Spanish Language COVID-19 Outreach Bridges ‘Gap’ in Hard-Hit Coachella Valley Communities
Andrea Garcia and her family contracted the coronavirus this fall, and her grandmother died from it. Now, as the oldest of four children and the first in her family to go to college, Garcia said she feels a responsibility to inform her Spanish-speaking parents about COVID-19 and the vaccine.
Garcia, a 20-year-old from Indio, reads news articles in English and translates them for her mother and father. She answers their questions, like whether the shot will still be beneficial even though they've already been infected, and if it will have side effects.
"I'm the oldest, so I feel like I've translated for myself and my brothers for school, work, even at the doctor," Garcia said. "I'm always there translating."
Like Garcia and her family, Latinos in Riverside County have been disproportionately sickened with COVID-19. One of the most effective ways to reduce that disparity is to provide high-quality, accessible information — that highlights prevention and dispels myths about the vaccine — to those who speak Spanish and Indigenous languages.
County public health officials have translated and released information about the virus and vaccine, and local representatives, health experts and community advocates say that is an important first step. But ensuring the information actually reaches the Coachella Valley communities hardest-hit by COVID-19, they say, requires a more targeted, on-the-ground approach.
Language is just one barrier. In some areas, vaccine hesitancy is compounded by a mistrust of government, stemming from policies that have targeted immigrants, and fears that accessing COVID-19 testing or vaccination could lead to deportation. The federal government this week encouraged undocumented immigrants to get vaccinated, and said it would not conduct "enforcement operations" near vaccine distribution sites or clinics.
Responding to these challenges, community-based organizations are amplifying the county's message in the eastern Coachella Valley. They are bringing prevention information directly to workers in the county's agricultural fields, holding virtual and socially distant educational conversations, and collaborating with the Diocese of San Bernardino to preach the importance of vaccination.
"It's a real partnership," said Luz Gallegos, executive director of TODEC, a nonprofit organization supporting the Inland Empire’s immigrant community. "The community doesn't trust the government; we're the trusted messengers."
This grassroots component is a critical piece of community health education, said Rep. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat from Palm Desert and emergency room doctor.
"If we rely on the system that has already failed — and produced a higher burden of death and illness in our underserved communities — to now provide the vaccine and information, then we're only going to fail the community as well," Ruiz said.
County information 'one piece of the puzzle'
In Riverside County, an estimated 50% of residents are Latino and just over one-third of people speak Spanish at home.
County officials, in an effort to reach this demographic, issue Spanish-language news releases to Spanish-speaking media outlets, and provide Spanish-language interviews to local radio and television stations, according to county spokesperson Brooke Federico. They also post the information on their website.
The county has spent more than $115,000 on public service announcements on Spanish-language radio and cable television stations, focusing on COVID-19 prevention, Federico said. It has also placed messages on DirecTV and television streaming services.
The county also has installed Spanish-language messages promoting COVID-19 prevention on billboards along Highway 86 in the eastern Coachella Valley and, "will continue to plan advertising campaigns in 2021 as soon as we have more supply of vaccine available," Federico said.
It offers weekly Facebook Live briefings with a Spanish-speaking doctor and a Spanish-speaking county spokesperson.
People can use Google Translate to access the county’s vaccination registration page in Spanish; those who need assistance making an appointment can call 2-1-1 and speak in Spanish with a representative. The county relies on its relationships with community-based organizations to provide information to the Purépecha community, Federico said, while 2-1-1 uses a translation service for other Indigenous languages, like K’iche and Mam.
"We are very proud of our county," said Gallegos of TODEC. She noted that immigrant advocates called for more health information in Spanish, and for farmworkers to be prioritized for vaccination, and that county officials "have been listening and pivoting."
The county is expected to hold vaccination events at jobsites for agricultural workers next week, Federico said. It has allocated 1,750 doses for workers at the events.
Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, who represents the Coachella Valley, acknowledged that the county's efforts are just “one piece of the puzzle.”
Eleazar Perez Gastelum gets ready to be inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine at the Tudor Ranch in Mecca. The farmworkers were given the opportunity to receive the vaccine by county health department at the Tudor Ranch on January 21, 2021.
“The county alone cannot be successful if we don’t have the partners on the ground to make everybody successful,” Perez said.
Experts say translating information about the COVID-19 vaccine is just the first step toward reaching the region's most vulnerable residents.
Acknowledging that many farmworkers in the eastern Coachella Valley have low levels of education, they say it can be more effective to convey information to this community via graphics and illustrations rather than text. Many residents of the east valley's unincorporated communities have limited internet access, so advocates emphasize the importance of in-person outreach and education.
Guided by those principles, a group of organizations — known as the Coachella Valley Equity Collaborative —is tailoring Spanish-language information to fit the community's needs and values. The collaborative includes TODEC, as well as Alianza Coachella Valley, the Galilee Center, El Sol Neighborhood Research Center, Youth Leadership Institute and UC Riverside Medical School, among others.
The collaborative members, “translate that information into culturally sensitive information that the community can accept more easily,” said Dr. Conrado Bárzaga, CEO of the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation, a public agency that connects Coachella Valley residents to health and wellness programs and services through grants, health facilities, public policy and more.
“In other words, we’re digesting that information to help them understand, accept and embrace the vaccination efforts," he said.
Along with sharing information on social media, the collaborative has distributed Spanish-language flyers about the vaccine at local testing events, according to Will Dean, the district and foundation's spokesperson. It is also planning to launch later this month a Spanish-language radio campaign that promotes COVID-19 testing and vaccination.
Additionally, it has released information in Purépecha promoting safety measures, like mask-wearing, hand-washing and social-distancing, and dispelling myths about the vaccine, Dean said. It has also produced videos, including one featuring a Purépecha-speaker who talked about her family's experience with COVID-19 and encouraging testing, and another of a Purépecha-speaker getting tested.
The collaborative also has partnered with the diocese to provide information at churches across the Coachella Valley.
“The priests are always saying how, if God gave these scientists the knowledge to create this vaccine, then we should believe in God’s plans and we should take it,” Andrea Garcia said.
That message resonated with Garcia's parents, who had been concerned that the family — including a brother with asthma — could contract the virus again. She and her father, who both work for Palm Desert-based West Coast Turf, which harvests sod for golf courses, stadiums and residential landscaping, were among an estimated 250 agricultural workers who got their first COVID-19 shot during a recent vaccination event in Mecca.
Medical students from the University of California Riverside School of Medicine, with medical professionals and promotoras, are going even further, and holding pláticas, or conversations, both in a socially distant manner outside people's homes in the eastern Coachella Valley, and online, utilizing Zoom and Facebook.
During a recent Zoom forum, Dr. Martin Rascón, a family physician in Mexico who works with nonprofit Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, fielded questions about whether the shot is safe for pregnant women and the elderly, and how the vaccine works. Video of the event, posted on Facebook, has received more than 550 views.
This model — which is described as resembling a Tupperware party, where people share critical health information rather than kitchen products — has proven effective, said Ann Cheney, a medical anthropologist and faculty member at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine who has been doing research in the Coachella Valley for several years.
"What we know works is developing these relationships and sharing information, not via paper, but by talking and learning and sharing experiences," Cheney said. "That is a much more community-grounded approach, and something that is much more accessible."
The pandemic, said said, has exposed the gaps in county health officials' messaging, which typically targets white, middle-class residents, rather than Indigenous Mexican, Latino, Black or Native American communities.
"They weren't reaching these vulnerable communities, and the pandemic has really brought that to light," she said. "If we were not doing this work, then there would be a huge gap."
Ruiz: 'Have I convinced you?'
"One of the most cost-effective ways of saving lives is education and empowering the people to make wise decisions that will help keep them safe," he said. "We need to do a better job here locally, as well as in our nation, in doing just that."
Ruiz on Monday shared practical advice with a crew of workers who were taking a break from harvesting lettuce in the eastern Coachella Valley.
Ruiz, recently recovered from COVID-19, recommended wearing more than one mask, creating a stronger barrier against the new and more contagious strains of the virus. People are at high risk of contracting the virus while eating mask-less, he said, and advised them to practice social distancing on their lunch breaks.
“The vaccine is the most effective way to protect yourselves against severe disease or death,” Ruiz told the workers in Spanish.
“The vaccines are safe,” he said several time. “I’m going to vaccinate my mother.”
When 24-year-old Ruben Hernandez, a temporary guest worker from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, asked Ruiz numerous questions about the vaccine’s safety and side effects, the congressman answered each one slowly and thoughtfully.
“Have I convinced you?” Ruiz finally asked him.
Soon, the workers returned to the field. Ruiz followed them, walking along rows that had already been harvested. A truck rumbled alongside the workers, its radio blaring. Ruiz listened to the upbeat music for a moment and then turned to a nearby reporter.
“They listen to it all day,” he said of the radio. “They should be inundated with truthful information about the virus and ways to stay healthy.”
Ruiz has recorded public service announcements, which have aired in both English and Spanish on local television and radio stations. His new media spots should air within the next two weeks, according to Hernan Quintas, a spokesperson for Ruiz.
Ruiz's visit to the fields builds on the efforts of local growers, who have been including information COVID-19 prevention information, in English and Spanish, with workers' pay checks, according to Janell Percy, executive director of Growing Coachella Valley, an organization of farmers in the region. The group has also played a key role in organizing farmworker vaccination events at job sites.
A farmworker is the 'best messenger'
Community members also play an important role in sharing Spanish-language information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
"The best messenger is going to be a farmworker himself or herself," said Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the UFW Foundation, a federally accredited immigration legal service provider that mobilizes farmworkers and organizations to advocate for equitable policies
Vidal Mendoza, a 52-year-old farmworker who lives in Indio, has emerged as one of those messengers. He had heard the rumors about the shot: It would implant a microchip under his skin and it could have negative side effects.
"We didn't have information," he said in Spanish. "That's why we were scared."
But after Gallegos of TODEC visited the pepper fields where he was working on three separate occasions and responded to people's concerns, Mendoza said he felt more confident. He and his wife, also a farmworker, got their first shot at the end of January
Now, when he talks to colleagues at work or on the phone, he asks them if they have been vaccinated. If they haven't, he asks if they know how to sign up for a shot.
"Many people are scared, because they don't have enough information," Mendoza said. "I tell them that I, too, had doubts at first, but not anymore."
He knows that the more people who get vaccinated, the faster the pandemic will end — and that he can play a small role in boosting vaccination rates in his community.
"We know that the vaccine is not going to completely save us," he said. "But having the vaccine, and continuing to protect ourselves, will move us toward a better future."