My grandparents," he said, "weren’t able to do this by themselves."

‘These numbers are not OK with us’ 

Although Delaware is just weeks into its vaccination distribution, the data is startling. 

Of the nearly 150,000 doses administered, 58% of recipients are white, 7% are Black, 2% are Asian and 2% are Hispanic/Latino, according to state data as of Feb. 14.

"Another/multiple” is labeled as the race or ethnicity for about 9%, while the race of 21% of recipients is not known. 

When Delaware Online/The News Journal recently reported on this disparity, health officials attributed the issue to some providers not collecting race data or inputting it incorrectly. 

VACCINE DISTRIBUTION:Delaware announces plans to expand COVID-19 vaccine distribution, target communities of color

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, bluntly acknowledged this disparity and how there is concern the state is not “reaching all Delawareans in an equitable way.”

“These numbers are not OK with us,” she said.

Nationally, Blacks and Latinos are experiencing the worst outcomes, with a higher percentage being hospitalized or dying from the disease. There are signs of significant vaccine disparities throughout the country, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The state announced earlier this month that Delaware would expand its COVID-19 vaccine distribution program to better target communities of color. 

FAQ:How people 65 and older, health care workers and teachers in Delaware can get in line for COVID-19 vaccines

This includes working with the Wilmington Housing Authority to vaccinate residents age 65 and older who live in high-rises for older adults, officials said. Some pharmacies received 4,000 doses this past week with the purpose of vaccinating traditionally underserved communities. 

Gov. John Carney, in  a recent weekly press briefing, noted the similarities between the issues that arose during testing last spring and how accessibility was a major issue. 

A COVID-19 vaccination record card at Bayhealth's Kent County Campus COVID-19 vaccination clinic Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Dover. The hospital began giving vaccinations to fontline employees early Tuesday morning.

He also acknowledged that group 1A, consisting mostly of health care workers and first responders, is likely a less diverse group than 1B, which includes essential employees and residents 65 and older. 

“If you look at our data dashboard now, you’ll see that our rate of testing among those populations is at a higher level than the Caucasian population in our state,” Carney said, “meaning that our response to that legitimate issue and concern addressed the equity issues on the testing side.” 

“And truthfully those populations were affected disproportionately.”

From the issues that arose with testing, the state learned it needed to “meet people where they are,” said Lisa Henry, director of community health at the Division of Public Health. 

“So testing needed to be more granular,” she said. “And we got there.”  

The health department will now follow a similar strategy with vaccinations, acknowledging there are significant barriers for communities of color. This will include, Henry said, bringing the vaccines to community centers that can help residents register and receive the doses. 

TELL US YOUR STORY:What will you take away from your COVID-19 pandemic experience?

The state will launch a toolkit for community organizations that will have shareable information about the vaccine. Health officials said the state also plans to pay for media advertising in Spanish language publications and work with Spanish-speaking physicians to create videos and presentations for residents. 

Rattay, the director of the Division of Public Health, said that the goal is to put community leaders in the “driver seat and for us to enable and support them.”

“In public health, we often recognize that as state government,” she said, “we’re not always going to be the best messenger in the community.”

Rattay said La Red Health Center as well as La Esperanza and other Latin American community centers are important partners. 

Maria Matos, president and CEO of the Latin American Community Center, acknowledged the state's attempts to provide equity, or the idea of providing increased access to often underserved or ignored communities of color.

“Where I have a difficulty with the state is,” she said, “that somehow they don't want to understand that the current way that they're providing mass vaccinations – that doesn't work for the Latino community. 

“It doesn’t.”

'This is all people ask me'

So far, Demetrio Ortega’s list consists of 58 names.

The former Wilmington city councilman is helping the Latin American Community Center, which he used to run, with its COVID-19 outreach. Ortega is trying to help each person on his list get a vaccine. 

“They don't know how to get it,” Ortega said. “This is not only in Delaware. This is nationwide. It’s a shame.”

Former Wilmington Councilman Demetrio "Junior" Ortega photographed in 2017.

Many elderly Latinos either do not have access to a computer or do not feel confident in using it to sign up for the vaccine, Ortega said. Others have issues with transportation because some of the vaccine sites are not within walking distance. He gets calls nearly every day from people asking for help. 

Matos said advocates have found they need to call residents. And then call them again. And again.

The community center has created three lists: one list for those who need the first shot, one for those who need a second shot and one for those who say they don’t want the vaccine. Matos plans to follow up with the third list and provide specific education and outreach.

A dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is prepared as ChristianaCare starts vaccinating its approximately 13,500 employees Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, at Christiana Hospital.

The community center is looking to host regular vaccine clinics, as it has for COVID-19 testing, Matos said. In the past year, more than 700 people have been tested at the center. Of those, nearly 24% were positive, she said. 

Matos praised the state for doing an “excellent” job in translating the information it releases into Spanish. The state’s COVID-19 website and vaccine tracker do have the option of translating into Spanish and Haitian Creole.

Yet, for some, it’s not enough. 

Bear resident Laura Leos runs several popular Facebook groups, one of which is Ventas Latina. She said she has a reach of about 50,000 people in the region, many of whom are Latinos in Delaware. 

Leos – who likens herself to the Latino community’s “yellow pages” – fields dozens of COVID-19 questions every day. While people are still asking her where to buy the best Quinceañera dresses, many are calling or texting her about where they can get tested or if the vaccine is safe. 

“This is all people ask me,” she said, “every single day.”

“People know me. People come to ask me questions. I don’t have the answers, and I try to research that information at the state’s website. I translate that information and post it.”

This Christmas, Leos, her husband and their four children tested positive for the virus. One of her children has asthma and was hospitalized for a period of time. 

When she called the state’s coronavirus hotline seeking information, Leos said she couldn’t find someone who spoke Spanish. When asked about this, officials said the state's COVID-19 phone number can connect residents with Spanish and Haitian Creole translators. 

“I asked for somebody who speaks Spanish,” Leos recalled. “They said, ‘Oh no, no Spanish here, and they hung up.’”

While Leos believes her experience allows her to better help others navigate the system, she has found there is simply not enough information in Spanish about where Delawareans can go to get tested, sign up for a vaccine or even how to receive COVID-19-related financial aid. 

There are also very few Spanish media outlets in Delaware, making it harder for people to find accurate, verified information. 

Acevedo, who has advocated for Delaware Latinos for decades, described “hitting a brick wall” when it came to finding shareable information in Spanish about the vaccine. 

She made many attempts to connect with the state through its COVID-19 hotline and sending emails; all went unanswered. 

 A sign points to a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Bayhealth's Kent County campus Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Dover.

When she was able to connect with a representative from the Division of Public Health through its general phone number about a month ago, Acevedo said she was told the materials she was looking for did not exist. 

Through connections with New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer, Acevedo said she was able to get a response from the state quickly about plans for educational outreach. 

“How many people don't have that or don't know where to go,” she said, “and they just hit the brick wall and it ends right there. So this is what I mean about the obstacles that are in front of the Latino community.”

Acevedo has found word of mouth and one-on-one interactions are the most powerful tools in the Latino community. While she recognized this is harder to do because of the constraints of the pandemic, Acevedo would like to see the state create a Latino/Hispanic COVID-19 liaison. 

This is a person, Acevedo believes, who would field questions and bring issues directly to the governor. And most importantly, the liaison could be the face of the issue, helping gain the public’s trust. 

“If you don't gain that trust,” she said, “you know, then you're really not going to get anywhere.”

Are you 65 or older? Sign up for the State of Delaware’s vaccination waiting list at vaccinerequest.delaware.gov. You can also call the Vaccination Call Center at 833-643-1715.   

Staff writer Brandon Holveck contributed reporting to this article.

Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or at mnewman@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MereNewman.