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BY ARACELI MARTINEZ, ETHNIC MEDIA SERVICES/LA OPINON | Araceli Martinez is a veteran reporter for La Opinion where this piece also appears.
Jocelyn Zambrano, 20, drives up to an hour and a half a day through Los Angeles County, from the Wilmington neighborhood to the San Fernando Valley, thinking about how to get more Latinx people vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I get up at 5:40 a.m. and at 7 in the morning, I leave for San Fernando,” Zambrano said. “I start at 8:30 am at the office of Pueblo y Salud, a nonprofit organization in San Fernando. I spend the morning planning and starting at 3 p.m., my team and I are going to knock on doors.”
Zambrano is studying at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) to become an elementary teacher. Since the end of June when her classes ended, she has been working 40 hours a week on Pueblo y Salud’s outreach campaign for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m in charge of a team of five community outreach workers, including myself,” Zambrano said. “We go out almost every day to educate the Latino community about vaccination and go house to house, knocking on doors.”
This job has become a mission for Zambrano’s team, most of whom are in their early twenties. “Only one of us is in her 30s,” Zambrano said. “We want to see more people vaccinated. I (am) vaccinated and my family are already.”
This is more than a summer job for the outreach workers, Zambrano said. It is for the entire year. They will continue working part time on vaccine canvassing when they return to classes.
“A lot of people speculate on whether or not they should get vaccinated,” Zambrano said of the people she speaks with in the community. “Some of them think there is a chip in the vaccine. Others say they are going to be injected with the same virus; or they ask why they have to feel bad after getting vaccinated when the vaccine is supposed to prevent us from getting sick. There are others who think that it is not free and they have to pay.”
When neighbors open their door to Zambrano and ask her these questions, she offers them information to raise awareness about the options of where to get vaccinated. She gives them masks and tries to make them commit to receiving the vaccine, helping them with the appointment to receive the vaccination.
She says that she has found that many people do not want to get vaccinated because they are scared. “One person told us that one of her co-workers had a heart attack after getting vaccinated,” she said. “And because of that, she thinks the vaccine caused it. We explained to her that she probably suffered that incident because she already had some health problems.”
There are other individuals who think they must have health insurance to get vaccinated. “The vaccine is free, and they just have to say no when asked if they have insurance,” she explained.
Zambrano has knocked on doors in communities such as Canoga Park, Pacoima, San Fernando and Sun Valley. She said she is starting to see some success, little by little.
“On July 22, we managed to get 10 people vaccinated,” Zambrano said. “It was very good, because normally the average that we convince to get vaccinated per day is zero to four.”
Sometimes Zambrano and her team arrange to vaccinate people in their own family homes. “We just make one call and they come to vaccinate them at their homes,” she said. “Other times, we manage to encourage them to go to the nearest vaccination clinic that will be set up in the following days”.
Pueblo y Salud works with various hospitals to give vaccines at home. For pop-up clinics, they work with the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians and Pacoima Beautiful, a nonprofit organization focused on environmental justice in Pacoima.
In keeping with the State of California’s equity strategies to vaccinate hard-to-reach communities and address vaccine questions, the Pueblo y Salud team decides which neighborhoods to visit in a weekly meeting they have with the San Fernando Valley COVID Rapid Response Table. “We have an internal website where we can see the areas where people have been vaccinated the least, and we go to those places to raise awareness of the covid vaccine,” Zambrano says.
Outreach workers do run into people who are completely reluctant to get vaccinated. “We try not to put too much pressure on them because we want our team to be safe,” she said. “We never know how they can react.”
In those cases, Zambrano said she and her team thank them and leave. “We really can’t keep trying to persuade them when they’ve already made a decision,” she said. “It’s something we have to get over and move on.”
Zambrano reveals that Pueblo y Salud hopes to grow the virus vaccination outreach team to a total of eight people.
“We are still looking for people because we entered the vaccination program quite late,” she said.
Even with her current staffing level, she says knocking on doors and talking to people about the vaccine is worth it. “Especially at this time with the Delta variant, reaching people who are not vaccinated is even more important, because this can get worse,” she said. “So far it has worked because we have managed to get people out of their home to get vaccinated.”
Rafael Rincón, 21, another community outreach worker and CSUN student, said he became passionate about the issue because his mother was diagnosed with COVID. Since then, he set out to raise awareness about the pandemic and work to get more people vaccinated.
“Even though my mother had mild symptoms, I don’t want anyone to catch it.” Rincón said. “So as soon as I could, I (got) vaccinated.”
When someone opens the door and does not want to be vaccinated, Rafael said he asks them to think about their family. “You may not necessarily be the one at high risk of getting sick, but you have other members of your household who can get infected,” he said. “So, think of the other people in your community, not yourself.”
And through talking to Angelenos door after door he said he has learned that the public is not well-informed.
“This program is very necessary to raise awareness; and there may be some people who do not go out much to find this information,” he said.
Rafael believes that a lot of misinformation about the vaccine has spread, creating fear; and that is why they need to have the appropriate information available.
Jocelyn Salazar, 21, a Los Angeles Mission College student, is also a COVID vaccine outreach worker for Pueblo y Salud.
“It is important to me because I want everyone to be healthy and protected from the virus,” Salazar said. “Many people from my family and friends have died. We want everyone to protect themselves by wearing masks, with social distance and the vaccine.”
When visiting families in their homes, Salazar said she is surprised how many people are afraid of the vaccine because of what they hear from friends and relatives instead of paying attention to what medical professionals and scientists say.
When asked what she would tell someone who doesn’t want to get vaccinated, Salazar said: “I would tell you that I want you to know the resources that exist to obtain the vaccine. I do not want to pressure you. I just want you to know.”
Ruben Rodríguez, director of Pueblo y Salud, says that the message has been constant for the community to be vaccinated, especially Latinx people and African Americans. “Education is there, and many people want to go, but not to struggle to get it,” Rodríguez said. “They don’t want to line up, wait, or use the phone to check in or miss work.”
He said there are other barriers as well: “For example, the Latino community uses common sense a lot and says, ‘Why am I going to get vaccinated, if I have to wear the mask anyway?’”
Rodríguez said that direct contact works. “Sometimes, there are people who say that they have not been vaccinated because they have not had time,” he said. “We tell them, ‘I will make the appointment right now,’ and the pop-up vaccination clinics help a lot in this.”
He concludes by saying that it is challenging to get people vaccinated when they have preconceptions and don’t give it importance. “Going from door to door does work, because I believe people are no longer paying attention to the radio or TV ads,” Rodríguez said. “They are tired of always listening the same. And although out of 100 people we talked to, it is possible to convince one, it is worth it.”
Along with raising awareness about COVID-19 vaccines, Pueblo y Salud also provides alcohol, drug and tobacco prevention programs, Zambrano said.