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Promotora de salud in Belmont Cragin laundromat

Margarita Sanchez, a promotora de salud — community health worker — with Centro San Bonifacia, conducts a survey about COVID-19 and helps answer questions for people on Jan. 15, 2021, at a laundromat in Belmont Cragin on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

Manuel Martinez

How Promotoras De Salud Are Fighting Vaccine Conspiracies In Chicago's Latino Communities

This story is supported by The Pulitzer Center.

Martina Sanchez walks into a laundromat in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood greeting everyone.

She’s walking around the laundromat holding a clipboard with a COVID-19 survey. She encounters a petite woman with kind eyes who agrees to do the survey.

“You can get COVID-19 from family members,” Martina Sanchez said in Spanish. “Is that true or false?”

The 75-year-old woman quickly said yes.

This survey is just the starting point. The woman told Martina Sanchez how scared she is of the coronavirus. She lives alone in a small apartment just a few blocks from the laundromat. None of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have visited her to avoid getting her sick. They all want to keep her alive, she said.

With few Spanish-language news outlets, Latino immigrants often rely on social media. But Martina Sanchez said those platforms have shared a lot of conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, the internet and social media has played a key role during this pandemic,” she said. “I’ve seen people posting videos of severe reactions to the vaccine. And the government isn’t putting out information to combat those rumors.”

Matina Sanchez is one of seven promotoras de salud — community health workers — from Centro San Bonifacio working to distribute information about the virus. These workers received training from state public health officials, and they’re now spreading that information using this peer-to-peer model.

Thanks to state funding, Martina Sanchez and her colleagues have interacted with more than 4,000 Spanish speakers in Chicago. She said they hope the funding will continue in the spring so they can expand their outreach and tackle misinformation about the vaccine.

Martina Sanchez is passionate about her work, and it comes at a critical time.

Latinos have the highest COVID-19 infection rate in Chicago. And a recent analysis shows that Latinos, on average, are dying of COVID-19 at a much younger age compared to other ethnic groups. According to the analysis, Latinos in Chicago have the highest age-adjusted, COVID-19 mortality rate — a rate four times higher than it is for white Chicagoans.

In a community with a large number of essential workers who can’t work from home, Martina Sanchez and others said the misinformation has contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19. They said many essential workers didn’t take COVID-19 seriously because they believed the pandemic was a hoax.

Martina Sanchez, a promotora de salud, outside a Back of the Yards laundromat

Martina Sanchez, a promotora de salud, stands outside a Back of the Yards laundromat where she shared information with and fielded questions from residents about COVID-19.

María Inés Zamudio

Lilian Jiménez, associate director of the state’s Office of Welcoming Centers for Refugee and Immigrant Services, said she understands the challenges in distributing information in Spanish-speaking communities. And that’s why she likes the promotoras de salud model to reach residents there.

“The unique part of it is that it is a two-way model; it’s peer-to-peer. So our health navigators are going out in the community and sharing this information. And they are getting questions asked,” Jiménez said. “People are not afraid to ask because these are community members, and they have, you know, confianza.”

Jiménez said the state provided $3.2 million in funding, via the federal CARES Act, for this program. The money went to 17 agencies that paid the promotoras directly. By the end of November, 395 promotoras had reached out to more than 10,000 residents.

Leticia Boughton-Price, president of the Illinois Community Health Workers Association, said hiring community health workers to spread information from state public health officials about COVID-19 and the vaccine in communities of color is crucial.

“There’s a specific role for community health workers due to the unique relationship we have with the communities that we serve,” said Boughton-Price. “Whether we look like the communities we serve, we have shared life experiences or disease experiences. We just have a way to connect with those communities that does not happen with other professionals.”

Boughton-Price started working as a community health worker on Chicago’s West Side providing asthma and diabetes education. While she was doing that work, she saw the potential for this model. She said she’s trying to get state officials to recognize the important contributions of community health workers. She wants these workers, who are mostly women of color, to be able to get state certification so that funding is steady.

“Certification is key to securing stable funding and financing for the work of these workers,” Boughton-Price said, adding that most of the funding comes from foundations or grants.

“The state of Illinois has not landed on a structure for sustainable funding for community health workers in Illinois,” she said.

And because of those challenges, additional funding for promotoras de salud to distribute information about the COVID-19 vaccine is not guaranteed.

That work is needed. Many Latinos don’t trust the vaccine.

On a recent Thursday evening, several people trickle inside a colorful laundromat located in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood. The 60639 ZIP code, which covers much of that neighborhood, has the second-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Margarita Sanchez — no relation to Martina Sanchez — has surveyed hundreds of Spanish speakers since October. She’s been a promotora de salud for 24 years.

“When I was a teenager, I would hear my family talk about my uncle. They were asking if he would be attending a family event, and they would say ‘I hope he doesn’t come, because he’s going to get us infected,’ ” she said.

Her uncle had HIV in the ‘80s. She wanted to educate herself about HIV and share that information with her entire family. During the COVID-19 pandemic she’s been working nonstop to inform her community and provide information about where to get tested and where to get food.

“Becoming a promotora was a very personal decision,” she said.

Margarita Sanchez is funny and pleasant. She walks around the laundromat greeting people she knows from her work in schools and other community spaces. She said the community’s knowledge of COVID-19 has gotten better. When the pandemic started, people would tell her the coronavirus wasn’t real. But now, many know someone who’s been infected or died of COVID-19.

Margarita Sanchez conducts a COVID-19 survey at a Belmont Cragin laundromat

Margarita Sanchez, right, conducts a COVID-19 survey with a patron at a Belmont Cragin laundromat.

Manuel Martinez

Now the COVID-19 vaccine is the target of conspiracy theories. During a recent survey, Margarita Sanchez asked a woman from Colombia if she was planning on getting the vaccine. The woman quickly told her no. Margarita Sanchez remained calm and asked why.

During a long explanation, the woman told Margarita Sanchez that she doesn’t trust the government. The woman said she doesn’t trust that it is safe to inject the coronavirus into her body.

“The government is playing with people’s lives,” she said in Spanish.

Margarita Sanchez hears the woman’s concerns. She tried to give her basic information about the vaccine but promised to come back with more information to tackle her fears.

Over the past few weeks, Margarita Sanchez and other promotoras have surveyed over 600 people, and half of them said they did not trust the vaccine. Margarita Sanchez said the reason many Chicagoans don’t trust the vaccine is because of political or religious reasons.

Some question the vaccine because it was developed too fast, while others simply don’t understand how vaccines work, she said.

Getting buy-in from residents is a must because if Latinos don’t trust the vaccine, their communities will continue to suffer, Margarita Sanchez said.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.

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