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Latinx Utahns Faced Disproportionately High Rates Of COVID-19 — Now They’re Being Vaccinated At Lower Rates

A group of diverse people silhouettes in profile wearing white medical face masks.
Gov. Spencer Cox said opening up vaccines to all adults will help those efforts more effectively close the racial vaccine gap.

When Yehemy Zavala Orozco took their mom to get vaccinated in Salt Lake County, they encountered a worker who was upset that their mother didn’t speak English. The worker demanded that Zavala Orozco translate.

“When I asked my mom at the end of the day, ‘Do you know when you have to get the second dose?’,” Zavala Orozco said, “She said, ‘No. I was afraid of asking because the lady was very angry at me and I didn't understood why.’”

Zavala Orozco was able to help their mother schedule her second dose online after they left the vaccination clinic.

According to Salt Lake County Health Department spokesperson Gabriel Moreno, each of the county’s vaccination sites have spanish speakers working there.

“We know that people more than often feel more comfortable with people that they trust, people that speak their language,” Moreno said. “So that's why it's so important for us and it is at the forefront of our decision making when it comes to reaching out to those communities. So that's why it was very surprising to hear that this experience happened.”

Zavala Orozco is a programs director at Comunidades Unidas in Salt Lake City. They said this experience is just one example of white supremacy impeding access to life saving healthcare.

Racial minorities in Utah make up a disproportionately small percentage of people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine, according to data from the Utah Department of Health. For example, 13.3% of the state adult population is Latino or Hispanic. However, they account for just 4.4% of people with at least one dose of the vaccine.

White people make up 77.6% of the state’s adult population and 61.4% of people who have received at least one dose.

Utah Department of Health spokesperson Edwin Espinel said they’re trying to strike a balance between collecting demographic data and being sensitive to people that don’t feel comfortable sharing it, particularly people of color.

“Our communities need to know that their information is going to be kept safe and confidential,” Espinel said. “At the same time, our providers need to know that the fears of the community are well-founded.”

Latinx Utahns should have been one of the vaccine priority groups, Zavala Orozco said, because the group has been hit by the virus disproportionately hard. Now that vaccines will open to all adults on March 24, they said health departments need to make sure people of color feel comfortable in vaccination sites.

“People who [are] working on the sites are not prepared with cultural competency,” they said. “Communities of color are not deciding to go to the massive events because of the lack of communities of color being represented in those spaces.”

One solution has been to use mobile vaccination clinics and partner with community groups like Comunidades Unidas to host vaccination events.

Gov. Spencer Cox said opening up vaccines to all adults will help those efforts more effectively close the racial vaccine gap.

“[Health departments are] chomping at the bit, ready to go, but having to pick and choose which people in that population that they're able to vaccinate, they said, has made it very difficult for them,” Cox said. “So now what they'll be able to do is set aside doses specifically for those populations, go in with our mobile clinics, with different providers who have close contacts, who are trusted providers in those areas and just go to town vaccinating as many people as possible.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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