Vaccinating minority communities remains a challenge amid rise in COVID cases

Since the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization of the Pfizer COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, more than two million children have been vaccinated. Public health officials are highlighting the importance of providing vaccines to low income and minority communities that have been hit hardest by COVID. Stephanie Sy visited one of those communities in Phoenix, Arizona.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since the FDA granted emergency authorization of the Pfizer COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, more than two million children in the U.S. have been vaccinated.

    Public health officials are highlighting the importance of providing vaccine access to low-income and minority communities that have been hit hardest by COVID.

    Stephanie Sy visited one of those communities in Phoenix, Arizona.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's a busy Saturday morning at the Mountain Park Health Center in the Maryvale neighborhood of Phoenix. A few dozen parents have flocked to this vaccine clinic to get jabs for their children.

    Some kids made it look easy. Others were understandably nervous, especially the youngest ones, which included 5-year old Gustavo Carrazco. He's a cancer survivor who's currently in remission.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    His mom, Janet Esparza, wanted to be there on day one to get him vaccinated. The pandemic upended her life. She quit her job, worried about bringing the virus home.

  • Janet Esparza, Mother (through translator):

    He never left. He was in the house unless it was absolutely necessary to leave.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ten-year-old Rosalinda Ibarra, who has asthma, came with her two younger brothers and mom, Janet Villa.

  • Rosalinda Ibarra, Vaccine Recipient:

    My grandpa, he's the one that got COVID.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Her grandpa wasn't vaccinated and died earlier this year.

  • Janet Villa, Mother:

    That's why I came in and brought them in, so they could get the vaccine. I got it because of what happened to my dad. At first, I didn't know when to get it, because I was scared and everything.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So many families have lost loved ones in this low-to-moderate income, largely Latino neighborhood. This community health center is on the front lines.

    Janey Pearl Starks is director of equity, diversity, and engagement at Mountain Park Health Center.

  • Janey Pearl Starks, Mountain Park Health Center:

    It's a very vibrant community, and it's also a lot of — a community that has a lot of needs.

    And so there aren't the systems of a lot of other health care facilities. There's a lot of poverty in Maryvale. There's a lot of people working several jobs. There's a lot of multigenerational families.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    At one point in the summer of 2020, Arizona had the highest rate of COVID cases in the nation, and Maryvale was particularly hard-hit. Now, public health officials worry that the same systemic barriers that led to that may prevent parents from vaccinated their children.

  • Ray Dixon, Maryvale Resident:

    I go to work like 3:00 in the morning, and I get home about like 2:30, 3:00 in the afternoon.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    With a truck driver's schedule, and caring for multiple grandchildren, the vaccine simply wasn't top of mind for Ray Dixon.

  • Ray Dixon:

    I have been talking to some people about the vaccine. A lot of them saying, Ray, yes, you should go ahead and get it. It's all right to get.

    And then some of them say, well, man, you don't need it. You ain't sick. You don't need it. I'm like — so they got me, like, confused. I don't know.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What about the kiddos? Did you know that they just approved the vaccine for children ages 5 to 11?

  • Ray Dixon:

    No, I didn't even know that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You didn't know that. OK.

    This is the challenge in neighborhoods like Maryvale. People may not have time to go out of their way to get the vaccine, and health officials say patients are getting mixed messages about it, and rumors are spreading faster than facts.

    It's why Mountain Park Health Center is sending outreach workers to knock on doors. They're connecting people with providers that can answer their questions and even help make appointments for them to get the vaccine. They have met mixed success.

  • Janey Pearl Starks:

    We're going to be knocking on doors. We're going to be talking to people and trying to further that trust, because just as — just as the folks who are already vaccinated want their kids to get vaccinated, we also know there's a lot of adults who aren't vaccinated yet who don't want their kids vaccinated.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Benigno Martinez was just getting back from his job when outreach workers approached him in his driveway. He said he was worried about the virus and its spread, but still hadn't been vaccinated.

  • Benigno Martinez, Maryvale Resident (through translator):

    I have friends who have gotten sick after getting the vaccine.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The language barrier with Maryvale's large Latino population is another barrier, according to Pearl Starks.

  • Janey Pearl Starks:

    We have seen that. Where, in English, a lot of the misinformation and disinformation gets fact-checked and gets blocked out on social media, that doesn't happen in Spanish.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Just more than a third of Latinos in Arizona have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, compared to more than half of white Arizonans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

    As dusk approached, we met Artemiza Castro with one of her five children. Joan (ph) is 5, and she plans to have him vaccinated as soon as possible, but her husband is adamantly refusing the vaccine.

  • Artemiza Castro, Maryvale Resident (through translator):

    Some people say that they are putting a chip in your arm. I don't know, to be honest. There are so many rumors, and my husband believes all of them, and not that the vaccine is actually working.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The microchip conspiracy theory is just one bit of misinformation Dr. Mandy Oliden battles.

    Microchips are not in the vaccines.

  • Dr. Mandy Oliden, Pediatrician, Mountain Park Health Center:

    This is Joe Anthony?

  • WOMAN:

    Yes.

  • Dr. Mandy Oliden:

    Hey, big guy. High-five.

    The hard has been, I think, for me and a lot of our providers or physicians here, has been being able to battle the false news or false information that's being heard out there. I want to meet them in the middle, but also let them know, as your pediatrician, this is why my recommendation is what it is.

    Otherwise, it does sometimes come down to a lot of frustration.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Frustrating because the pediatrician has seen how COVID has ravaged this community.

  • Dr. Mandy Oliden:

    Aside from the number of cases, we have been seeing also, parents get affected from even, like, a work standpoint, schools being shut down, schools going online. I have seen it hit across multiple levels.

    One of the areas, I think, that I have seen it really hard that has struck me is the adolescents, our teenagers and their mental health.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Public health experts say vaccinating children is also important for protecting the most vulnerable, as the Delta variant continues to threaten the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions, even those that have been inoculated.

    Five-year-old cancer survivor Gustavo Carrazco can relax, now that the jab is over. His mother has that vaccine card in hand. For her and countless other parents, the child COVID vaccine was long anticipated and offers a path toward some much-needed normalcy.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.

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