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Vaccine access, not hesitancy, still a problem for Latinos: Senators

08/21/2021 06:00AM | 2234 views

Sick leave and worries about immigration status are major concerns for some.

A group of Latino senators sent a letter to the Biden administration Friday, urging top officials to improve access to COVID-19 vaccines in Latino communities.

Democratic Sens. Alex Padilla (Calif.), Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), Bob Menendez (NJ) and Ben Ray Luján (NM), all of whom identify as Latino, asked the White House to do more to help Latinos, whose vaccination rates remain low despite being interested in getting the shot.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected the Latino community in a variety of ways. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latinos are twice as likely to contract the virus as white adults are and 2.3 times more likely to die from it.

The pandemic also took a toll on employment. "Latinos suffered higher rates of job loss even as their access to safety net programs was lower than other groups," the senators wrote in the letter, addressed to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

"Latinos continue to trail in vaccination rates, which is not solely explained by vaccine hesitancy," they wrote. "Rather, there are very real systemic barriers like lack of access to vaccination sites and poor information availability on their eligibility for a vaccine."

The letter cited a Kaiser Family Foundation survey from May, which found that Hispanic adults are twice as likely as white adults to want to get the COVID-19 vaccine and are half as likely as whites to say they will "definitely not" get vaccinated.

"Unvaccinated Latinos are more than twice as likely as unvaccinated whites to want a COVID-19 vaccine, yet they report that they are reluctant to seek them out due to continued misinformation about vaccine cost, safety, and sick leave policies," the senators wrote.

They went on, "Specifically, we ask that you work with employers and health care providers to clarify sick leave policies related to vaccine side effects and to make clear that the vaccine is available for free and without regard to immigration status."

Previous ABC News reporting found that while vaccination rates lag in communities of color, vaccine hesitancy is not the main driver of those lower rates. According to the May KFF survey, "Large shares of Hispanic adults -- particularly those with lower incomes, the uninsured, and those who are potentially undocumented -- express concerns that reflect access-related barriers to vaccination."

Compared to white adults, they survey found that Hispanic adults were more likely to say they were worried about missing work, not being able to get the vaccine from a trusted place, having difficulty traveling to a vaccine site or having to pay out of pocket for the vaccine (despite it being free). Those concerns were greatest among those with lower incomes, who were uninsured and among those who were potentially undocumented.

"The truth is that Latinos want the COVID-19 vaccine, but they need clear, accurate information to reduce barriers and counter misinformation," Padilla told ABC News. "Getting more shots in arms and reducing the disparity of vaccination rates relies on the federal government taking concrete steps to inform and educate the Latino community."

He added, "We need to meet people where they are and communicate eligibility and sick leave policies clearly."

To that end, the senators urged the HHS and the Department of Labor to work together to allocate more resources for getting accurate and timely vaccine information to Latino communities, including clear information explaining that immigration status will not be revealed while getting vaccinated and that the vaccine is free.

Dr. Jorge Caballero, a clinical instructor at Stanford Medicine and co-founder of the group Coders Against COVID, applauded the senators for "recognizing that limited access, not hesitancy, is the primary reason why COVID-19 vaccination rates among Latinos are disproportionately lower across the nation."

He noted that working with employers to clarify sick leave policy was a good start, but small businesses and restaurants would likely need more specific directives or incentives to ensure that workers have access to vaccination without fear of reprisal. A change that could lessen the fear of being asked immigration status might be to require retail pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, to reduce the volume of information they collect from people seeking vaccination, he said.

Caballero added that he wished Latino subject matter experts and community leaders had been brought to the decision-making table earlier.

"Many of the barriers we're discussing now could have been addressed months ago," Caballero said. "I'm relieved to see that we're prioritizing this issue now, but lament missed opportunities to be proactive in our vaccine equity efforts to date. I'm hopeful that this is a turning point."

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