By Jonathan Fernandez
LOS ANGELES — The Latino community in Los Angeles has been hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which is a sign of larger systemic issues within the medical field.
While only 50% of Latinos had received a single COVID-19 dose through August 2021, there has seemingly always been seeds of distrust in the Latino community of those working in the medical field.
“It can’t just be about the vaccine,” said Dr. Alejandra Casillas, assistant professor of medicine in residence at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It’s how do we gain the trust back? We have to restructure the health care system.”
Historically, Latinos have long struggled with the medical system, often feeling unheard or disrespected. In recent years the relationship between doctor and patient has dissolved into once-a-year visits and frequent doctor changes, which for Latinos meant discussing their health with people they didn’t know and didn’t trust.
When country and state officials started pushing for citizens to get vaccinated, they were met with widespread skepticism and fear from the Latino community.
Los Angeles native Willie Arevalo got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only because it was mandatory for him to go on tour with his band, but he said he didn’t feel entirely comfortable getting it. He is not boosted and has no plans to get boosted.
“I didn’t want to get vaccinated at all,” Arevalo said. “Vaccines make me nervous … not to be a conspiracy theorist, but throughout the history of the United States, there’s been experiments on populations, syphilis, they did that on African Americans.”
What Arevalo referenced was the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee which took place in 1932. The study involved 600 Black men, 399 of them had syphilis and 201 did not. By that time penicillin had become the main treatment for syphilis and was widely available, but the researchers did not offer the participants that treatment. The study was eventually deemed “ethically unjustified” by an advisory panel which fast-tracked ending the research.
Santiago Giraldo is a Ph.D. student who has been in Los Angeles for three years for school, but is from Colombia. He has received two doses and his booster because he believes in the science behind vaccines but is empathetic toward those who fear potential side effects.
“The only way out from lockdown and all this is the vaccine,” Giraldo said.
Casillas also found no issue with the science behind the vaccine. She was so confident in it that she was one of the first to receive it, she said.
“I wanted to show my patients that I was willing to be a guinea pig for them,” Casillas said. “I was so reassured by the vaccine that when it was time for them to test it out on kids, I actually volunteered my own kids.”
But Casillas knows not everyone understands the science the way she does. And for those who still are unvaccinated, it would help to be dealing with someone they can really trust.
Seeing doctors who look like them could help patients trust the person making medical recommendations. Casillas also says the medical system should look to partner with community leaders and organizations that have already established that trust with the Latino community.
“Part of the messaging when I’ve been working with community organizations to talk about the vaccine is to also acknowledge all the trauma that the Latino community have endured during the pandemic,” Casillas said. “Our communities have some of the highest rates of people who were essential workers. … We live in infrastructure where there’s not an opportunity to socially distance. … We have higher rates of COVID-19 in our communities because of some of these reasons.”
Because the Latino community is more susceptible to COVID-19, Casillas emphasized the importance of being protected.
“If you get COVID, there is a much higher risk of having complications of having COVID than having a complication from the vaccine,” Casillas said. “If you look at the data around hospitalizations and deaths, an overwhelming majority are unvaccinated so the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 hospitalization, potential complications, disability and death is by getting the vaccine.”
Jonathan Fernandez is a graduate student specializing in sports media at Northwestern Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @JFERN31.