In the spring of 2020, the line of people waiting to be tested for Covid-19 in the parking lot of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on any given day could be hundreds of people.
The pandemic was taking a heavy toll on the church’s heavily Hispanic congregation, then pastor Bruce Lewandowski realized.
“Time and time again, people have collapsed online. Or we had to call ambulances, ”Lewandowski said. “And some of these people didn’t. It was really scary.
After sounding the alarm, city officials, health officials and nonprofits in the region helped him turn the Sacred Heart of Jesus into a Covid vaccination center.
Now, Baltimore residents of Hispanic / Latino descent – 67.1% of them fully vaccinated – have the city’s second highest vaccination rate, behind Asians, according to health department data.
Community leaders and immigrant advocates are celebrating this milestone as a necessary victory for what has been one of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
But they know, especially with the appearance of the Omicron variant in Baltimore and the Covid epidemics erupting in schools and workplaces, that they must remain vigilant.
“We are winning important battles, but we are still in a pandemic, a pandemic that looks like a kind of world war,” said Pedro Palomino, who heads Somos Baltimore Latino, a news and information medium in Spanish.
Palomino urges all of his supporters, many of whom are high risk frontline workers, not to let their guard down – “no baje la guardia”.
Still, he and other Latinx stakeholders want to highlight the lessons learned from their success – not only to help their community, but to better prepare the entire city for what is to come.
One of the biggest challenges the community faced in the beginning was the abundant misinformation that was spreading about the virus and its vaccines.
“We are still fighting against this,” said Palomino the drink.
It is normal, he said, that many people in Spanish-speaking cultures fall into the trap of “chism”, or rumors. Some are quicker to believe friends or family than they might see in the news, turning communication platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook into primary sources of information and disinformation about Covid.
Lewandowski has seen or heard most of the rumors himself. It points to prominent religious leaders in Hispanic communities across the United States who equated receiving a Covid-19 vaccine with an abortion or called the injection a “mark of the beast.”
“When you equate something good like getting a vaccine with sin, a lot of people of good will and firm faith will say, ‘I’m not going to get it,'” observed Lewandowski, who has been appointed bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Last year.
“Exposing myself really made people believe me,” said Palomino, who took to Facebook to live stream his own vaccination.
So he and the members of his parish community fought fire with fire. They used their ward’s WhatsApp groups to send messages. Covid information sheets were placed in the boxes during the distribution of food to people in need.
Most important, Lewandowski says, were personal conversations, whether on the phone or during a visit.
Palomino came to the same conclusion.
He invited doctors and public health officials to participate in his Facebook Live show to dispel myths about the virus and promote both testing and vaccination. He even shared his own experience of getting sick with Covid with his 60,000 subscribers every step of the way.
“Putting myself forward really made people believe me. . . I said, ‘Look, this is real. It does exist, ”said Palomino, who even took to Facebook Live to live stream his own vaccination.
Act of faith
Medical experts have joined the effort. Dr Kathleen Page, associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins Medicine, was one of many Spanish-speaking clinicians participating in Palomino’s program to answer questions and dispel myths about Covid.
Page says fear in the community is still “real and pervasive” and that many patients make the sign of the cross on themselves just before receiving the vaccine.
“They think it’s a leap of faith, that something terrible could happen,” Page said. “It can be difficult to discern what is true and what is not, so we as doctors and public health officials have a long way to go in communicating things to people.”
Lewandowski remembers a Guatemalan parishioner who came to see him in January 2020, overwhelmed by the sudden and serious illness of his wife.
She had come home exhausted after a long day cleaning hotel rooms. She went to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Thursday and died on Saturday.
While he can’t be sure she was an early victim of the virus, he does know that in April janitors, kitchen staff, construction crews and other worshipers at his church were among his. main targets.
“I think a lot of our people didn’t realize that they were frontline workers, and they sort of thought they’d be immune to that, ”Lewandowski said. “And then all of a sudden it was literally like an avalanche.”
Case rates then and today indicate that the high-risk community is still hard hit.
Residents of Latinx currently have the highest case rate – 171.6 per 1,000 residents – of any specified race or ethnicity, according to Baltimore’s Covid-19 Dashboard
Equally striking was the data from Highlandtown at the start of the pandemic. While most testing sites around Baltimore would show daily single- or double-digit positivity rates, Sacred Heart positivity rates were sometimes as high as 50%.
“There was already recognition in Hopkins that this community was affected,” Page said. “We were seeing a large number of Latino immigrants in hospital wards during the first wave.”
Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, director of the mayor’s office for immigration affairs, said the data and a working relationship with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center is what prompted the Baltimore Department of Health to take action in Highlandtown .
They worked with Lewandowski to set up the Sacred Heart test site before finally passing the program on to Hopkins, said Rodriguez-Lima, who also made appearances on Palomino’s Facebook Live program.
She noted that other community partners were also essential to the effort.
The Esperanza Center, an immigrant resource located in Upper Fells Point, created a hotline that connected area immigrants to the Sacred Heart testing site. Their staff could follow up those who tested positive and match those with severe symptoms and without a primary care doctor with Page or another Spanish-speaking doctor.
“I realized that I had lost a lot of close friends,” said Rogerio Avila, who recently received his first dose of the vaccine.
Now that the Sacré-Coeur site has expanded to offer vaccinations, Page and others continue to spread the word in the community – she even encourages those she inoculates to bring someone they know who needs an injection at their next appointment.
This is how Rogerio Avila, a longtime Baltimore resident from Ecuador, found himself at the Sacred Heart on November 19. He and his wife have heard many rumors about vaccines, but ultimately trusted public health experts.
“I realized that I had lost a lot of close friends” to Covid, said Avila, after receiving her first dose.
He attributes his wait to be vaccinated to his long working hours, but adds that the operation at the Sacred Heart has made it particularly accessible to people whose main language is Spanish.
The Sacré-Coeur clinics, which operate Wednesday and Friday evenings, also offer vaccinations to children.
Heidi Rios, a Baltimore County High School Spanish teacher from Nicaragua, also has a busy schedule, but made sure to take advantage of the church’s Covid clinics, for the safety of her family and students. .
“I always knew that we had to [my kids] vaccinated once approved, ”said Rios, who had just brought in her seven-year-old daughter for her first dose.
Lessons to be learned
While celebrating their progress in making the communities they serve healthier, Lewandowski, Page and others concede that more needs to be done.
Beyond tackling the Covid pandemic amid flare-ups and new variants, they want to use the information learned from the success of the Sacré-Coeur to tackle other public health issues within the Spanish-speaking community. from Baltimore.
“We are looking at how to extend the services now? We talked about mental health issues, physical health and wellness issues, as well as trauma-informed care, ”Lewandowski said. “We try to offer this global or more holistic approach with all these services that can come out of the Sacred Heart.”
Rodriguez Lima agrees that the community has forged connections that will certainly be helpful in tackling a wide variety of big social issues.
“These partnerships and systems have proven to be effective in immunizing immigrants and Latinos,” she said. “We want and must pursue them. “
• Daniel Zawodny is a Baltimore-based freelance paralegal and journalist who deals with immigration law and immigration matters. His writing appeared in Catholic Review and NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) as well as in the drink.