Classmates often stop Alma Gallegos as she makes her way down the bustling hallways of Theodore Roosevelt High School in southeast Fresno. The 17-year-old senior is often asked by fellow students about Covid-19 testing, vaccine safety and the value of booster shots.
Alma earned her reputation as a reliable source of information through her internship as a Junior Community Health Worker. She was one of 35 Fresno County students who were recently coached to discuss how COVID vaccines help prevent serious illness, hospitalizations and death, and how to get your shots, including boosters encourage relatives, peers and community members to stay up to date on
When Alma’s internship was due to end in October, she and seven fellow students assessed their work in a capstone project. The students took pride in being able to share facts about COVID vaccines. Alma separately persuaded her family to get vaccinated. She said her relatives, who learned about Covid mainly from Spanish-language news, did not believe the risks until a close family friend died.
“It inspires you to learn more about it,” Alma said. “My family is all vaccinated now, but we learned the hard way.”
Community health groups in California and across the country are training teens, many of them Hispanic or Latino, and deputizing them to serve as health educators at school, on social media, and in communities where The fear of Covid vaccine remains. According to a 2021 survey conducted by Voto Latino and conducted by Change Research, 51% of unvaccinated Latinos said they do not trust the safety of vaccines. The number of people whose primary language at home is Spanish rose to 67%. The most common reasons for refusing the shot included not believing the vaccine would be effective and not trusting vaccine manufacturers.
And vaccine hesitancy isn’t just prevalent among unvaccinated people. Although about 88% of Hispanics and Latinos have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, few reports are up to date on their shots. The CDC estimates that fewer than 13% of Hispanics and Latinos have received a bivalent booster, an updated shot that public health officials recommend to protect against new variants of the virus.
Health providers and advocates believe youth like Alma are well-positioned to help boost those vaccination numbers, especially as they help navigate the health system for their Spanish-speaking relatives.
“It makes sense that we should look to our youth as Covid teachers for their peers and families,” said Dr. Tomas Magna said. “And when we’re talking about the Latino community, we have to think deeply and creatively about how to reach them.”
Some training programs use peer-to-peer models on campuses, while others teach teens to become fans in their communities. FACES for the Future Coalition, a public youth corps based in Oakland, is leveraging programs in California, New Mexico, Colorado and Michigan to turn students into COVID vaccine educators. And the Health Information Project in Florida, which trains high school juniors and seniors to teach freshmen about physical and emotional health, is integrating COVID vaccine safety into its curriculum.
In Fresno, a junior community health worker program called Promotoritos adopted promotora Ideal. publicist Latino communities have non-licensed health workers tasked with guiding people to medical resources and promoting better lifestyle choices. studies show that promotoras are trusted members of the community, making them uniquely positioned to provide vaccine education and outreach.
“Teens communicate differently, and they get great feedback,” said Sandra Celadon, CEO of Fresno Building Healthy Communities. “During outreach events, people naturally want to talk to the young person.”
The teens who participate in Promoteritos are primarily Latinos, immigrants without legal status, refugee students, or children of immigrants. They go through 20 hours of training including social media campaign strategies. For that, they earn school credit and were paid $15 an hour last year.
“No one ever thinks of these kids as interns,” Celadon said. “So we wanted to create an opportunity for them because we know these are the students who benefit most from paid internships.”
Last fall, Alma, who is Latina, and three other junior community health workers distributed COVID test kits to local businesses in their neighborhoods. Their first stop was Tiger Bite Bowls, an Asian fusion restaurant. The teens huddled around restaurant owner Chris Wang, and asked him if he had any questions about Covid. At the end of their conversation, he handed her a handful of Covid test kits.
“I think it is good that they are aware and are not afraid to share their knowledge about COVID,” Wang said. “I’m going to give these tests to the people who need them — customers and employees.”
The program has another benefit: exposure to careers in health care.
California faces widespread labor shortages in the health care industry, and health professionals do not always reflect the growing diversity of the state’s population. Hispanics and Latinos represent 39% of California’s population, but only 6% of the state’s physician population and 8% of the state’s medical school graduates, according to a California Health Care Foundation report.
Alma said she got involved with the program in June after seeing a flyer in the school counselor’s office. She said it was her way of helping prevent other families from losing a loved one.
Now she wants to become a radiologist.
“At my age,” Alma said, “it’s the right way to indulge.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that does in-depth journalism about health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KNN is one of the three major operational programs in KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a thriving non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.
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