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Mistrust Interferes With Houston's Immigrants Getting Vaccinated

NOEL KING, HOST:

Around half-a-million undocumented immigrants live in the greater Houston area, and most of the negative health and economic consequences of COVID have hit them the hardest. And yet in those communities, there is deep mistrust about getting the vaccine. Elizabeth Trovall from Houston Public Media has that story.

ELIZABETH TROVALL, BYLINE: Two months into the national vaccine rollout, 60-year-old Houston resident Maria Breceda says she feels like her community has already been left behind.

MARIA BRECEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: "We'll be among the last to get the vaccine," she says. Breceda says she doesn't have a doctor, and like more than two-thirds of undocumented Texans, she doesn't have health insurance. When I ask Breceda if she's gotten information about the vaccine...

BRECEDA: No. (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: Breceda says hers and other immigrant families she knows don't have any information. Nobody has knocked on their door about a nearby clinic or mentioned the vaccine's side effects. Almost 70% of undocumented workers in the U.S. hold essential jobs, yet families like Breceda's face several barriers to getting the vaccine - misinformation, mistrust, and they're less likely to have health coverage. Breceda says the limited information she's heard has been on TV. Her takeaway - only important people with money have gotten the vaccine.

But the vaccine is free, and community health workers like Venus Gines are trying to get the word out. Gines says people still have their doubts, like when providers ask for insurance.

VENUS GINES: Then they get nervous because they thought this was free.

TROVALL: Gines is a promotora in Houston. She says she's helped train thousands of community health workers in Texas to get COVID-19 information to Spanish-speaking communities. She's also set up bilingual hotlines here and in four other states. She says she's heard terrible stories, like scam artists calling families in Spanish, saying...

GINES: Just give us a charge card or have this money available so we can hold your spot. We can only hold it for 20 minutes. Do you want to get the vaccine or not? You know, that pressure.

TROVALL: She says people also worry getting a vaccine could create an immigration problem. The Trump administration's public charge rule made it easier to deny visas to people likely to use public assistance. The rule is now under review. Kaiser Family Foundation's Samantha Artiga says getting a vaccine won't count as a public charge or impact immigration status.

SAMANTHA ARTIGA: But clarifying that information directly with immigrant families is going to be really important for helping to address these potential fears and concerns.

TROVALL: Local politicians are trying to dispel these myths. On Houston's Telemundo station, Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia told viewers the vaccine is safe

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYLVIA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: Harris County launched a million-dollar bilingual media campaign to promote the vaccine's safety, including this radio ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: But it's hard to measure whether these efforts are working. Most states don't track racial, ethnic or immigration status related to vaccines. Those that do report that communities of color are less likely to get the vaccine. And in Texas, early polling data reveal hesitance to getting the vaccine, especially within Black and brown communities. Thirty percent of the state's Latinos say they likely won't get the vaccine, citing concerns about safety and side effects.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Trovall in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "TRUE PLACES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.