Latino teens are being deputed as health educators to influence the unvaccinated

This article by Heidi de Marco was first published in Kaiser Health News, republished with permission.


January 24, 2023

Classmates often stop Alma Gallegos as she makes her way through the crowded hallways of Theodore Roosevelt High School in southeastern 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 earned her reputation as a trusted source of information through her internship as a junior health professional. She was one of 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 up to date on their vaccinations, including boosters.

When Alma’s internship came to an end in October, she and seven teammates reviewed their work on a capstone project. The students were proud to share facts about covid vaccines. Separately, Alma persuaded her family to get vaccinated. She said her relatives, who had received covid information mostly from Spanish-language news, didn’t believe the risks until a close friend of the family died.

“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 educating teens, many of them Hispanic or Latino, and replacing them to serve as health educators in schools, on social media and in communities where covid vaccine fears continue. 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 the vaccines. The number rose to 67% for those whose primary language at home is Spanish. The most common reasons for refusing the injection included not trusting the vaccine will be effective and not trusting the vaccine manufacturers.

And vaccine hesitancy does not only occur among the unvaccinated. While nearly 88% of Hispanics and Latinos have received at least one dose of a covid vaccine, few report staying up to date on their vaccinations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimated that less than 13% of Hispanics and Latinos received a bivalent booster, an updated injection that public health officials recommend to protect against newer variants of the virus.

Healthcare providers and advocates believe that young people like Alma are in a good position to help drive those vaccination rates up, especially when they help navigate the health system for their Hispanic relatives.

“It makes sense that we should look at our youth 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 to reach them.”

Some training programs use peer-to-peer models on campuses, while others teach teens to fan 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 college students into covid vaccine educators. And the Health Information Project in Florida, which is training high school juniors and seniors to teach freshmen about physical and emotional health, is integrating COVID vaccine safety into its curriculum.

In Fresno, the junior community health worker program, called Promotoritos, approved the prosecutor fashion model. promoters are unlicensed health professionals in Latino communities charged with guiding people to medical devices and promoting better lifestyle choices. Studies show that promoters are trusted members of the community, putting them in a unique position to provide vaccine education and outreach.

“Teens communicate differently, and they get a great response,” said Sandra Celedon, CEO of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, one of the organizations that helped design the internship program for students ages 16 and older. “During outreach events, people naturally want to talk to the young person.”

The teens participating in Promotoritos are mostly 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 college 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 these are the students who would benefit the most from a paid internship.”

Last fall, Alma, who is Latina, and three other junior health workers distributed covid test kits to local businesses in their neighborhood. Their first stop was Tiger Bite Bowls, an Asian fusion restaurant. The teens huddled around the restaurant’s owner, Chris Vang, and asked 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’m going to give these tests to everyone who needs them: customers and employees.”

There is another benefit of the program: exposure to healthcare careers.

California suffers from a widespread shortage of health care workers, and health care workers do not always reflect the increasing diversity of the state’s population. Hispanics and Latinos make up 39% of California’s population, but only 6% of the state’s physician population and 8% of medical school graduates, according to a report from the California Health Care Foundation.

Alma said she joined the program in June after seeing a flyer at 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 is produced by KHN, publisher of California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information about health issues to the nation.

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This story can be republished for free (details).KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information about health issues to the nation.

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