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Richmond Health Officials Work to Boost Latino Vaccinations

Karla Almendarez Ramos, the manager for Richmond’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said she wants to encourage other Latinos to get their COVID-19 shot. She says it was fast and painless. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

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According to the CDC, only 38% of Latinos got the flu vaccine last year. With the COVID-19 vaccine now being administered, the Richmond City Health District is working to engage more of the city’s Latino residents.

Karen Carle, a bilingual public health nurse with the RCHD, has been working as a vaccine manager during the city’s mass vaccination events. She’s also interpreted for some Spanish-speaking patients. 

Carle says the health department is actively working to recruit more Spanish speakers for their events. She says RCHD is seeking to partner with local churches and community organizations to bring in Spanish-speaking volunteers.

“We don't have as many Spanish speakers as we will probably need, especially in the future, as we expand [to offer vaccines to more people],” Carle said. “We could use some more, definitely.”

Besides the language barrier and other structural challenges, there’s also the issue of vaccine hesitancy. Karla Almendarez-Ramos, the manager for Richmond’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, encourages other members in her community to get their COVID-19 shot.

Almendarez-Ramos got her vaccine on Friday at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center. She says she hopes to set an example for her friends and neighbors, to let them know the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine far exceed the risks.

“It didn’t hurt. I was more nervous that it was going to hurt, but it didn’t,” she said. 

The process was quick and simple. The staff at the Ashe Center screened her for COVID-19 symptoms, then registered her before she sat down with a volunteer to get her vaccine. In all, she says, it took about 15 minutes.

Because she had certain allergies, Almendarez-Ramos was asked to stay at the center for 30 minutes after her vaccine, in case she showed a bad reaction. She said it made her feel safe knowing there was a physician present at the vaccination site to answer her questions.

“I feel that they are taking good care of me, asking me the right questions and being respectful of my medical history,” Almendarez-Ramos said. “They have a doctor here, and he came to talk to me, to make sure I felt safe.”

Javier Lopez-Rincon, another employee for the Office of Multicultural Affairs, also got his shot Friday at the Ashe Center. He says his wife had recently gotten her first shot as well, so he felt comfortable and prepared.

In the end, he said getting the COVID-19 vaccine was a familiar process.

“It’s just really another shot. It’s the same thing pretty much as having something for the measles or for the flu,” he said. “It’s easy. It’s not painful.”

Due to histories of trauma and discrimination, some people of color may have reasons to mistrust doctors, which experts say contributes to their apprehension for getting vaccinated.

And for some Latino residents, worries about immigration status may also keep them away. But Carle says there are no risks in seeking the COVID-19 vaccine, which is available to undocumented immigrants. While RCHD volunteers will ask for a form of identification and some other personal questions when administering the vaccine, she says that information remains confidential. 

“By law, we cannot share any of that information with any other agency,” she said. “We are not asking anything about your status here in the country. That's never been part of the plan and will never be part of the plan.”

Doctor Sergio Rimola of Fairfax County recently got his own COVID-19 vaccine, and he tells other Latinos that he has full confidence in the efficacy of the vaccine. Still, he says it’s important to continue following safety guidelines until the pandemic is over.

“It is important that the community understands that we have to continue using masks and social distancing until at least 70 percent of the population is vaccinated,” he said. “There were no shortcuts to get where we are now. [The vaccine] has gone through the whole process, and that’s why I’m very confident the vaccine is gonna be very effective and safe.”

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