Modesta Salgado listens as her nurse, Alexa Guzman, tells her about the vaccine. English is Modesta’s second language and nurse Alexa is one of the Spanish-speaking healthcare workers with the Samuel U. Rodgers vaccine clinic who can help ESL vaccine recipients like Modesta. March 18, 2021. Chase Castor/The Beacon.

Kansas City’s immigrant and refugee population face challenges with getting information about the COVID-19 vaccine in their languages and signing up to get the vaccine. 

But Kansas City organizations are starting initiatives to help, like creating messaging around the COVID-19 vaccine for immigrants in their own languages, placing medical interpreters at community vaccine events and having one-on-one conversations with immigrants about their feelings on the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is a real emergency,” said Sofia Khan, founder of KC for Refugees, an organization that supports refugees who settle in the Kansas City area. “I’m getting news from volunteers within the community, and the reports I have received are a reluctance to get the vaccine, just like the population of underprivileged people in America in general.”

People wait as a safety precaution after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine at the Samuel U. Rodgers vaccine clinic at the Urban Youth Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 18, 2021. Chase Castor/The Beacon.

About 135,000 immigrants live in Kansas City, roughly 7% of the metro population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nationwide, immigrants have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Now, immigrant communities in Kansas City are also facing challenges finding information about and getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Some of the issues behind getting immigrant communities vaccinated include having access to the internet, not knowing where to sign up and getting time off work, said Abdul Bakar, who moved to the Kansas City area as a refugee from Somalia 23 years ago. 

But the greatest challenge is misinformation and conspiracies.

COVID-19 vaccine information in different languages

For Spanish-speaking immigrants in Kansas City, rumours about the COVID-19 vaccine often spread by word of mouth from neighbors or family members on WhatsApp, said Mariana Hildreth, communications coordinator for Juntos Center for Advancing Latino Health. Juntos is working against this misinformation with bright, eye-catching flyers with illustrations of masks, syringes and DNA strands.

The largest population of immigrants in Kansas City is from Mexico. Thousands of other immigrants come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Juntos started a campaign, Pregúntale a Lorito, which features a colorful bird answering common questions in Spanish about COVID-19 vaccination. The flyers are spread over social media by Juntos and Kansas City, Kansas, neighborhood organizations, and printed versions are passed out at pop-up testing sites and neighborhood grocery stores.

“We have seen so many websites that are in Spanish, but not in a relatable way,” Hildreth said. “Our goal is to make information that is for people anywhere. If someone from Mexico ended up with our flyer, they would understand it.”

Juntos’ messaging, which also includes a podcast and panels with experts, highlights stories of people in the Latinx community getting vaccinated. Hildreth said that messaging from within the community is a more powerful motivator.

However, Juntos’ campaign is only at a local level.

A messaging campaign at the state level could address concerns around whether people need a Social Security number to get vaccinated, or if information provided to get the COVID-19 vaccine could be shared with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Hildreth said. Identification also was a barrier in COVID-19 testing for Latinx populations during the pandemic.

“There is a need to make the community feel safe.”

Overcoming COVID-19 vaccine fears

On March 18, nurses stood across the artificial turf baseball diamond at the Urban Youth Academy to provide initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

But before stepping up to the vaccinators, people attending the clinic could talk to medical interpreters, like Ubah Ismael, who has interpreted in Somali and Swahili for 13 years.

The Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center has been placing medical interpreters at community vaccination clinics so they can provide facts about the COVID-19 vaccine to non-English-speaking members of the community and help them navigate the vaccination process, including forms that normally are in English.

They have interpreters for languages like Somali, Swahili, Spanish, Vietnamese and Arabic.

Often, patients from the clinic who are familiar with the interpreters will come to the vaccine community events, Ismael said.

She said most of the communities she works with fear the vaccine. Many have concerns about side effects.

Ubah Ismael (center in blue mask) helps a Somali speaking vaccine recipient register at the Samuel U. Rodgers vaccine clinic at the Urban Youth Academy in Kansas City, MO. March 18, 2021. Chase Castor/The Beacon.

“I think because the vaccine is too alien to them, that is why people are scared,” Ismael said. “Some of them see several people get the vaccine, then they feel OK.”

It is hard to find information about the COVID-19 vaccine in Somali and Swahili in Kansas City, Ismael said. Samuel U. Rodgers has a community site in the Somali refugee area, where medical professionals advertise vaccine clinics. For the Swahili-speaking community, interpreters spread the word to younger people who come into medical clinics that relatives who are older or have chronic disease can be vaccinated.

Ismael reassures people about the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine. She says this often is the motivating factor for people from the Somali and Swahili-speaking communities to get vaccinated.

“This pandemic is very hard for them,” she said. “A lot of people fear to go outside. So we tell them that if you get vaccinated, you can go out, if you don’t want to be stuck in the house. This helps a lot of them.”

You have to develop a rapport’

However, some immigrants in Kansas City have barriers to address before ever stepping foot in a vaccine clinic.

Khan said a local university recently asked KC for Refugees to help sign up refugees for an all-day clinic where they could get vaccinated. But most refugees were too reluctant, due to misinformation and fears in the community surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine.

She said a large part of the problem is that local organizations like KC for Refugees have been cut off from communicating with refugee populations during the pandemic.

“We had to limit our visits,” she said. “They were not comfortable. We were not comfortable. The problem is to get a feel for where they are with the safety of the vaccine.”

KC for Refugees is developing an outreach and educational program that will work with refugee families one on one to find out how they feel about the COVID-19 vaccine. They are reaching out to refugee agencies to get a list of people currently enrolled in English as a second language classes, either in person or online.

Ubah Ismael is a Somali and Swahili speaking interpreter who helped people register for the Samuel U. Rodgers vaccination clinic at the Urban Youth Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 18, 2021. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Medical professionals like Khan will volunteer their time to talk to families and address their concerns one on one, then volunteer college students will follow up and help refugees find a vaccination location, get signed up and see if they need transportation.

“There is enough on the CDC website to convince someone, but you need to ask why they have a reservation,” Khan said. “If you don’t have the time to talk to each family individually to find out why they are reluctant, I don’t think anyone will change their mind.”

Having a long-standing reputation in the refugee community is important for enacting change, Khan said, especially when it comes to understanding cultural barriers.

“You can’t just be behind a computer, and just a random person,” she said. “You have to develop a rapport, you have to develop a level of respect, if you are going to make a difference in any of these refugee families.”

Khan hopes to work with community partners to have vaccine clinics hosted at Afya Clinic, an urgent care center opened by a refugee who is a nurse practitioner, or at Islamic centers and churches attended by refugees.

“We’re going to be pushing this project really hard throughout this summer, and until we get a feel this pandemic is gone and we have herd immunity.”

But Bakar points out there is still a void in funding through nonprofit organizations for working to get the refugee community immunized against COVID-19.

“There is no funding behind it. It’s just volunteers.”

Brittany Callan covers health and environment at The Beacon, and is a Report for America corps member. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.