By Miguel Marquez, CNN
There’s a Herculean effort to ensure that the most vulnerable get inoculated across the US.
Transportation, translation and a trusted source of vaccine information have been among the barriers, but public health workers and a new initiative are working to overcome that.
El Milagro Clinic in McAllen, Texas, has played a crucial role in ensuring patients get the correct information about the vaccine and keep their appointments.
Retired laborer Zeferino Cantu is diabetic, has high-blood pressure and has no health insurance, but he waited months to get the vaccine. He finally got his first shot at the clinic last week because he’s more worried about the virus than vaccine side effects.
Speaking in Spanish, Cantu told CNN that the coronavirus is more dangerous because it can affect everything, even your mental capacity.
The South Texas clinic is among the 100 free and charitable clinics in 16 states that have gotten a financial boost from Project Finish Line. The initiative is aimed at getting a million “hard-to-reach unvaccinated” access to the vaccine. Since the launch of the initiative in June, more than 115,000 people have been vaccinated, according to Joe Agoada, CEO of Project Finish Line and Sostento.
South Texas, a region with a predominantly Latino population, has been hard hit by the pandemic. And nationally, Latinos have been among the most affected by the pandemic, but have been vaccinated at far lower rates than White Americans. When the Covid-19 vaccine was initially approved, some Latinos were skeptical and worried it would make them sick.
Latinos are among the only two groups underrepresented in vaccinations relative to their share of the US population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Latinos account for 17.2% of the US population, but 16.7% of people fully vaccinated and Black people account for 12.4% of the US population but only 10.1% of those fully vaccinated.
Earlier in the vaccine rollout, only a small percentage of the vaccine providers were in majority Latino ZIP codes in Texas. There are fewer providers in rural areas, which led some Texans to drive long distances to get a vaccine.
The importance of deep community ties
Sylvia Aguilar knows Cantu, the retired laborer, very well.
“He would always tell me I’ll be back. I’ll come back I’m not ready,” the eligibility administrator at El Milagro Clinic says.
Several months later, he’s returned as the city already hard hit by the pandemic saw a surge like other parts of the US because of the Delta variant.
Families are getting sick and are scared, Aguilar says. They don’t know where to go — a common barrier here in vaccinating those who need it the most.
The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates about 44% of the vaccine holdouts are persuadable, but even they can be tough to convince.
“I wanted to see the reaction of other people before I got it,” Juan Manuel Salinas says. “If they were OK, then I’d do it.”
Salinas has just gotten his second shot.
And although the 55-year-old racehorse trainer’s daughter worked at the clinic, it took her months to persuade her father to make an appointment and keep it.
“He had all the resources. I would say do you want me go pick you up? We do it for free here at the clinic and he would say ‘yeah I’ll go. I’ll go,'” Bree Salinas, his daughter and a financial manager at the clinic, says.
On a mission to vaccinate a million
In June, Project Finish Line was launched by Sostento. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2019 to address the opioid crisis and serve marginalized and disadvantaged communities. The organization joined the pandemic response last year to assist with access to care and testing.
“What we hope to achieve is to get vaccine access to those on the fence,” Agoada says. “I call them ‘the unvaccinated but willing.”
In some communities, concerns about getting vaccinated aren’t related to the vaccine itself. Some common reasons are lack of transportation and fear of missing work.
Agoada explains how the nonprofit partnered with a poultry plant in Georgia to set up a pop-up clinic. Workers were able to get inoculated on a Saturday and were able to take Sunday off if there were side effects like fatigue.
The initiative is also providing money for pop-up vaccinations in rural places such as Muniz, Texas, phone lines for community outreach and even helping organize free rides provided by Uber.
“We hear of individuals who take the bus to and from work everyday and they cannot take a day off work and they really need help with that transportation barrier,” Agoada says.
And for clinics like the one in McAllen, persistence and patience work best.
“It gets to the point where staff feels like they are sounding like a broken record,” says Marisol Resendez, the executive director of El Milagro Clinic.
“They will come around there are a lot of people who are willing they just don’t have the tools the information the resources.”
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CNN’s Carolyn Sung contributed to this report.