The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 04, 2021 1:00 am

Making sure everyone gets their FAIR SHOT

Local groups assist minorities as they navigate their path to vaccine

Nay Nway Nway stares intently at her laptop screen, which sits atop a folding table in a room bustling with activity Wednesday inside an apartment complex on the city's southeast side.

Masked and with a clear plastic barrier separating her from the couple she's working to help on the other side of the table, Nway asks for driver's licenses and opens the state's COVID-19 vaccination registration website. She's looking for appointments for a Burmese couple, who speak little English, to receive shots key to ending the deadly pandemic.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and state public health officials have rightly hailed the vaccine rollout as largely successful, but data and evidence from nonprofits and public health advocates show some Hoosiers are being left behind.

Blacks make up 9% of the state's population, but only about 6% of vaccinations, according to a database created by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Hispanics account for just 3% of vaccinations doled out in Indiana, while they make up 7% of the population.

Whites account for 89% of vaccinations, despite comprising 83% of the population, according to Kaiser, which analyzed data for each state and Washington, D.C.

In Allen County, according to state data, whites have gotten 84% of vaccinations, while making up 86% of the population. Of the vaccinations given, about 5% went to Blacks, who constitute 9% of the population. 

Hispanics have received 2% of vaccinations in Allen County and make up more than 6% of the population.

The remaining percentages come from Asians, “other race” and “unknown,” according to the state database.

Nway, working last week with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said people who don't speak English – such as some members of the city's Burmese community – have been unable to easily navigate, the state's online depot for vaccine registration. She and others translated for those who needed help as part of an ongoing effort by Catholic Charities.

More than 55 people were registered Wednesday.

“Language is a barrier, also technology,” said Nway, a refugee support services case manager.

Da Zit Bai and wife Ra Si Da were among the first to arrive Wednesday morning at Autumn Woods Apartments, one of two sites where registration help was available that day. Each said through Nway that registering for a shot would have been difficult without an interpreter.

Barriers to vulnerable groups for vaccines include lack of transportation, not having a computer or smartphone to register, long wait times for 211 – a phone service for information about vaccines in English or Spanish – and misinformation. Others simply may be wary of a vaccine pushed by the government.

Nonprofits, charities and advocacy groups in Fort Wayne have mobilized, organizing education campaigns and using social media to spread accurate information about the vaccines to residents who might be skeptical or unaware of how to get a shot. The groups also are planning on hosting registration events where those residents live – areas that might not have received or had access to information from the state.

The Foellinger Foundation last month gave $55,000 to the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation “to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts for those with the greatest economic need and least opportunity.” Community Health Foundation leaders are working to dole out $5,000 grants to churches, clubs and nonprofits to help with transportation, child care, “language, uncertainty and trust,” according to a statement.

“We recognize there are many barriers to residents getting the vaccine, and it's going to take all of us working together to overcome them,” Meg Distler, St. Joseph Community Health Foundation executive director, said in the statement.

Nearly 2.9 million vaccine doses have so far been administered to Indiana residents, and almost 1.2 million are fully vaccinated. The State Department of Health ensured that number will continue to climb when it opened availability last week to Hoosiers age 16 and older.

Appointments for many of those vaccinations have been made through, the website that can be changed to offer information in English or Spanish. Asked what other efforts have been made to reach those who speak other languages, the State Department of Health emailed a statement saying the “site will also be available in Burmese soon.”

“We also are working with community-based partners around the state to engage them to help register people in their native languages. That process is ongoing,” according to the email.

For now, though, information targeting unique populations is largely coming from local groups.

Irene Paxia, CEO of Amani Family Services, said her group – which works with immigrant and refugee families – has launched a “Multilingual Access Initiative” aimed at providing information about vaccines and vaccine registration. Through Facebook, Amani has begun offering live forums in languages including Burmese, Bosnian and Haitian Creole.

A pharmacist answered questions during a forum last week.

“We're trying to, at least, have that information available,” Paxia said.

The Center for Nonviolence is offering translation and interpretation “as well as pay for staff time so we can reach out to our clients and ensure they have the information they need to make informed decisions,” Latina coordinator Ana Giusti said, according to a news release from the Foellinger Foundation.

“Then, together, we can help overcome other barriers, such as making an appointment to receive a vaccine and arranging for transportation,” according to the release.

Community Transportation Network is using grant money to pay for transportation for residents to get vaccines.

HealthVisions Midwest, a nonprofit with offices in Fort Wayne, Hammond and East St. Louis, Illinois, is part of a group planning vaccination registrations at churches, a YMCA, government offices and other businesses beginning April 10. Details are being finalized; plans call for more than 20 sites to be available.

Sharon Tubbs, director of the HealthVisions local office, said an online campaign featuring video interviews with African American leaders is planned to highlight information about vaccines.

“We've been working furiously to make it happen,” she said.

Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter said some of the discrepancy in rates for Black residents can come from there being fewer in the 65 and older age range – the first group to whom vaccines were offered.

“However, as vaccinations continue to roll out, we worry about inequality of resources. It requires resources to be able to make an appointment, take off work and have reliable transportation,” he wrote in an email. “While we are glad to have partners like Neighborhood Health Clinics and pharmacies providing vaccine sites in some underserved areas in our community, many vaccine appointments are more readily available outside of urban areas, which also requires transportation. While we can't solve all of these problems, we are working with community partners to address this and knock down barriers.”

Those roadblocks must be removed to ensure the end of the pandemic. It's heartening to know there are so many working to do so.

Matthew LeBlanc is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.

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