Granite Staters whose first language is not English have had difficulty finding information about how to sign up for their COVID-19 vaccines.
Leaders in immigrant and refugee communities around the state said information about how to get the vaccine has slowly trickled into their communities — mirroring a dearth of information about the coronavirus when the pandemic first hit New Hampshire.
As in the spring of 2020, when leaders in New Hampshire’s Latino, Bhutanese, Congolese and other immigrant and refugee communities took on the burden of translating and disseminating information about the virus, local activists and leaders are taking the lead in distributing information about the COVID-19 vaccines, working with local health departments and nonprofits.
Suraj Budathoki, interim director for Building Community in New Hampshire, a group that provides case management and other services for refugees in the state, said Granite Staters who do not speak English fluently have gotten little information about the vaccine and have struggled to make appointments. Information in languages other than English is available, but he said it isn’t getting through to all communities.
He said even the many Bhutanese home health aides, who would have been eligible for vaccines in the first phase, were unsure how to sign up.
“We’re just taking the matter into our own hands,” said Eva Castillo, longtime community advocate in Manchester. “If we keep our hands crossed, nothing’s going to happen.”
Lost after translation
Trinidad Tellez, a Manchester physician and public health advocate, said the state Department of Health and Human Services has translated critical information into eight languages, plus sign language.
In Nashua, public health director Bobbie Bagley said health information is translated into four languages and distributed on fliers around the city.
The disconnect, Tellez said, is delivering the information to communities. Not everyone knows to look on a state or city website. Public health workers are doing their best, she said, but they’re stretched thin.
“With the pandemic, it’s even harder to reach out to people, but we have to do what we have to do,” Castillo said. She and other outreach volunteers from groups like the Granite State Organizing Project are trying to meet people in bodegas and barbershops around Manchester.
Bagley has been able to use grant funding to hire four community health workers in Nashua, people who have knowledge both about the health care system and who know how to spread the word in their communities.
“What we’ve learned in working with these populations is once the right set of leaders get information, it goes like wildfire through word of mouth,” Bagley said.
But not every area is served in the same way. Clement Kigugu, director of Overcomers Refugee Services in Concord and a pastor, said he sees little information being pushed out into immigrant and refugee communities.
“Nobody is really in charge of giving information,” Kigugu said.
No caseworkers are going into the African communities with which Kigugu works to let people know about the vaccine. Older immigrants and refugees especially are struggling, with both technology and language, Kigugu said.
Social media good, bad
Kigugu said he has seen some information and groups on social media, with information about the vaccine and how to make an appointment.
Tellez helped start a vaccine-focused Facebook page called the Lighthouse NH for Black and Latino Granite Staters, which has information in Spanish. Tellez also has posted videos on that Facebook page and with other groups for Spanish-speaking people in New Hampshire.
But Budathoki said there is plenty of misinformation on social media too, and not nearly enough corrections of falsehoods in languages spoken by immigrants and refugees.
Although she has not met anyone planning to skip the vaccine because of those rumors, Castillo said she is trying to prepare herself to dispel myths about the vaccine’s safety.
She said people need accurate information from trusted community leaders about the vaccine and how to get vaccinated.
Castillo and Budathoki said it would be helpful if a state or local agency would shoulder some of the burden of reaching out to immigrant and refugee communities.
Tellez suggested an “army of community health workers funded by the state or with coronavirus relief funds from the federal government — people from vulnerable communities armed with accurate health information and the know-how to navigate systems like the vaccine registration.”
Private foundations have given small grants to fund outreach work. But Castillo said she has found it necessary to talk with as many people herself as she can.
“You have to just do retail, go all over the place and keep going and keep going,” Castillo said. “If we don’t do it, no one else will.”