Door-to-door vaccine outreach finds success in Lafayette’s Latino community

Colby Martin and Theresa Rohloff
Colby Martin, left, with ACLA and Theresa Rohloff of Rotary Club of Lafayette at a vaccine distribution event held in July Photo by Robin May

Sonya was finally about to receive her COVID-19 vaccine, but something was wrong. A notation in her medical history — an abdominal issue resolved back in Honduras — snagged on one of the National Guard emergency medical responder’s rudimentary Spanish.

A confusion of verb tenses led the EMR to believe Sonya (The Current has withheld her last name) was symptomatic. The nurse left the room to make a call. Sonya, concerned, caught the eye of one of the event’s organizers who swooped in and clarified the mixup. A moment later, she got her shot.

Nonprofits like Asociación Cultural Latino-Acadiana, which organized this and other vaccine events in the area, are using outreach and familiar faces to respond to stubborn gaps in access to coronavirus vaccines among Acadiana’s growing Latino community. ACLA is also the organization behind the annual Latin Music Festival.

As the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus moves across the state, many Latinos continue to encounter hurdles in their efforts to access the life-saving vaccine. Lack of transportation, language barriers and fears around lost work hours and immigration status have left many in the Latino community unvaccinated despite their desire for the shot and the protection it affords. With federal bodies like the CDC relaxing mask mandates in workplaces and schools, the burden of protecting the public’s health has fallen increasingly onto individuals, leaving people in less privileged communities to fend for themselves as they continue to face down challenges to getting the vaccine.         

Colby Martin, the community outreach coordinator for ACLA as well as a board member for the organization, suspected back in April that there were Latinos in Acadiana who wanted the vaccine but couldn’t access it. After a conversation with Dr. Tina Stefanski, Louisiana Department of Health’s regional director for Acadiana, Martin decided to walk door-to-door in the Ile de Cannes neighborhood at the northwestern edge of Lafayette’s city limits that is home to hundreds of Spanish-speaking households. Knocking on doors with Theresa Rohloff, the president of the Rotary Club of Lafayette North, Martin got the names of 25 unvaccinated residents who wanted the shot. 

“It took less than an hour,” she says. After coming back to Stefanski with names, she was able to coordinate with the Department of Health to organize three vaccine events in June and July near Ile de Cannes.

Sonya, left, awaits her first vaccine dose with a nurse and National Guard interpreter. Photo by Robin May

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation underscores the accuracy of Martin’s hunch: Communities like those at Ile de Cannes are still in need of vaccines. According to the foundation’s data, a third of currently unvaccinated Hispanic adults would prefer to be vaccinated as soon as possible. However, more than half of those who want a vaccine fear its side effects will force them to miss work, and more than 40% are concerned that getting the shot may put their family’s or their own immigration status at risk. The most recent data from LDH shows less than 5% of all vaccines given in Region 4, which includes Lafayette Parish, have gone to people who identify as Hispanic.

“This community is isolated,” Martin says of Ile de Cannes. “Low income, lacking transportation and childcare.” There are 505 single-family apartments in the neighborhood, and she estimates that more than 2,000 people live there. Those without cars have to walk more than 30 minutes to the nearest bus stop at the mercy of frequent summer downpours and the unreliable bus schedule if they want to get into town for a vaccination appointment.

Additionally, large vaccination sites like the Robicheaux Center can be daunting for Spanish speakers, Martin says. By comparison, ACLA’s vaccine events are “in their neighborhood. They can walk here. And they know who we are.”

Martin is Creole, with a mixed South Louisiana heritage and ancestors from Haiti and Spain. She’s been volunteering in different capacities at Ile de Cannes for almost a decade, starting back when she was vice president of the Latin American Student Association at UL.

Thanks to her and ACLA’s efforts, the organization has provided 95 people with vaccines over the course of their three events at Ile de Cannes since June. At their last event on July 14, Martin, Rohloff and two other members of the ACLA headed out into the neighborhood during the final hour of the event to encourage anyone who may have just gotten home from work to stop by the clinic. The four walked together through the brick fourplexes, waving at people they’d met who’d already gotten vaccines. 

One woman asked whether or not she’d get a fever. Concern about side effects is the top reason cited by unvaccinated people throughout the country for avoiding the shot. One of ACLA’s volunteers spoke with the woman in Spanish about her worries, describing what she could expect from the vaccine.

On another street, Martin stopped a passing car — “Espera!” she called — and handed flyers to the men inside. Someone asked how much the vaccine would cost; when she heard it was free, she high-tailed it toward the community center.

Leaning against the second-story railing of an apartment building, Sonya waved at Martin and the others as they passed on the street below. Her daughter Ingrid played with friends in the yard, near a row of pale pink and yellow roses planted in paint buckets by the downstairs windows. Through an interpreter, Sonya says one of her main worries about getting the vaccine was being able to communicate with the nurses or medical providers, as she doesn’t understand English. 

Now that she’s vaccinated, she feels her household will be safer as she continues to look for work, easing the stress of exposure for her and her family.