It's Complicated: Why Some Northwest Latinx Residents And Farmworkers Hesitate On COVID Vaccine

Apr 23, 2021

Vanessa Delgado’s dad didn’t want to take a whole unpaid day off of work to get a vaccine appointment.

She’s working on her doctorate in Irvine, Calif., but helped her father, Victor Delgado, get a vaccine close to his home in Benton County, Wash.

“In my own personal experience, it’s been very complicated,” she says. “Working around schedules of essential workers but then also making sure that, OK, he can’t travel too far, he can’t go all the way to Yakima on a work day, that would be just too far.”

Across the Northwest, many Latinx families are facing similar barriers to getting vaccinated and other issues. Adding to the complexity is powerful misinformation on social media and by word-of-mouth, the recent health concerns over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and religious reasons for vaccine hesitancy. 

Ultimately, Delgado did get her father an appointment in Grandview. But she had to wake him up at 11 p.m. to tell him about his appointment the next day. 

“It’s been complicated to navigate all that stuff,” she says. “Trying to keep up with two different states with two different counties.”

Although it’s gotten easier to access shots for farmworkers with clinics that stay open longer, and on weekends, Delgado says it still would have been complicated to get her farmworker father a shot if he didn’t have her help negotiating the technology, the timing and the language. 

Now, public health officials are scrambling to vaccinate migrant farmworkers who follow the crops into different communities throughout the growing season. 

Hours and transportation 

Farmworkers were approved to be vaccinated in Washington in mid-March. But many farmworkers don’t have their own transportation. Nor do they have the time off work to wait in line for a vaccine appointment after working one or sometimes two jobs.

“They may be out in their environment of work by sunrise, and they’ll do a day’s work. Then in the evening they’ll move on to their second job, go home and sleep and do it all again the next day,” says Heather Hill, a nurse and the communicable disease program manager for the Benton-Franklin Health District, covering Washington’s Tri-Cities region. “Oftentimes this is up to six days a week. They just do not have the time in their work day to go to a clinic somewhere in town. That’s why it is so important for us to meet them at the worksite.” 

Benton-Franklin Health District recently started and is increasing mobile clinics in the fields, orchards and produce packing sheds. But Hill says the agency is still not reaching everyone. 

Farmworkers are also moving into and out of different communities following the crops. Most of them work in the Northwest in June, July and August. So vaccinating people where they are at will be a top priority throughout the season -- not just a spring endeavor.

“It’s so important for us to understand the life of the person we’re trying to reach, and make sure we fit into it,” Hill says. “Rather than try to have them fit into what we’ve already set up in town.”

Last year there were several COVID-19 outbreaks in agricultural communities, especially in August. Hill says they’re trying to avoid that same scenario this year. 

Child interpreters 

Even if the shot is accessible, many people are skeptical about taking it. 

Delgado says that initially her father didn’t want it. She had to look up medical information and talk to him before he was willing to take it. 

“I remember in the beginning he was a little hesitant about it,” she says. “He said it was done way too fast, and we don’t know the side effects yet. It was me getting the shot, and other people getting it, too, that made him feel more comfortable.”

Delgado explained to her father that the side effects were very rare and that the vaccine helped stave off hospitalizations and death with COVID-19, especially since in his mid-50s, her father was near the higher-risk group.

Angeles Ize with the Benton-Franklin Health District, discusses COVID-19 vaccine access, safety and efficacy on Cherry Creek's 92.5 KZHR radio, a regional Spanish-language format station serving the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla areas.
Credit Mike Paoli/Tri-Cities Public Relations

Delgado is a Ph.D candidate in sociology at the University of California, Irvine, where she studies the interactions between children and their immigrant parents. She says many times it takes children convincing their parents to get the vaccine.

“Sometimes, you don’t know all the answers,” she says. “Sometimes, I see others too, say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you.” 

That strategy requires many children to research and Google the answers to complex questions, Delgado says.

“This is work that millions of (children of immigrants) here in the U.S. are doing in order to make sure that their parents get the best resources that they can,” she says. 

As a result, children are often acting as interpreters and advocates to get shots in the arms of their parents and extended family. 

Fear and misinformation 

Some fear of vaccines is rooted in truth. In the past, vaccines given to children in Mexico used large needles that hurt and left permanent pock marks on their arms.

Latinas haven’t always had a choice over their medical procedures. Many people remember the women who were sterilized in California without their knowledge and a now famous lawsuit brought by four of those women in the 1970s.  

But another barrier to getting vaccinated is fear, fueled by misinformation. The Latinx community is coming off Trump administration policies and rhetoric that targeted farmworkers, South American migrants and those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. Vaccination clinics run by uniformed National Guard can be frightening to families whose members have a mix of legal status.

Many times, families need clarification that they won’t get in trouble.

“OK, you’re not going to get in trouble if you go get the vaccine,” Delgado says. “Especially on the heels of an administration that was much more punitive to undocumented families. Those are things that (children of immigrants) had to clarify within a climate that has been very hostile toward Latinos and immigrant families.”

In Yakima, St. Paul Cathedral even asked the National Guard not to wear uniforms to make Latinx parishioners more comfortable for a vaccination clinic held there.

Religious reasons

Many Latinx people are also reluctant to get the shot for reasons of religion -- primarily because they believe it’s against their Catholic faith. 

But church leaders, like Father Jesùs Mariscal and Bishop Joseph Tyson — both of the Diocese of Yakima — want to be sure their parishioners get vaccinated. 

At Easter, a special clinic was set up after the traditional services. 

Many Catholics have concerns with the stem cell lines developed from abortive tissue that have been used to develop or produce the vaccine. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have all used fetal material in testing vaccines. Johnson & Johnson is the only one of the three to use stem cells in the production of the vaccine as well. But none of the three contain fetal material.

Nancy Jecker, a professor of bioethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, says the issue of vaccines and stem cells is very complex. “But my bottom line is that I respect the right of anyone to refuse a medical procedure,” Jecker says. “And I think we need to have exceptions for those who on religious grounds are not wanting to go forward with any of the vaccines that are currently available.” 

She says there is a lot of pressure in the U.S. to get vaccinated.

“This country has said we’re in a race. These variants are replicating and mutating and we’re all at risk and that’s what a good citizen does,” Jecker says. “But I think a good citizen is someone who respects people’s right to decide whether to accept or refuse a medical procedure and respects a fellow citizen's right to follow their conscience.”  

Bishop Joseph Tyson of the Diocese of Yakima rolled up his robes for the COVID-19 vaccine to encourage his parishioners to do the same.
Credit Courtesy of the Diocese of Yakima

Bishop Tyson of the Yakima Diocese cited the theological concept called the double effect, first noted by theologian Thomas Aquinas.

“We want to reverence the gift of human life, and that’s been a stopper for some people,” Tyson says. “The connection between abortion and the stem cells used to test and develop vaccines and medications is fairly remote. And what we are saying as a church is that there is a greater danger on the horizon if COVID-19 spreads and increases the number of dead.”

He says the church values the life of the unborn, but the living as well. 

Father Mariscal and Bishop Tyson both got vaccine shots publicly at clinics, in order to persuade the skeptics in their flock that it’s not a sin to take the vaccine.

“Like any human community, the church has its own controversies,” Tyson says. “We have kind of a joke: two parishioners, three opinions.” 

The Vatican has made it clear that the connection to aborted stem cell material is remote, and in the absence of a better alternative, Catholics should roll up their sleeves. Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also got the vaccine to demonstrate that they support it. 

Game of telephone 

Many in the Latinx community in eastern and central Washington and Oregon hail from rural Mexico, Tyson says. Some can’t read. So the bishop says it’s a strong oral culture. That means rumors, misinformation and memes can get passed from one person to another like wildfire. 

Father Mariscal, the Parochial Vicar of St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima, says he’s heard many outlandish fears from parishioners. 

“They are afraid that the young people will be infertile, and so they won’t be able to have children anymore,” Mariscal says. “Or that the DNA will be changed. Maybe they won’t see the effects but their children will. I mean there are all kinds of crazy ideas — that you will grow donkey ears — I thought that was a funny one.”

“They might speak Spanish, but they don’t read or write in Spanish,” Bishop Tyson says. “I think the oral, audio nature of the internet at times, it looks to me like the Hispanic community can be a little bit more vulnerable to this.”  

Bishop Tyson says another factor keeping some Latinx people in the Northwest from getting the shot is the belief in the “enchanted world” — the existence of forces and actions that you can’t see. He says in his experience, many Mexican immigrants believe in things in addition to God, like in healers, witches and wizards or even the mythical Chupacabra

“Sometimes parishioners, they’ll hedge their bets,” Tyson says. “They’ll call their priest for the sacrament of the sick, and then they will call the curandero or curandera (a cure-maker, or person with special powers who can take sickness away.)”

One-on-one 

Combatting rumors or false memes can require a one-on-one exercise in conversation. And it often depends on a person’s age. And it takes more than one well-informed conversation. That’s according to physician Angeles Ize, an epidemiologist at the Benton-Franklin Health District who was trained in Mexico. She says that at a recent health event at a vegetable processing center in the Tri-Cities, a number of people who turned down the shot were young. She speculated that “the older, maybe because of the comorbidities, or that they had the death of a loved one from COVID, were more willing to get the vaccine.” 

Sometimes it’s the younger generation that’s more online, and savvy about written information that leads others to the vaccine. 

Jecker, the UW bioethicist, says the research consistently shows that peoples’ decisions about the vaccine often come down to a conversation with their health care provider. 

“I think it does get down to listening to people, not pressuring them, asking what are your concerns, and trying to understand and address them,” she says. 

As for Delgado, she’s grateful that both her dad in Washington and she in California are fully vaccinated. Now, she often finds herself on the phone talking to her parents’ friends, coworkers and extended family, convincing them, too.

“My dad was able to get his vaccine and then his brothers were like, ‘Oh, OK he got it, then we’ll get it too,’” she says. 

Delgado says just as misinformation spreads, so does truth. 

KUOW reporter Esmy Jimenez contributed to this story. 

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