TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — When it comes to COVID-19, vaccinating Florida Latinos is a daunting task. Though Hispanics make up more than a quarter of the state's population, they are getting about 15% of available shots.
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Antonio Tovar, the outgoing head of the Farmworker Association of Florida, worries misinformation about vaccines is the main contributor. Tovar believed he had heard almost every unfounded rumor from the group’s 10,000 members, many fellow Latinos.
“The microchip came up," he said. "The vaccine being processed too fast. Your ears grow when you take the vaccine. ... That was laughable."
Posts on social media, even sermons from prominent church leaders have fueled the falsehoods. Major apprehension has been the result. About 43% of Hispanics told national pollsters from the Kaiser Family Foundation recently they’ll wait and see before getting a shot.
"Florida, whether it's intentionally or unintentionally, is plagued with disinformation," said Mari Corugedo, the state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Corugedo said fighting back wouldn't be easy. Reaching Latinos with accurate info, especially low-income families, has to be more than creating a website, she said.
"Thinking that they have Zoom, Facebook or other means or a website or a phone," Corugedo said. "I think it's a little over the top. The situation right now is dire."
Latinos have higher chances of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death. They're also twice as likely to lack insurance -- not to mention -- Florida will need them to reach herd immunity.
Much like efforts to bolster African American vaccinations, the state has opened shot sites in areas with high Latino populations and tried to recruit vaccine validators like Bay of Pigs veterans. Vaccine information is also available in Spanish, and officials eventually plan to start a multi-language info campaign with a $1.6 million grant.
Researchers at the University of Florida studying vaccine disparities are hoping for more. Dr. Folakemi Odedina is helping coordinate the research and education effort amongst a coalition of Florida institutions. The scientists have held focus groups during the pandemic to tap into vaccine trust issues and discover what might resolve them.
"You have to take it to them," Odedina said. "That's the issue."
Odedina said engaging employers and forging partnerships with businesses in minority communities is critical. Mom-and-pop pharmacists, for example, might be better suited than major outlets like Publix and Walmart to make a connection.
"The independent, one-man owned pharmacists," Odedina said. "They've been in those communities for a long time and they are trusted."
Odedina hoped the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program would help with that endeavor, reaching independent pharmacists as more doses become available. Many believed the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be the key.
The Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing the shot for emergency use authorization. It could come as soon as next month.