Classmates often stop Alma Gallegos as she walks down the busy hallways of Theodore Roosevelt High School in southeast Fresno, California. The 17-year-old senior is often asked by fellow students about covid-19 testing, vaccine safety and the value of booster shots.
Alma gained her reputation as a trusted source of information through her internship as a junior health worker. She was among 35 Fresno County students recently trained to discuss how covid vaccines help prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death, and to encourage family members, peers and community members to stay current on their shots , including boosters.
As Alma’s internship drew to a close in October, she and seven teammates evaluated their work in a capstone project. The students took pride in being able to share facts about covid vaccines. Separately, Alma persuaded her family to get vaccinated. She said her relatives, who had primarily received Covid information from Spanish-language news, did not believe the risks until a close family friend died.
“It makes you want to learn more about it,” Alma said. “My family is all vaccinated now, but we learned the hard way.”
Community health groups in California and across the country are training teenagers, many of them Hispanic or Hispanic, and enlisting them to serve as health educators in school, on social media and in communities where the fear of a Covid vaccine persists. According to a 2021 survey commissioned by Voto Latino and conducted by Change Research, 51% of unvaccinated Latinos said they did not trust the safety of vaccines. The figure rose to 67% for those whose primary language at home is Spanish. The most common reasons for refusing the shot were not having confidence that the vaccine will be effective and not trusting the vaccine manufacturers.
And vaccine hesitancy is not widespread only among the unvaccinated. Although nearly 88% of Hispanics and Hispanics have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, few report staying current on their shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates that fewer than 13% of Hispanics and Hispanics have received a bivalent booster, an updated shot that public health officials recommend to protect against newer variants of the virus.
Health care providers and advocates believe young people like Alma are well positioned to help boost those vaccination rates, especially as they help navigate the health care system for their Spanish-speaking relatives.
“It makes sense that we should look at our young people as covid educators for their peers and families,” said Dr. Tomás Magaña, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco. “And when we talk about the Latino community, we have to think deeply and creatively about how we reach them.”
Some training programs use peer-to-peer models on campuses, while others teach teens to catch out in their communities. FACES for the Future Coalition, a public youth corps based in Oakland, is leveraging programs in California, New Mexico, Colorado and Michigan to turn students into covid vaccine educators. And the Health Information Project in Florida, which trains high school juniors and seniors to teach freshmen about physical and emotional health, is integrating covid vaccine safety into its curriculum.
In Fresno, adopted the junior community health worker program, called Promotoritos prosecutor model. initiators are unlicensed health workers in Latino communities tasked with guiding people to medical resources and promoting better lifestyle choices. Studies show that initiators are trusted members of the community, making them uniquely positioned to provide vaccine education and outreach.
“Teens communicate differently, and they get a great response,” said Sandra Celedon, executive director of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, one of the organizations that helped design the internship program for students 16 and older. “During outreach events, people naturally want to talk to the young person.”
The teenagers who participate in Promotoritos are mainly Latinos, immigrants without legal status, refugee students or children of immigrants. They undergo 20 hours of training, including social media campaign strategies. For that, they earn school credit and were paid $15 an hour last year.
“No one ever thinks of these kids as interns,” Celedon said. “So we wanted to create an opportunity for them because we know that those are the students who benefit the most from a paid internship.”
Last fall, Alma, who is Latina, and three other junior community health workers distributed covid test kits to local businesses in their neighborhood. Their first stop was Tiger Bite Bowls, an Asian fusion restaurant. The teenagers huddled around the restaurant’s owner, Chris Vang, asking him if he had any questions about covid. Towards the end of their conversation, they handed him a handful of covid test kits.
“I think it’s good that they are aware and not afraid to share their knowledge about covid,” Vang said. “I will provide these tests to anyone who needs them – customers and employees.”
There is another benefit to the program: exposure to careers in health care.
California faces a widespread health care workforce shortage, and health care workers do not always reflect the increasing diversity of the state’s population. Hispanics and Latinos represent 39% of California’s population, but only 6% of the state’s medical population and 8% of the state’s medical school graduates, according to a California Health Care Foundation report.
Alma said she joined the program in June after seeing a flyer in the school counselor’s office. She said it was her way of helping prevent other families from losing a loved one.
Now she is interested in becoming a radiologist.
“At my age,” Alma said, “this is easily the perfect way to get involved.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
|This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.|