Alma Gallegos is often stopped by classmates in the bustling halls of Theodore Roosevelt High School in southeast Fresno. The 17-year-old student is asked about testing for COVID -19, the safety of vaccines, and the value of booster shots.
Alma earned her reputation as a reliable source of information through her internship as a community health worker. She was one of 35 Fresno County students recently trained to explain how covid vaccines help prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death, and to encourage family, peers, and community members to stay up-to-date with your vaccinations, including booster shots.
When Alma finished her internship in October, she and seven teammates evaluated their work on a capstone project. The students were proud to be able to carry out this outreach work on vaccines. Alma convinced her family to get vaccinated. She said her relatives, who had received information about COVID through the Spanish-language news, did not believe in the risks until a close family friend died.
“It makes you want to know more,” Alma said. “Now my whole family is vaccinated, but we learned the hard way.”
Community health organizations in California and across the country train teens, many of them Hispanic or Latino, to act as health educators in school, on social media, and in communities where vaccine fears persist. covid.
According to a 2021 survey commissioned by Voto Latino and conducted by Change Research, 51% of unvaccinated Latinos said they did not trust the safety of vaccines. The figure shoots up to 67% in the case of those whose main language at home is Spanish. The most common reasons for refusing the vaccine include not trusting its effectiveness and not trusting the manufacturers of the vaccine.
And doubts about vaccines are not only prevalent among the unvaccinated. Although almost 88% of Hispanics and Latinos have received at least one dose of the covid vaccine, few claim to be up to date on their vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC estimates that less than 13% of Hispanics and Latinos have received a bivalent booster, an updated vaccine that public health officials recommend to protect against new variants of the virus.
Health providers and activists believe that young people like Alma are well positioned to help increase those vaccination numbers, especially as they help their Spanish-speaking family members navigate the health system.
“It makes sense that we view our youth as vaccine educators for their peers and families,” said Dr. Tomás Magaña, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco. “And when we talk about the Latino community, we have to think seriously and creatively about how to reach them.”
Some training programs use student models on campus, while others teach teens how to make their way in their communities. FACES for the Future Coalition, an Oakland-based youth organization, leverages programs in California, New Mexico, Colorado and Michigan to turn students into Covid vaccine educators. And Florida’s Health Information Project, which trains high school freshmen and sophomores to teach freshmen about physical and emotional health, integrates Covid vaccine safety into its curriculum.
In Fresno, the program for young community health workers, called Promotoritos, adopted the model promoters. The promoters They are unlicensed health workers in Latino communities tasked with guiding people to medical resources and promoting better lifestyle choices. Studies show that the promoters They are trusted members of the community, which puts them in a unique position to offer vaccine education and outreach.
“Teens communicate differently, and they get a great response,” said Sandra Celedon, CEO of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, one of the organizations that helped design the internship program for students 16 and older. “During outreach events, everyone wants to talk to the youth.”
The teens who participate in Promotoritos are primarily Latino, immigrants without legal status, refugee students, or children of immigrants. They receive 20 hours of training, which includes social media campaign strategies. For this, they get school credits and last year they were paid $15 an hour.
“No one thinks of these kids as interns,” Celedon said. “So we wanted to create an opportunity for them because we know these are the students who can benefit the most from a paid internship.”
Last fall, Alma, who is Latina, and three other young community health workers distributed covid test kits at local businesses in their neighborhood. His first stop was Tiger Bite Bowls, an Asian fusion restaurant. The teens spoke to the restaurant’s owner, Chris Vang, and asked if he had any questions about covid. At the end of the conversation, they handed him a handful of test kits.
“I think it’s good that they are aware and not afraid to share their knowledge about covid,” Vang said. “I am going to deliver these tests to whoever needs them: customers and employees.”
Another benefit of the program: young people become familiar with careers in the health field.
California is facing a widespread workforce shortage in the healthcare sector, and healthcare professionals do not always reflect the growing diversity of the state’s population.
Hispanics and Latinos make up 39% of California’s population, but are only 6% of the state’s doctors and 8% of medical graduates, according to a report by the California Health Care Foundation.
Alma joined the program in June after seeing a flyer in the school counselor’s office. She said it was her way of helping to prevent other families from losing a loved one.
She is now interested in becoming a radiologist.
“At my age,” added Alma, “this is the perfect way to give back to my community.”