With just 44% of its population fully vaccinated, Georgia is running far behind the rest of the nation. For the state's Latino community, a population that has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, vaccination rates are even lower. The Rev. Irma Guerra, a Mexican immigrant and minister at Christ Church Episcopal in Norcross, has used her platform to be a vaccine evangelizer and to dispel some of the misinformation about the vaccine through social media, her pulpit and going door to door. 

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Steve Fennessy: With 44% of its population fully vaccinated, Georgia is running behind — far behind — the rest of the nation.  And among the state's Latino community, a population that has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, vaccination rates are even lower.

[TAPE] 11Alive:  It's less than 45% of people are fully vaccinated and only 49% of people have gotten one dose, less than half of the state. The state also just passed 1 million total COVID-19 cases. That is 9% of our population.

Steve Fennessy: Rev. Irma Guerra, a Mexican immigrant and minister at Christ Church Episcopal in Norcross, has used her platform to be, as she calls it, a vaccine evangelizer. She's used social media, her pulpit and even gone door to door to dispel some of the misinformation about the vaccine. Rev. Guerra was profiled recently by AJC journalist Lautaro Grinspan, who's been covering the effects of the pandemic on the state's Latino community. So, Lautaro, we've had a vaccine now in the U.S. for about eight months against the coronavirus. And today, as we speak, though, in Georgia, we're still really far behind. How does that stand among Hispanic communities in Georgia? What is their vaccination rate?

Lautaro Grinspan: Hispanic communities are a little bit behind, according to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. As of Sept. 7, 41% of Hispanic residents in Georgia have received at least one vaccine dose. That's on par with the vaccination rate among Black residents in Georgia but it's five percentage points below that of white Georgians.

[TAPE] 11Alive: And the Kaiser Family Foundation found white people are about one and-a-half times as likely to be vaccinated than African Americans and nearly four times as likely to be vaccinated than Hispanic people here in Georgia.

Lautaro Grinspan: And that discrepancy is more or less what we're seeing nationwide. And the share of COVID-19 vaccines that have gone out to Latinos in Georgia is lower than the share of the population that identifies as Latino, but only by a little bit. So 10% of Georgia's population is Latino and 9% of Georgia vaccine recipients are Latino. So they are underrepresented among unvaccinated people in Georgia. But again, only — only slightly.

Steve Fennessy: So why is that? I mean, if you look at, again, Georgia as a population as a whole, we're still way below the national average. And then when you're talking about Latino communities, there's a little bit even below that. So what's the — what's the reason? What are the reasons?

Lautaro Grinspan: Lots of reasons, plural. I think I'll start by telling you about Julio, who is an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador that I met in late July. And I asked him to sort of tell me why it had taken him that long to get his shot. And he explained that he always had the intention of getting vaccinated, but that he just didn't have the time. You know, he — he works this physically demanding construction job. He has a grueling work schedule, on call six days a week. Hours can be unpredictable. And that made it really difficult for him to line up the time to both get the vaccine and recover from possible side effects before being to — for his next shift. And the community advocates that I've been speaking to say Julio’s story is actually sort of fairly representative of the broader unvaccinated population. But that aside, there are many other obstacles and hurdles that — that officials face. What was explained to me, that outreach to immigrant communities about the vaccine often needs to compensate for immigrants’ lack of access to or even trust in the health care system.

[TAPE] 11Alive: Dr. Joseph Cordero with the University of Georgia says it also has to do with the fact that a lot of Latinos have low income. They are essential workers and a lot of them don't have the proper access to health care.

Lautaro Grinspan: They just don't have that authority to turn to, to ask questions and get information about the vaccine. And — and as far as undocumented immigrants are concerned, there's a lot of worry that they will be asked to show an I.D. they don't have at vaccination clinics or that or their getting vaccinated will somehow compromise their personal information and expose them to immigration authorities. So, yeah, many obstacles can be a factor. And you really have to be aware of all the valid concerns that folks have and think about ways to put them at ease if you want to mount a successful vaccination campaign targeting immigrants.

Steve Fennessy: Let's talk about the — the suspicion and fear aspect. Some are concerned that their personal information might have to be given, that they might be asked for insurance cards or ID. Is that a requirement to get a vaccine?

Lautaro Grinspan: That is a common misconception. And that's something that all of these officials and advocates who are working to get Americans vaccinated have to talk about over and over. You know, you don't need any sort of I.D. to get vaccinated at vaccination clinics. You know, folks may be asked to provide an ID, but that's only to confirm folks, the spelling of folks’ names. And if people don't have a, you know, a U.S. piece of ID, they are always able to show a foreign passport or foreign ID.

Steve Fennessy: And of course, the vaccine itself is free.

Lautaro Grinspan: It's free — you don’t need insurance. And — and that's also, I think, a common misconception that — that is still holding people back.

Steve Fennessy: Has there been any reports or any indication that, say, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is somehow allied or — or working with vaccine providers to somehow track people that they might want to deport?

Lautaro Grinspan: The simple answer is no. We haven't seen a single instance of that being the case. And that's something that, again, these advocates are working really hard to — to ease those fears that they have.

Steve Fennessy: Well, let's talk about some of those advocates. You mentioned Julio, a worker who spent a lot of time before he actually did get a vaccine. But what about some of the other people? You are out there in the community trying to — to get these folks vaccinated.

Lautaro Grinspan: There's all kinds of people who have really made it sort of their mission to — to get those vaccination rates boosted up. And one sort of woman who I spent a lot of time with is a Mexican immigrant and a reverend at Christ Church Episcopal in Norcross. Her name is Irma Guerra, and it's a relatively large church with around 1,500 members. And since the beginning of the year, she has made a very concerted effort to use her platform and the trust she has cultivated in the community to encourage fellow immigrants, fellow Latinos, to take the COVID vaccine. And I actually learned about her work through a video that she shot with the Latino Community Fund this summer. And I came across the video and I was sort of immediately really drawn to her because it was clear that she was someone who really chose to take a very active hands-on role, trying to enhance public trust in the vaccine at a time when vaccination rates in the state had really started to lag and fall behind.

Steve Fennessy: And what — what drew her to this work?

Lautaro Grinspan: She told me she was inspired to, as she put it, evangalize for vaccines because she was registering really palpable anxiety among her congregation around the topic of vaccination. And so she first began encouraging people to get vaccinated during mass on Sundays and — and on these live streamed daily prayer sessions she does on Facebook every day. But then she also started going door-knocking in apartment complexes in the neighborhood, going to stores and shopping malls to really try to bring her private message to as many people as possible. And during the day that I spent with her, she had chosen to go to a Super Merdaco Jalisco in Norcross, which is a Mexican grocery store, and she would just intercept people by the checkout counter, asking them if they had been vaccinated yet. And — and actually spoke to Rev. Gerra about her strategy when it comes to having one-on-one conversation with people who are vaccine hesitant, especially at the church, because I thought she might have like a script of sorts for conversations like that. But she says it's a lot of playing it by ear, really listening to whatever concerns people have and then sort of trying her best to address them. And one of the biggest things that she tells me she's up against every day is Spanish language vaccine misinformation that she says is reaching many people in her congregation through Facebook, you know, YouTube or WhatsApp. She says she's constantly having to debunk conspiracy theories and explain that no, you know, there's no tracking chips in vaccines or vaccines don't cause infertility. Can be really harebrained stuff.

[TAPE] 11Alive: According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, the potential for negative long-term health effects was the top concern among Latino residents surveyed.

Lautaro Grinspan: Misinformation has a real sway. And it's not that there's more bad content or conspiracy theories in Spanish, but there's simply less of a mainstream media infrastructure in the U.S. and in Georgia to counterbalance the lies and consistently expose people to the facts.

Steve Fennessy: Stay with us. Next on Georgia Today, why Rev. Guerra's message about getting vaccinated isn't always well received. I'm Steve Fennessy.


Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy this week, I'm here with Lautaro GrInspan, a journalist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who recently shadowed Rev. Irma Guerra as she traveled amid metro Atlanta's Latino community, persuading skeptics and procrastinators to get vaccinated. Does she have sort of a benchmark in mind when she is she going out? “I want to convince 20 people today that to get vaccinated. I want to — I'm hoping to get 100 people this week.” What sort of her approach or her strategy?

Lautaro Grinspan: She says very modest goals for herself. You know, she thinks it's a big victory when she gets one or two people to to come around on vaccines any given day. And, you know, she knows that in order to make a difference, she has to really keep this work up day after day after day. And it's a slow process. And she knows that sometimes, you know, she has to — to go back to people and, you know, because she may not have gotten through to them the first time. And it takes sort of two, three, four conversations to make progress. And she says she understands that and is willing to put in that that work. That's her — her philosophy when it comes to this.

Steve Fennessy: She's a woman. And correct me if I'm wrong, but the majority of the Hispanic community that she's probably doing outreach to are Catholic. And so what's their reaction to to a woman of the cloth?

Lautaro Grinspan: That's a good question, especially because Reverend Guerra is actually a bit of a history historic figure in the sense that in 2013, when she — she — she was actually one of the first two female Hispanic priests in the diocese of Atlanta. And — and that's something that can be an obstacle when she makes these forays into the community and — and tries to engage with folks, because, like you said, the majority of Latinos remain affiliated with the Catholic Church, a church that prohibits women from becoming ordained. So, you know, she'll have these conversations about COVID, about the vaccine, and — and they'll sometimes get derailed by — by people asking her sort of what she's doing, what title they call her, sort of not understanding her — her role at all. It’s this extra burden that she has to be mindful of. But I think she is just taking it all in stride.

Steve Fennessy: And this effort is particularly personal for her because she herself battled COVID-19 like — like a lot of us. So what was her particular situation when she was infected?

Lautaro Grinspan: She got sick in July 2020. She didn't wind up in the hospital, but still had a really long and painful battle with the disease at home. And — and that is definitely an inspiration behind the work that she's doing now. She knows COVID is real. She knows how high the stakes are in this vaccination drive. And it's a story that you come across a lot in the community, actually. You know, when I went to many different vaccination events targeting Latinos over the past couple of months and I spoke to many people who told me that they had chosen to get vaccinated because they had had a bad case of COVID or because they had lost family members to the disease, either here or back in their home countries. And I think it's important to remember, as we have the discussion, that Latinos have been disproportionately impacted by the new coronavirus throughout the pandemic. They have been more likely to contract COVID more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die from COVID than sort of their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. And — and immigrants are also overrepresented among the ranks of essential workers in this country who are more likely to be exposed to the virus on a daily basis. So there's a lot of firsthand experience with the damage that the disease can cause. And that's definitely, I think, motivating people to get the shot.

Steve Fennessy: So Rev. Guerra's outreach is one component of many that are happening throughout the state in all kinds of communities. To what degree is this an organized effort, or thousands and thousands of small little efforts by people like Rev. Guerra to try to get more people vaccinated? Is the state trying to — to do this outreach into other immigrant communities, too? And is there any sort of concerted effort in that regard?

Lautaro Grinspan: It's a mix. I think health officials are — are delegating sort of love this possibility and just teaming up with — with nonprofits and community advocates to bring as many pop-up vaccination sites as possible to metro Atlanta's immigrant enclaves with the goal of bringing vaccines to the places that people are already in and really trying to leverage the organizations, the community leaders like Rev. Guerra that have already built these long ties in the community. On any given day, you might have a vaccination clinic at a foreign consulate at places like Plaza Fiesta, the Latin American Association, popular markets, ethnic churches.

[TAPE] WSB-TV 2: Dekalb is targeting Latin and Black communities by offering free shots at food giveaways in their communities like this one. Since it started 13 months ago, the events draw thousands of cars every Saturday.

Lautaro Grinspan: And you also see actually employers with big immigrant employee bases like the — the big local tortilla producer, Wholefoods, hosting clinics. And a common thing you see in these clinics is really, you know, bilingual volunteers being tapped  to to run these events to make sure no language barriers stand in the way of people getting the shot. It's a very targeted approach that is working, but it's just slow going because these are small-scale clinics. So you kind of have to hit all these culturally relevant spots over and over and over and establish a consistent presence to make a difference. But yeah, the goal is, like I said, to be where people are and not have them and don't have to ask them to get out of their way to to get vaccinated. It's really about removing the accessibility barrier as much as possible.

Steve Fennessy: When we're talking about the Hispanic community, specifically in Georgia, how important is the clergy and being sort of an ambassador for the vaccine?

Lautaro Grinspan: It's a very important component of this. And, you know, Rev. Wright is one of many sort of members of the Hispanic clergy that are trying to make a difference in this way. And I think, you know, it stands in contrast to what we have seen in other parts of the country when it comes to Hispanic children, Latino pastors that have actually played a counterproductive role and actually stoking the flames of vaccine hesitancy by pushing this narrative that it's what they’ve sort of been calling the mark of the devil or that you're somehow completely ceding control to — to the state by getting vaccinated.

[TAPE] CNN The Rev. Tony Spell: You do not give me my rights, sir. Whether you're a politician, government or a doctor, I would rather die free than I had live on my knees.

[TAPE] CNN Elle Reeve: How is it living on your knees to take a vaccine?

[TAPE] CNN The Rev. Tony Spell: Because you're bowing against your convictions.

Lautaro Grinspan: And — and I actually did a lot of that coverage in my last reporting job in Miami. And so when I came here, it was a complete change of pace, sort of getting to meet and spend some time with folks like Rev. Guerra that are using this — this influence they have to use it to get people vaccinated.

Steve Fennessy: Lautaro, you've been covering the vaccination efforts for several months now, and I found a story you did back in July particularly interesting because the AJC, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where you're — where your writing was talking about how the — they crunched some numbers and showed that the larger the immigrant population was in a neighborhood, the greater the vaccination rate. And so what — what explains that? Why would that be?

Lautaro Grinspan: Yeah, that's a great question. And, you know, the — we have an amazing data team. And they had found before that the two factors that are the most predictive of a neighborhood vaccination rate is the size of its elderly population and the percentage of people in the neighborhood with college degrees. But I asked them, sort of out of curiosity, to also look at the relation between the amount of foreign-born people in the neighborhood and the neighborhood’s vaccination rate to see if there was a link, an impact of some kind. And what they found, yeah, was honestly pretty surprising. They found that across Georgia, census tracked there is a positive relationship between foreign-born population totals and vaccination rates, which means that, like you said, the more immigrants a neighborhood has, the more vaccinated people tend to be. And why is that the case? It's — I don't know. It's hard to pinpoint. I think it's certainly I think it's really a credit to the work of officials and advocates who have been so deliberate about bringing the vaccines to immigrant and refugee communities. Anecdotally, people say that there are motivations that drive immigrants to take the vaccine that aren't there as much, perhaps, for nonimmigrants. Some Latino community organizer told me that some people see it as a privilege to be here in the U.S. and have vaccines so readily available when that isn't the case in their home countries, so they should take advantage of that. And — and I can see that: You know, I'm from Argentina and I was able to get fully vaccinated here months before my grandparents were back home and in their 70s and 80s. So we are in touch with people who really, really wish they were here so they could get the vaccine. And there's also this theory, which was relayed to me by experts at Georgia State University, that vaccines are less politicized among immigrants in the U.S. compared to native-born folks, and that could be a boon as well. Many people know of family members, friends who are shelling out all this money to get a plane ticket to get vaccinated here. That was especially, you know, the case a bit earlier in the pandemic. There is — is this perspective that I think motivates people to take advantage of the opportunities they have here.

Steve Fennessy: Not long ago, President Biden gave us a frank talk and said that, for specifically for businesses that employ 100 or more people, they need to be either testing their workers once a week or they can get a vaccine, but they have to do one or the other. To what degree, if any, do you see this impacting efforts to vaccinate immigrant communities? What effect will this have?

Lautaro Grinspan: I don't think immigrant communities will let anything get in their way of putting food on the table and providing for their families. You know, like most people, at the end of the day, they won't be willing to lose their jobs over their vaccination status. And if these new mandates encourage more employers to make it easy for workers to get the vaccine, whether it be by hosting vaccination drives on site at these workplaces or — or providing information and guidance to let people know how they can get vaccinated, where they can get vaccinated, they can only be, I think, a positive thing for this community.

Steve Fennessy: Lautaro, you've talked about how important it is that all of us who might be vaccine hesitant or just haven't had access to a vaccine for whatever reason, kind of be met on our terms. In other words, you go out to — to the place where the people's where the people are that you're trying to reach. How important, though, is it also to tailor the language and make sure that that's important when you're trying to convince people of the need for them to get vaccinated?

Lautaro Grinspan: I think paying attention to — to those details is very important. And that's what you'll hear from advocates who are organizing these vaccination clinics. They pay a lot of attention to the signs that we know welcome people in, making sure it's in — in people's native languages. When they put out fliers or advertisements on social media to get people to come into vaccination clinics.

[TAPE] 11Alive: “We're not taken into account.” Eni Cacorona, who's originally from Mexico and moved to Georgia seven years ago. One, she wants to get the vaccine, too. She knows many in the Latino community do not. And three, she's seen no information about COVID-19 in Spanish, her native language.

Lautaro Grinspan: Make sure to avoid using words like “immigrants” actually, and using words in Spanish like, you know, this is an event fornotre communidad” or community, speaking in a way that people will feel comforted in. And it's all about that. It's all about putting people at ease. And those details, the language you use in clinics, can make a difference. And that's why there's this concerted effort to make sure that, you know, as many people as possible who are involved in these clinics be from the people who check people in at the entrance to the person that was actually administering the shots are able to — to speak Spanish or whatever language the community that is being targeted speaks, so that absolutely anyone involved in those clinics can answer questions and — and play their role in putting people at ease.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Lautaro Grinspan, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This week, the FDA and CDC authorized booster shots for those 65 and over who have received the Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago, as well as for Americans with certain medical conditions. In Georgia, 55% of the state's residents, almost 6 million people, have yet to receive their first shot. For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Don't forget to leave us rating and review on Apple. Jahi Whitehead produced this episode. Jesse Nighswonger engineered it. Thanks for listening. See you next week.