A COVID-19 vaccine is administered, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Brownsville, Texas, during a vaccination clinic at Texas Southmost College (TSC) ITEC Center. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)
San Antonio, Texas CNN  — 

Rosie Arguello spent the past couple of months glued to her cellphone and landline, calling a hotline to get a Covid-19 vaccine. When she heard the busy signal, she called again, and again, and again.

The 66-year-old who lives in San Antonio’s South side would only put her phones down to take her 2-year-old grandniece on a walk, cook chorizo and eggs for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and a casserole by dinner time.

“I will wash the dishes in a hurry and then get back to it,” said Arguello, who doesn’t own a computer.

Rosie Arguello and her husband Jimmy Arguello of San Antonio, Texas, tried for months to get Covid-19 vaccine appointments.

Latinos have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, but have been vaccinated at far lower rates than White Americans. When the Covid-19 vaccine was initially approved, some Latinos were skeptical and worried it would make them sick. While some are still hesitant nearly three months later, others like Arguello who are eager to get inoculated are facing numerous barriers.

Jane Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, said there are many factors diminishing access to the vaccine, including registration websites that are not intuitive or only available in English. People have to travel long distances to vaccination sites and clinics that serve underserved communities are either not equipped with refrigerators to store the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or have not been allocated any doses.

“When people say the Hispanic community is hard to reach, I say ‘baloney.’ People know how to reach us when they want to do it,” Delgado said. “When people want to sell us things regardless of what it is, they know how to be culturally consistent and language appropriate. We have to do the same thing now with the vaccine.”

Earlier this week, the Biden administration announced it will be allocating $250 million in federal grants to local governments in an effort to encourage Covid-19 safety and vaccination among underserved populations over the course of two years.

“Our goal is to provide underserved communities with the information they need to stay safe and to get vaccinated,” Vice President Kamala Harris said Monday about the program during a virtual address to the National League of Cities. “And remember, information and education, of course, save lives.”

Younger Latinos are stepping up

Securing a Covid-19 vaccine slot has been a challenge for many people over 65, especially due to their lack of computer literacy skills, access to Internet or limited English proficiency. In response to that, younger Latinos have been troubleshooting for them or taken the responsibility of finding appointments for their parents and grandparents.

After cleaning homes and struggling to maintain work during the pandemic, Constanza Segovia’s parents couldn’t wait to book an appointment. The artist and activist living in Hartford, Connecticut, said her mother was excited when she called saying they booked an appointment online.

“Then, when they went to the appointment, they found out they actually hadn’t signed up. For some reason, the system didn’t capture their appointment,” Segovia said.

Graciela Segovia got vaccinated for Covid-19 at a site in Torrington, Connecticut.

Her mother was able to receive a dose that day but was not scheduled for the second dose. Her father was just turned down. Segovia spent weeks navigating confusing websites and calling information lines trying to help them. As a formerly undocumented woman, Segovia says, she noticed that some providers in her state are requiring photo IDs or asking people to enter social security numbers and health insurance information when they register.

“If you don’t have it, you’re gonna stop there,” Segovia said. “It’s very unclear that you can skip it. Are you really trying to get us all vaccinated?”

Last week, Segovia was able to secure the appointments for her parents. It was especially difficult because she had to make sure they were at sites near their rural Connecticut home or at a time that wouldn’t force them to miss work even if they had to drive an hour away.

“They can’t do all of this while they’re at work. I happen to be at home with a baby. If you don’t call during the day, we miss the window and it’s only Monday through Friday,” Segovia said.

Surviving the ‘worst chapter’

Ciro Ochoa Jr. spent three weeks in the hospital, fighting Covid-19 as the Rio Grande Valley region was ravaged by the virus and it became the main hotspot in Texas. In the past weeks, he’s helped others get vaccinated.

“It was the worst chapter of my life,” said the 66-year-old real estate attorney. “But I feel so blessed by God that I’m still alive.”

He felt sick, lonely and was isolated from his family because he lost his cellphone in the emergency room. He couldn’t stand the food and couldn’t go home because he was not able to control his oxygen levels. By the time he was released from the hospital, Ochoa said he felt blessed because four of his friends who were also hospitalized for Covid-19 didn’t survive.

People eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine in the Rio Grande Valley have been mostly summoned to hospitals and colleges in the region.

Ochoa, who suffers from diabetes and recovered from a brain aneurysm before the pandemic, was vaccinated earlier this year. The side effects he suffered didn’t make him regret taking the shot.

“Anything that could happen to me for taking the vaccine, I felt like my doctors could take care of me. They couldn’t guarantee me anything when I had Covid,” Ochoa said.

In Hidalgo County, where the majority of the county’s 860,000 residents identify as Latino, about 128,980 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data from Texas Health and Human Services.

Hospitals, county and city governments have held mass vaccination sites in the region at schools, convention centers and drive-thru events in the past months. Advocates and health care leaders said there’s high interest in the vaccine.

At a community health clinic that serves mostly uninsured Latino patients in McAllen, staff members have been getting constant calls from people looking to get vaccinated.

Marisol Resendez, executive director at El Milagro Clinic, said the facility was certified by the state as a Covid-19 vaccine provider in January but hasn’t been allocated any doses.

“Everybody that’s been calling, we write their names on a log to make sure that we’re able to get back with them as soon as we do get the vaccine,” Resendez said. “I am hoping that it’s going to be sooner than later.”

Texas is the most uninsured state in the nation and Hispanics across the country have the highest uninsured rates among all race and ethnic groups, according to data by the US Census Bureau.

Federal officials and health care advocates like Delgado have highlighted the potential impact that community organizations could have in ensuring equity in vaccine distribution.

A trusted site

The offices of a labor union representing migrant farm workers in Toledo, Ohio, has turned into a vaccination site once a week for nearly two months, in an effort to reach people of color.

“(Immigrant) Workers are used to coming to our office and meeting there so it’s a trusted site,” said Baldemar Velasquez, president and founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. “Now, they are seeing their grandparents, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the community get vaccinated.”

In the past weeks, authorities in Lucas County said vaccines have not been “equitably delivered” to non-White residents. At least 79,123 people have received a vaccine in the county, including 1,945 people who identify as Hispanic or Latino. That number represents 6.15% of the Latinos in the county, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health. Across the state, only 6% of Latinos have been vaccinated, state figures show.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a labor union representing migrant farm workers in Toledo, Ohio, has distributed about 500 Covid-19 vaccines in the past two months.

Velasquez said his organization started registering people who are eligible as soon as they got word they would be able to give the vaccine. Within days, they registered 153 people but the county only sent 30 doses on the first week. The number of vaccines has increased every week as well as the number of people interested in getting it, he said.

“When we started telling the Latino community to sign up for appointments, our phone just rang off the hook for days and weekends,” Velasquez said.

The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department has been partnering with community organizations to distribute vaccines and has allocated 500 doses to FLOC, said Shannon M. Lands, a spokeswoman with the health department.

Back in Texas, Rosie Arguello was watching cartoons with her grandniece last week when she received a call from a relative and broke down in tears. Her and husband’s names were finally on a list to get a vaccine at a local health clinic within days.

She was happy because once vaccinated, she would get to see and hug her many grandchildren and still be safe.