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Flint, MI—Like many other cities across the country, Flint is struggling with getting its low-income and underserved populations vaccinated. Though on a national level public health experts have warned this could be due to vaccine hesitancy, healthcare workers and administrators and community members on the ground are saying lack of access to information and vaccination sites is the bigger problem.
This growing issue has caused members of minority groups in the city to come together and seek a solution. What they came up with has now been coined the Flint Multicultural Vaccine Video Project.
Though still in its early stages, the project, produced in part by the Latinx Technology and Community Center, the Arab American Heritage Council and the Flint Millennial Movement, aims to produce videos about COVID-19 related topics in Spanish, Arabic and English.
According to Tomás Tello, one of MVVP’s founders and a member of the Latinx community, the project was born from him and his partner’s disappointment in the fact that at a time when COVID-19 numbers were still rising and the vaccine was not being distributed on a large scale, only a handful of organizations in the city were offering health services or information in Spanish.
Tello, 17, said the language barrier that exists for many Latinx residents in Flint served only to further exacerbate the community’s issues with access to COVID-19 related information.
“I felt like the needs of non-English speakers were being downplayed. I understand a lot of people are under a lot of stress right now and there are a lot of things on people’s minds but this should definitely be a priority,” Tello said. “I know there are many people putting in the effort to spread information, I just wish those efforts could reach more places.”
Though he insisted he is willing to do anything to help, Tello recognized the responsibility of distributing COVID-19 information to marginalized communities should not have to fall on a group of teenage volunteers.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think it should be our responsibility. I’m happy to do it, it’s my passion but I feel like the government and people that are higher up, it should be their responsibility. … I know there are some websites in Spanish but you know, a lot of people don’t know how or can’t connect to those sites,” Tello said.
When it comes to distributing information in hard-to-reach neighborhoods, he thinks going door to door may be the best way.
“There is no other way you’re going to reach people like that. If they don’t have computers or cellphones, how do we know if they’re in the loop?” Tello said.
This is the argument Mildred Silva Zuccaro has made for going door to door in Flint’s east side distributing vaccine information. Zuccaro said centrally located vaccination sites like those found in downtown Flint or near the Cultural Center were good for reaching the vast majority of people in the city. Now, however, efforts have to be made to reach those without access to the information or transportation required to reach those sites.
Zuccaro, who works as an outreach engagement navigator for Hamilton Community Health Network started these efforts by distributing vaccine information in both English and Spanish in the city’s east side, where up to 12% of the population is Spanish speaking. She followed this up the next day on Thursday, July 23 by hosting a vaccination clinic at the Latinx Technology and Community Center where after four hours, only two people were vaccinated.
Zuccaro marked the day as successful.
“That’s what happens, people start saying ‘Oh, we don’t have to keep pushing the vaccine as much anymore, the majority of people are vaccinated now.’ In reality, what we need to be doing is pushing even more inside these communities. Even if only one or two people get vaccinated every day, that’s how you keep making progress,” Zuccaro said.
Zuccaro said in her time working as an interpreter for Hamilton, she has come across cases where residents due to lack of access to the internet, television, transportation and in many cases human interaction, simply are not aware of the existence, much less the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine. In other cases, Zuccaro claimed to have met an individual who aside from having to wear a mask, hardly understood there was a global pandemic occurring.
“Very recently we had a vaccine clinic at the Flint Eastside Mission when a person arrived and I started talking to them about the importance of getting vaccinated. They looked at me and asked ‘why do I need a vaccine, I already got my flu shot?” Zuccaro said. “I told them no, it’s not a flu shot, it’s for Covid. Then they told me ‘Oh, I don’t know what that is.’”
Ultimately, Zuccaro said the individual got their vaccine after further explanation. She said experiences like these have led her to believe the problem isn’t always hesitancy, it can often be individuals just not having the resources to even get information about the vaccine.
Ibis Fernadez, a Cuban immigrant living in Flint, has experienced firsthand how these language and economic barriers can block important information from reaching her.
As a Spanish speaker with a weak grasp of English, Fernandez, who spent the majority of her life working as a psychologist and paraprofessional has had to make due as a seamstress in the two years she’s lived in Flint.
“I had heard there was a sizeable Hispanic community in Flint and the cost of living there is much lower than what it is in Miami,” Fernandez said when explaining her reasons for moving to Flint.
Fernandez said she was surprised when she arrived in Flint at the lack of Spanish language signage and information in the city. Upon doing her research, Fernandez thought the Latinx population in the city would be significant enough for there to be a larger proliferation of the language.
“That’s okay,” Fernandez said. “I have to acclimate myself to the language and culture of the city but it’s hard. Sometimes people just want to chat at a bus stop becuase they’re trying to be nice and I can’t respond.”
Though that is a fairly innocuous example, Fernandez said other times, the lack of Spanish services in the city has been harder to deal with.
One example she gave, had to do with getting her water shut off before moving to a new place.
“I had been trying to shut off water to my old building. When I called there was no one who spoke Spanish so I had to use a translator on my phone. I was given a set of instructions but I couldn’t really ask any questions during the process,” Fernandez said.
She also explained how several times, she has been turned away by doctors in the area for not being able to speak English.
“I have to use an interpreter when I want to call a doctor. Just calling a doctor costs me a lot of money simply because I have to pay for the interpreter services. A situation like this sort of puts a stop to your life. You don’t have the resources to really do anything,” Fernandez said.
When it comes to information regarding COVID-19, Fernandez said her experience was not much different. Going into the summer of 2021, Fernandez had not seen any information about the vaccine in Spanish.
“If you don’t have the means to translate a flier or to speak to someone who knows Spanish, you just don’t ever find out about anything … I can go on the internet and search for vaccination clinics near me, sometimes the search engine will know what I’m asking. Even then if I do go to the site, I have to ask if anyone knows Spanish. Usually people don’t and I end up not getting the vaccine that day,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said she wants to respect the city’s culture and understands its important to learn English, but is surprised there isn’t a larger effort in the city to be more inclusive.
“The Hispanic community here is large and it’s important, any campaigns to promote COVID-19 vaccinations and information should be ran in Spanish as well, it is the only way people who don’t speak English will get vaccinated,” Fernandez said.
The circumstances that have led to the lack of information in areas like the east side have affected more than just Spanish speakers.
Bob Cummings, a lifelong resident of the east side is currently unemployed. He shares an apartment with his brother and spends most of his days walking around his neighborhood picking up litter on the streets.
Cummings said the first time he heard about the vaccine was from a flier he was given at the Latinx Technology and Community Center.
With no phone, computer or mode of transportation to speak of, Cummings rarely leaves the east side. It wasn’t until the flier and after using the center’s computers to research the topic that he decided to get vaccinated.
“For the longest time, I put (getting the vaccine) off because I heard so much bad stuff about it not working properly and people dying from it. I came to the center and used their computers and started doing more research and saw that people were dying from Covid and not the vaccine,” Cumming said.
Even with access to information on the vaccine and the willingness to get it, Cummings faced more obstacles.
“Everything is too far away, I tried to find people who will give me a ride… there’s not a lot of companies that offer free rides. Sometimes you have to make an appointment and there are no times that work or you have to have a specific age or medical condition that won’t allow you to ride a public bus,” Cummings said.
It was not until late June, during the tech center’s 20th-anniversary celebration where a small vaccination clinic was set up that Cummings finally got vaccinated.
Without the tech center, Cummings said he would probably not be vaccinated or even know about the vaccine.
“A lot of people are not really able to get out, they either have a medical condition or they can’t walk, they have to use a wheelchair. It’s a nightmare. And these (MTA) buses take too long. It’s like two dollars for a one-way trip and sometimes it takes like an hour or two to get anywhere,” Cummings said.
It’s people like these that Zuccaro said need to be prioritized now that vaccination rates are dropping.
“His (Cummings’) situation is not a unique one in the east side,” Zuccaro said. “People sometimes don’t trust others outside their community so it helps for them to see us out there in their streets, as their community members, getting and giving vaccines.”
Nichole Howell, a nurse contracted by Hamilton Health who was present at the tech center’s latest vaccination clinic, fears organizations that put together these clinics might stop doing so if nurses only report one or two vaccinations over the course of an afternoon.
“I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did. Even though we know the numbers and the need, sometimes people don’t always make the right decision.
Howell said most of the clinics she’s worked in communities like the east side never get more than three or four people coming through to get vaccinated. She said even though the “progress is slow, it is still progress and remains the most effective way to reach people inside low-income communities.”
Throughout the month of August, Hamilton Health will be hosting COVID-19 vaccine clinics on Tuesdays and Thursdays of every week between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m starting on August 3 at the Flint Eastside Mission. No appointment is necessary and Spanish interpretation will be available.