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Movies, Childcare And Churros: How Groups In Northern Colorado Are Working To Vaccinate Hard-Hit Latino Communities

Matt Bloom
Ana Gomez (left) sits down to get her COVID-19 vaccine at the Boys and Girls Club in Fort Collins on May 1, 2021.

On a recent Saturday morning, the local Boys and Girls Club in Fort Collins hosted an all-out vaccine party in its gymnasium. A mariachi band serenaded patients. Volunteers served fresh churros and horchata.

But behind the cinnamon sugar and celebratory mood was a small army of community organizers with an urgent mission: Get as many Hispanic and Latino residents as possible immunized against COVID-19, and help close wide disparities within Colorado’s ongoing vaccine rollout.

“We’ve seen the struggle of our community in the last year,” said Jesús Castro, an organizer with the group Fuerza Latina. “So we wanted to make something nice, like a reunion.”

Extra perks like offering on-site childcare also paid off. More than 550 people showed up for a dose.

“I think this type of effort — it’s a manifestation of love,” Castro said. “It’s something we needed to do.”

Matt Bloom
A performer from Mariachi Alma del Folklore, an all-female mariachi band, serenades patients as they get their COVID-19 shots.

With demand for vaccines declining across the state, community groups and government leaders alike are scrambling to keep interest alive, especially among Colorado’s Latino population. The effort is even more urgent, they say, because Latinos remain significantly underrepresented in the number of people getting shots.

The data is stark. White residents are twice as likely to have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine as Latino residents. And even though they make up 20% of the population, Latinos have gotten just under 10% of doses.

Those most eager have already been vaccinated. Now comes the hard part of getting shots into the arms of people who are the most hesitant or face significant language, transportation or other access barriers.

“Our efforts have to become double, triple, quadruple efforts and become more innovative in the ways that we try to reach out to get to people,” said Dr. Oswaldo Grenardo, chief diversity officer at Centura Health and a tri-chair of the Colorado Vaccine Equity Task Force. We've got to figure out for those people who are remaining, what is going to switch them over to wanting the vaccine?

The pursuit of an answer to that question has spawned many out-of-the-box ideas, a strategy shift among vaccine providers as Colorado public health leaders look to reach herd immunity (or something close to it) later this year. More than 2.7 million Coloradans have received at least one dose of vaccine, but the state’s pace has slowed over the past month.

Gov. Jared Polis this week re-upped his appeal to all residents to get vaccinated, proclaiming “it’s easier than ever before to get the life-saving vaccine.” The state has launched a mobile vaccine bus to reach rural communities and opened several mass walk-up clinics.

In recent press updates, Polis has featured stories from Latino residents who have gotten the shot.

On Tuesday, Paul López, Denver’s Clerk and Recorder, shared a photo of himself with his daughter and vaccinated mother and appealed to fellow Latinos to get a shot.

“I know you think you’re tough. But the virus doesn’t care how tough or macho you are,” López said. “It will snatch you. It will kill you.”

Matt Bloom
Lyla Ramos, 16, helps check patients in outside the Boys and Girls Club vaccine clinic in Fort Collins.

At the local level, creative efforts are ramping up.

A team of community groups in Fort Collins recently organized a clinic at a drive-in movie theater. Patrons snacked on tacos and watched a Spanish-language version of The Croods after getting their shots.

The Larimer County Department of Health and Environment has started using census data to open pop up clinics in neighborhoods with predominantly Latino residents.

The one at the Northside Aztlan Community Center in Fort Collins is located near lots of businesses in bustling Old Town, so people can stop by after work. There’s also a public transit route nearby for easy access.

Victor Acevedo, a 52-year-old construction worker, said he didn’t know vaccines were available until a family friend told him and his wife about the Aztlan clinic. His friend helped them sign up online and he came by on his day off.

“It was easy,” he said, speaking Spanish.

Olga Fraide, a department specialist with the health department, helped lead registration. She said picking this site resulted in a higher percentage of Latino patients than previous county-run clinics.

County data shows at least 11.6% of doses at the Aztlan site have gone to individuals who identify as Latino. That’s well above other large clinics at Moby Arena and The Ranch, which both have roughly 5% of doses going to Latinos.

“Once people knew we were near them, they were calling, you know,” Fraide said. “And that's happened several times that once they know that they're in a place where they know that they can go, yes, then they start coming.”

The targeted clinics, along with eligibility expansion, has had an effect, county data shows. The local Latino vaccine gap is narrowing, but remains large.

Matt Bloom
Victor Acevedo, 52, sits in a waiting area after getting his shot at the Northside Aztlan Community Center in Fort Collins.

In Weld County, local organizers have been marketing Latino equity clinics at Sunrise Community Health’s main facility in Evans. They’ve posted signs at local grocery stores, child care centers and churches.

More than 1,000 people showed up to the first one earlier this spring. Another is planned for May 15.

“There is trust in Sunrise and trust in us,” said Deb Suniga, head of the Latino Coalition of Weld County. “Because that’s where our people go. They feel safe and have comfort there.”

The federal government recently granted $8.6 million to Sunrise to expand its equity efforts, as part of a broader nationwide push to beef up vaccinations at community health sites. Sunrise has already used part of the money to hire 15 new staff members, said Chalice Springfield, a spokeswoman for the health center.

The center is planning to start offering evening clinics during the week, launch a media campaign and deploy more mobile vaccine “strike teams” to improve equity. They also hope to work with local school districts to host clinics once the federal government approves vaccines for adolescents as young as 12 years old.

“I’m encouraged about what’s happening at the local level,” Springfield said.

In a statement, the Weld County Department of Health and Environment said it has invested in PSAs on local Spanish-language radio and is working with local clinics such as Sunrise to promote equity.

Matt Bloom
A sign directs visitors to the entrance of the Boys and Girls Club in Fort Collins. Community organizers got over 550 registered for the Latino-focused vaccine clinic.
Matt Bloom
Jesús Castro stands next to a sign for his group, Fuerza Latina. Castro and other community organizers helped run a Latino-focused vaccine clinic at the local Boys and Girls Club in Fort Collins.

Back at the Boys and Girls Club in Fort Collins, 16-year-old Lyla Ramos is helping check people in, even though she isn’t sure if she wants a vaccine herself. She’s worried about the shot hurting and the potential side effects. But her family has been encouraging her.

“They’re like, ‘Hey, you should go get it and it won’t hurt,’” Ramos said. “‘Like, you’re fine. It’ll be okay.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m nervous.’”

Ramos is planning to let her sister go first, and then decide.

Julio Atondo Alfonso Avalos, 17, was hesitant about getting a vaccine. But he decided to get a shot so he could continue to play football and run track at school.

His mother snagged him an appointment as soon as she heard teens were eligible.

“I was hearing a lot about the side effects, but I want to be protected from the virus and any opportunity I can get I would like to take it,” Alfonso Avalos said.

Jesús Castro feels like it’s up to community organizers like himself to be there for people like Ramos and Alfonso Avalos.

“We knew that we had to push for our community to get vaccinated because it seems like the Latino community is always lost in everything,” Castro said. “No one thinks of us. We are no one’s priority. And we have to make it happen for ourselves.”

The health of the community depends on it, he said. If disparities aren’t reduced, experts worry Latinos could continue to suffer from COVID at disproportionate rates in the future.

“It’s either get immunized or get the virus,” said Dr. Grenardo. “Those people who don’t get (the vaccine) will still be the highest risk to getting sick, and if you have more racial ethnic minorities in those populations at risk, then those populations are going to be at risk for worse, continuing worse effects and consequences from the pandemic from a health and economic perspective.”

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