This story is part of Doubting the Dose, a series that examines anti-vaccine sentiment and the role of misinformation in supercharging it. Read more here.
At Taft High School on East 172nd street in the Bronx, which has been turned into a COVID-19 vaccination site, old campaign posters for 2020 class president elections hang next to signs in English, Spanish, and Mandarin. The signs urge people in line for the vaccine to look up the Somos Community Care website for correct information about COVID-19, and to help others register to get jabbed.
Somos, a network of more than 2,500 doctors in Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, that primarily serves Latinx and Chinese communities, is one of the groups leading a statewide healthcare initiative to get residents vaccinated. The doctors at the site say they have their work cut out for them: Their biggest challenge? Getting people to show up despite what they may have read online.
A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 26% of Hispanic people in the U.S. said they wanted to get vaccinated “as soon as possible,” versus 40% of white Americans. Social media disinformation—and a lack of enforcement by social media companies—is at least partially to blame: Human rights nonprofit Avaaz found that Facebook did not put warning labels on 70% of misinformation posted in Spanish, compared to 29% of misinformation posted in English.
Dr. Ramon Tallaj, Somos cofounder and chairman of the board, says that messaging in different languages was only the first step in persuading many people in the Latinx community—which has been targeted by a steady campaign of COVID-19 disinformation—to get the vaccine. “Some people here come with questions about incorrect things they have read online like, ‘Will this vaccine actually infect me and make me sick?’ ” he says. Other rumors on social media have linked the vaccine to satanic rituals or claimed that prayer and religion is cure enough for the virus.
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According to Somos’s other cofounder, Henry Muñoz III, who previously served as the finance chairman at the Democratic National Committee and has worked on initiatives to encourage Latinx people to vote, there are groups preying on already-present fears among Latinx people and spreading misinformation through communities.
“There is a lot of social media disinformation targeting the undocumented and first-generation immigrants. [They are saying] ‘If you go to a hospital to get a test, you’ll have to wait on line for three hours and you could be rounded up by ICE,’ ” he says, adding that many people are unwilling to go to testing and vaccination sites for fear that authorities will ask them for citizenship papers or charge them money for the services.
Muñoz says one challenge is reaching those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and now have limited access to Wi-Fi. This makes it difficult to look up how to get tested and vaccinated. As a result, some rely on inaccurate information, originally spread through social media channels and shared by friends and family.
While Muñoz says that he does not know the direct source of the digital campaigns, statements made by former President Donald Trump haven’t helped matters. “The number-one perpetrator of misinformation in the United States of America just lost his election,” Muñoz says. “When you combine [his actions] with a basic mistrust in the Latino community for big government institutions, it can be hard to get people to get the vaccine.”
This is an especially acute problem, given how the pandemic has disproportionately affected Latinx residents: A study from the Center for American Progress found that Hispanics and Latinos are 1.7 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than their white counterparts, and 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19. They are also 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19.
Despite this, Latinos aren’t being vaccinated at proportional rates. The New York Times reported at the end of January that of nearly 300,000 city residents who had received a dose and whose race was recorded, about 48% were white and 15% were Latino—despite the fact that the city’s population is roughly 29% Latino.
“We have been more affected by the pandemic than other groups, but we aren’t being given the same level of support,” Muñoz says. “Lack of access and lack of information communicated in the right language is what we are trying to address. Hesitancy is a problem, but it’s something we can fight if the government invests in it. Tackling it should be part of the plan.”
To dispel myths about the vaccine, Somos is working with family doctors and religious leaders embedded in the community. “Our research shows [that communities we work with] don’t really listen to government officials. They trust their doctors and nurses and their faith leaders, so we are working with them to get people informed.”
One of the most effective solutions has been to work with family doctors who often treat multiple generations in one family and have already earned their trust. In the Bronx, many take a day off from their practice every week to volunteer at the Somos vaccination site at Yankee Stadium. “We ask them to call all of their patients and tell them to come get vaccinated on the day they are working there, and to bring their relatives. People listen to them,” Muñoz says. The group is campaigning to get vaccines in their hands so that they can eventually administer them in their offices, giving patients an extra dose of reassurance.
Another solution? Bringing the vaccine straight to the patients. The group has been setting up temporary clinics at Bronx public housing sites and churches. “This reassures people that they will not be asked for their papers or to pay. They can also see their friends and neighbors getting vaccinated,” Muñoz says.
In addition to community outreach, Somos has been working to reach Latinos through their TV sets and on the radio, putting on daily broadcasts on Univision, where celebrities like Eva Longoria and Ricky Martin deliver information about the vaccine and encourage people to sign up. “On our Saturday morning broadcasts, there was some music and lessons for kids to keep it entertaining as well,” Muñoz says.
Tallaj hopes that ultimately as more people get vaccinated, others will follow. “They will see that their friends [who have been vaccinated] are fine,” he says. “They will get reassurance from a doctor they have known for a long time who treats their other family members too, and they will sign up.”