Minority communities face obstacles to getting COVID-19 vaccine

Photo via Unsplash

By Eileen Qiu
Boston University News Service

BOSTON — Minority groups face misinformation and fear due to the lack of government trust as additional obstacles in navigating the coronavirus pandemic, advocates told at a virtual hearing of the Legislature’s Health Equity Task Force on Monday.

Massachusetts is in Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout. Individuals 75 and older are eligible to receive the first dose of the vaccine. However, Rep. Tackey Chan, D-Quincy, argues that this is not enough. He says there should be a system dedicated to distributing the vaccine to individuals who might not have government issued-IDs or their papers in order.

Minority and immigrant groups fear repercussions for reaching out to government services. Chan recognizes this concern and hopes to alleviate it.

“Everyone should be treated equally with equal access to these services,” Chan said.

There is also a lack of trust within the government these past four years, Helena DeSilva Hughes, the executive director of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center in New Bedford said.

Hughes said her clients, who speak mostly Portuguese and have limited or no English language skills, were hit the hardest within the community. Most of these individuals are essential workers who are employed in fish houses. They often live in households with five to six members, making quarantining impossible if a household member gets sick.

“There’s been a lot of fear and anxiety within the community,” Hughes said.

Getting tested is also not a priority because individuals focus on providing for their families — even if they don’t feel well, Hughes said. Asymptomatic individuals who go to work can also unintentionally infect other employees.

Many older individuals who are eligible for the vaccine do not have access, or know how to use computers to sign up for them. This problem is further complicated by these individuals’ low English literacy skills, Hughes said.

Many individuals need more resources to access proper care and information.

Iris Coloma Gaines, a statewide language access attorney, said Massachusetts has attempted to address language access, but the pandemic has amplified the problem.

Hughes said her center keeps a list of individuals who qualify for a vaccine and helps them sign up as supply allows. She believes local awareness of this issue may be a positive step in alleviating these system problems.

To create more understanding of the vaccine in the community, religious leaders and multi-lingual doctors need to engage in the community and communicate facts surrounding the pandemic, Hughes said.

The center also partners with a testing facility and local doctors in New Bedford; this allows clients to make an appointment for their COVID-19 test via phone calls.

Dawn Sauma, co-executive director of the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, said her clients are confused and without access to pandemic-related information.

One solution would be to add more languages to the state’s coronavirus website, in addition to the 24 already available, Sauma said.

Rose Zhang, an Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence client, said she had not received help throughout the pandemic because people can not understand her when she speaks accented English.

Zhang said she lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic. Her struggles intensified when she sought out unemployment applications; they were only available in English or Spanish.

Gov. Charlie Baker said during his recent State of the Commonwealth address that Massachusetts planned to vaccinate 76,000 individuals per week by the middle of February.

However, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation data, only about 10% of minority individuals within Massachusetts are getting vaccinated. This is a stark comparison to the nearly 60% of white individuals and 30% of multiracial individuals receiving vaccinations.

“It’s clear the English speakers are getting the benefits while non-English speakers are not,” Gaines said.

This article was previously published in SouthCoast Today.

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