Jacqaline Flores Navarro, a middle school educator, was one of 230 people vaccinated against COVID-19 at a Saturday vaccination event in South Gate, a Los Angeles suburb, in mid-December. It was her third shot, a booster, and she got it so she could continue tutoring 150 students a day.
“It protects my family, my students, and myself,” Navarro said. “It’s a matter of taking care of my health. It’s preventive.”
The vaccination event, one of many sponsored by AltaMed Health Services, was billed as a “Christmas Posada,” or Christmas Inn. It was held several weeks after the omicron variant of the coronavirus emerged in California — and just days before family holiday gatherings began. Navarro came with her sister, who also received a vaccination. AltaMed made it a family affair by giving away toys, food, and gift cards in addition to COVID-19 vaccines and flu shots.
The event was part of AltaMed’s ¡Ándale! ¿Qué Esperas? campaign, a comprehensive effort to achieve vaccine equity by reaching out to members of California’s Latinx community who have yet to be vaccinated.
AltaMed is the nation’s largest independent Federally Qualified Health Center and serves more than 358,000 patients through 43 medical centers in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. The campaign has partnered with many other organizations to provide 44,000 vaccinations since September, with events continuing through May 31.
But vaccination events are just one of many elements of the public education campaign. Another consists of testimonials from people who survived serious cases of symptomatic COVID-19 and now advise unvaccinated people to get their shots. In one of the online video clips, Gloria Torres pleads, “If you love your family and want to continue living in this world, get vaccinated.”
Torres describes how she saw immediately that her son was sick with COVID-19, and that soon she was sick too — then her husband, then more family members. While they all recovered, Torres said that she has not yet regained her sense of smell.
AltaMed is targeting its educational efforts at eight California counties with significant Latinx populations: Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego in the southern part of the state; Merced and Stanislaus in the Central Valley; and Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano in the Bay Area.
The campaign was funded by an $11 million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services. Most of the money has gone into supporting direct community engagement, education, appointment assistance, support services, and the hiring of more than 120 community health workers statewide. The campaign also uses the federal funding to support subgrantee organizations running localized promotional efforts in their own regions.
“We want to make sure we are having honest and culturally relevant conversations in our community about vaccines; distributing consistent, accurate, and trusted messages; and directing community members to accessible spaces and places where they feel most comfortable getting vaccine information,” said Lizette Escobedo, associate vice president of civic engagement and advocacy at AltaMed. “Our efforts have focused on doing this through public education and outreach. We’re doing an extensive amount of ad buys, TV interviews, earned media, streaming videos, and everything we can to get the word out.”
California made headlines in September when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked it as the state with the highest rate of vaccinated people and the lowest rate of weekly positive cases. The state’s official government website for COVID-19 data, California For All, reported more than 80% of Californians are vaccinated against the coronavirus. Recent figures show 73.3% are fully vaccinated and 8.8% are partially vaccinated.
“It’s an issue of accessibility, not having the time to go and get the vaccine at vaccination centers, or it’s a matter of misinformation, and how that vaccine was, at the beginning, very stigmatized,” said Karla Torres, an AltaMed senior specialist in community affairs.
Health Equity Within a Social Justice Framework
The campaign is a natural fit for AltaMed, an organization with a history of community outreach and activism in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. AltaMed was founded in 1969 as the East LA Barrio Free Clinic, a social welfare initiative created by the Brown Berets, a local social justice organization born out of the Chicano Movement. The clinic was supported by volunteers, grants, and donations. Today, AltaMed employs 3,000 people while staying true to its charter of providing health care equity within a social justice framework.
In 2018, AltaMed launched a get-out-the-vote campaign called “My Vote. My Health.” Two years later, it encouraged people to participate in the 2020 Census. In 2021, it distributed information about redistricting, and in 2022 it hopes to re-engage patients and voters in surrounding service areas around midterm elections following the newly drawn local and statewide districts. The ¡Ándale! ¿Qué Esperas? Campaign, the organization’s current effort, uses its civic engagement program to inform and educate Latinx Californians on the importance of COVID-19 vaccines and get them on the path toward vaccination.
“That’s why we are going out to where they are,” said Torres. “We are going out to the community and going to these areas where the vaccination rates are pretty low.”
At the heart of the campaign is AltaMed’s extensive network of trusted community organizations, community health workers, promotores, and volunteers across the state.
“What we try to do is encourage people to come and take advantage of the free vaccine,” said Sofia Gonzalez, a COVID-19 outreach intern.
Community Events Geared to Busy People
She said community events, like the Christmas Posada, are optimal for people who don’t have a lot of additional time after family and work responsibilities.
Visibility and word-of-mouth messaging is very powerful, said organizers. For example, Navarro learned about the vaccination event from her sister, and they went together as a family.
“That component is very helpful, because amongst the most trusted messengers are not only doctors and nurses, but also family members and community members,” said Escobedo. “It is another strategy that we wanted to make sure and incorporate in our efforts, in hopes that we’ve built an effective and sophisticated campaign structure to get Latinos on the pathway to vaccination.”
AltaMed has also partnered with different groups and clinics to host pop-up vaccine centers in various Latinx communities. The idea is to bring the vaccines directly to the communities they serve.
At a recent pop-up vaccination center in a farmers market in East Los Angeles, workers and volunteers from AltaMed invited people to get vaccinated and offered to answer questions about the vaccine.
“Farmers markets are excellent places to have vaccine pods, because you can tell [people] to get the vaccine but also encourage them to continue strengthening their immunity by purchasing the fruits and vegetables that are available,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a win-win.”
The campaign’s website is available in English and Spanish and lists a vaccine hotline to a call center with bilingual agents who can answer questions. These agents offer to help schedule vaccination appointments and arrange follow-up reminder calls. They also partner with Uber to transport anyone to a vaccination site.
The campaign has another important tactic — the recruitment of volunteer/health workers from the community. AltaMed brought in 25 bilingual interns to work as community health workers in their hometowns. The staffing lends another personal touch to the organization’s vaccination initiative.
“Instead of just watching these commercials and hearing these press conferences from state agencies and local governments, you’re actually seeing the kid that left your neighborhood to go to college, and now he’s knocking on your door asking you if you are vaccinated,” said Escobedo.
The Andale website is updated with new events as they are added. Call the statewide vaccination appointment hotline at 855-YA-ANDALE. To get vaccination appointments, call 844-YA-ANDALE. Follow ¡Ándale! ¿Qué Esperas? on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Ivan Fernandez is a writer and photographer based in Southern California who specializes in coverage of the arts, culture, history, politics, and sports with an emphasis on Latin America and its US diaspora. His work has appeared online and in print publications including the GRAMMYs, Flaunt, KCET (Artbound, Lost L.A., & Southland Sessions), the James Beard Foundation Award-winning website LA Taco, and others. He is a graduate student at San Diego State University.