Filling in the vaccination gaps in hard-hit Latino communities




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Faustino E. Luna had a stroke at the beginning of 2020. For months, he couldn’t walk because his knee surgery was postponed, as hospitals around the state cancelled non-emergency procedures at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 58-year-old knew that if COVID-19 infected his weakened body, it could take his life. That’s why when the vaccine started to roll out across the country, Luna saw it as an opportunity to get healthier. 

Luna has been eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine since March 1 in Arizona. But he had no idea he qualified for a shot that could save his life.

“This vaccine is vital,” Luna said, settled into the second row inside a van where other Latinos were on their way for a vaccination that could prevent them from falling seriously ill from a COVID-19 infection.

It was warm for early April. Luna didn’t seem to notice. More than one month after he was eligible for the vaccine, more than a year since he’d lost his factory job after suffering a stroke, Luna had finally secured a vaccination shot. The dose would give him a chance at surgery, a chance at surviving a global pandemic that had killed at least 17,000 in Arizona alone.

Luna knew too many of those deaths were from Black and Latino communities. And he knew he’d still be waiting for vaccination if he hadn’t answered a call from Promise Arizona.

On April 6, Luna was one of three South Phoenix residents who got a ride from Promise Arizona to get their first vaccine shot. Together, they traveled 20 miles north to a sprawling church perched on a rocky hill that turned one of its rooms into a vaccine distribution site. 

In Maricopa County, Latino residents like Luna have among the lowest rates of vaccination. While about one in three residents of Maricopa County identifies as Latino, this population makes up only 9% of the more than 1.4 million people who had at least one dose of the COVID-19 in the county, according to data reported by the Maricopa County Public Health Department. 

Across Arizona, only 13% of vaccinations have gone to Latinos, a group that accounts for 36% of confirmed cases, 31% of total deaths, and 32% of the population in the state, according to an April 14 analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The latest data posted by ADHS on Tuesday shows only 12% of vaccinations have gone to Latinos, and they account for 30% of confirmed cases. 

“For many people, the vaccine is an opportunity to improve their lives,” said Manuel Gutierrez, of Promise Arizona, a nonprofit that advocates for and services immigrant communities.

The group’s director, Petra Falcon, heard from Rev. Ken Heintzelman about the vaccine event he was hosting at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, which he leads. Heintzelman told Falcon, a friend and fellow faith leader who he worked with in the past to support and protect immigrant families, to get the word out about the vaccination event in her community.

Promise Arizona contacted people who have been students of their English classes, Gutierrez said. On social media, the group also told its followers about the opportunity. 

The organization ended up taking close to 25 people who call South Phoenix home to get vaccinated.

State vaccination plan left gaps in awareness, access

Public health experts, elected officials and community leaders said that the Arizona Department of Health Services prioritized getting the state’s vaccine supply to as many people as possible more than ensuring that communities at higher risk of contracting and dying from the virus were vaccinated.

“You do want to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, but you have to have a balance in that approach — it can’t be the only approach,” said Layal Rabat, of the Asian Pacific Community in Action, a community health non-profit that serves Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and other communities in Arizona.

That gap in public awareness and access left people like Luna uninformed and unvaccinated. 

“If community engagement is elevated at the federal and local level ahead of time, involving people in that planning process, we would be able to have much better outcomes,” Rabat said.

The state’s vaccination plan initially prioritized recipients by their jobs: health care workers, teachers and law enforcement were among the first to qualify. The plan said that at every phase of the vaccine rollout, ethinic and racial minorities, people with disabilities, those who don’t speak English — among other groups that are at increased risk of COVID-19 complications — should also be considered for a priority. 

Critics say that wasn’t what happened when the plan was put into action. 

For instance, it took until mid-February — after more than 1 million vaccines had been administered — before the state health department had a Spanish language version of its vaccine appointment website. 

“We had to put pressure on the state at the beginning,” David Adame, president of Chicanos Por La Causa, told the Arizona Mirror.

CPLC was desperate to stop Latino people from dying from the virus. 

“We got the audience that we needed,” he said. “We did our job, how we can be part of the solution?” 

CPLC has since been partnering with ADHS, and Adame appeared in a state ad campaign promoting the COVID-19 vaccine.

It wasn’t just Arizona Latino leaders watching their communities and loved ones navigate trauma and loss. Angela Allen, a member of the Black Nurses Association, said advocates for Black families had to speak up. They warned ADHS officials that the disparities in vaccine distribution were dangerous. 

“The consequences (of not vaccinating equitably) is that we will unfortunately lose a lot of our people of color,” Allen said, fearing what the total number of Black and Brown lives lost would be before the pandemic ends. She worries that those who found the system to get a vaccine inaccessible or difficult to navigate will not only become ill, but their illness might discourage their family and social circles from getting vaccinated, as well.  

“The consequence is that the voice that is being spoken, is silent, and it makes people angry,” Allen said.

For a week in late March, the City of Phoenix, Maricopa County, the University of Arizona and the Phoenix Revitalization Commission held a vaccine event in south central Phoenix to target underserved communities. At the time, the 85009 ZIP code in south Phoenix had just 15% of the eligible population with a first dose of the vaccine, according to the county. The vaccine event was publicized through community volunteers knocking on doors and dropping flyers on people’s doorstep. 

That event vaccinated 2,571 people, according to Tamra Ingersoll, spokeswoman for the City of Phoenix. 

Critics have remained outraged by the deadly disparities. Some decried the lack of resources for high-risk populations while the state awarded a no-bid contract for $3 million to a former political advisor of Gov. Doug Ducey to boost vaccines in Latino communities.

Even as the state has expanded vaccination to everyone over 16, ADHS opted to open a new statewide vaccination site in Scottsdale. 

But people like Luna only knew they qualified for the vaccination because of a grassroots effort by Promise Arizona.

And if he hadn’t picked up the phone, he may never have known. 

“I had tried to get a vaccine appointment but was told it was only for high risk and medics, but thanks to Promesa that reached us and we took advantage of it,” Luna said. “If they hadn’t called us, we would not be vaccinated still.”

Promise Arizona said it reached people who’ve taken their English language classes, signed up for the immigration consultations or worked with the organization on its voter outreach efforts.

Luna said that with the vaccine, he hopes he can schedule a surgery for one of his eyes. His eyesight has been distorted since his stroke, he said.

Also in the Promise Arizona van that afternoon were Martha Guadron and Gina Sanchez, who are neighbors. 

Sanchez works in a second-hand store and worries about catching COVID there. She also said she hasn’t seen a doctor in a really long time, but knows Falcon, the leader of Promise. That’s how she found out about the vaccine opportunity. 

Guadron, 62, said she now feels safer to travel and visit her parents in California. Sanchez, 48, had a hard time coming up with what she looks forward to doing now that she has received the vaccine. 

As the van drove south on Central Avenue in South Phoenix and they talked about their favorite restaurants and places to buy tacos in the neighborhood, Sanchez spoke up. 

“I look forward to accepting lunch invitations and going out to restaurants,” she said.

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.