A week ago, 68-year-old construction worker Rogelio had no idea how he would be able to get his COVID-19 vaccine.
He doesn’t have a doctor to look toward for answers.
Rogelio is an undocumented immigrant from Acapulco, Mexico, meaning his options are limited. The Daily Tar Heel chose not to release his last name to protect his status.
“Sometimes I think about whether I will get the virus when I’m working around so many people,” Rogelio said. “It’s something that I think about every day.”
That changed when a representative from La Semilla — a Durham faith-based advocacy group for Hispanic/Latinx residents and immigrants — stopped Rogelio at a mall in Garner last Thursday to tell him about a refugee vaccination event taking place that same weekend. His prayers were answered.
“I’ve been waiting for an opportunity,” Rogelio said.
Rogelio is one of roughly 325,000 undocumented immigrants living in North Carolina, according to data from the American Immigration Council from 2018.
Research from the Center for American Progress shows undocumented immigrants are more likely to work essential jobs in the United States, with an estimated 5 million of them in the workforce.
Rogelio is part of Group 2 in North Carolina's vaccination plan, which includes those who are 65 years and older. The state will begin vaccinating its next subset of Group 3 — which includes people in jobs like critical manufacturing, foods and agriculture and transportation — beginning on March 10. Though the state is currently in Group 3, it is vaccinating educators ahead of the remaining group members.
“It is my hope and my prayer that (the vaccine) will make a difference in the lives and homes and the neighborhoods where immigrants and refugees live,” Edgar Vergara, a pastor in Durham who oversees La Semilla, said.
Why the vaccine is important for immigrants
Katherine Ward, a community organizer for Refugee Community Partnership, said vaccinating immigrants is especially important because they have fewer opportunities to receive federal or state aid if they were to lose their jobs or stop working due to the virus.
“They have to keep working,” Ward said. “They have to keep putting themselves at risk, and so to be able to get vaccinated to reduce some of that risk is really important.”
Last April, Rogelio said he was forced to prioritize his health over working at the construction site when he stopped working for four months. He depended on financial support from his wife and four children to stay afloat.
“If I don’t take care of myself then who is going to take care of me?” Rogelio said.
Vergara said vaccinating immigrants will allow them to contribute to the economy and workforce with less risk.
“It is our number one weapon against this virus,” he said.
Rocendo Rosas — an immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico — said he always makes sure to bring hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol and hand soap whenever he works a shift as a landscaper in Raleigh.
Last June, the 70-year-old was diagnosed with COVID-19. Although he only felt mild symptoms, Rosas was unable to work for three weeks. He traced the infection to one of his neighbors, who passed the virus along to several of the tenants living on his floor that week.
Now, Rosas said he is extra precautious. After his boss hands him a white envelope with the day’s paycheck, Rosas makes sure to wash his hands as soon as possible and not touch his face.
“If you don’t take care of yourself then that’s a problem,” Rosas said. “Many times people forget to take things seriously. They say we shouldn’t care and it shouldn’t be like that.”
Addressing mistrust in the community
Adam Clark, office director for World Relief Durham, said immigrants sometimes feel hesitant to take the vaccine because it involves taking part in a federal and state process, even if the state has said individuals are not required to have a government ID at vaccine sites.
“Undocumented immigrants have a lot of fears doing anything official that could get them on a government radar that may result in added scrutiny to their status,” Clark said.
He said they may also feel mistrust because of corrupt and abusive governments or unsanitary health care practices back in their home countries.
John Hertier, a student at Durham Technical Community College, said his 45-year-old mother Odette Nyantore didn’t want to be vaccinated for weeks because she feared the possibility of negative side effects or a doctor using unsanitary equipment.
They’ve heard stories of doctors who would sometimes use the same needle on multiple people and not clean their equipment in Minembwe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nyantore wasn’t convinced until her nephew, a doctor, explained the genetic makeup of the vaccine, the reality of the side effects and how the vaccine is important to staying safe.
“I understand where they were coming from,” Hertier said. “Most of them don’t trust the vaccine. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get it in the first place.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Clark said his organization and other local immigrant advocacy groups have served as a platform for immigrants to get answers to the questions they need, like whether immigrants must present an ID to get the vaccine.
But he emphasized that immigrants are often in the dark when it comes to information regarding the pandemic. A week before Durham Public Schools began remote classes in August, multiple immigrants called World Relief asking how they can arrange bus transport for their children, under the assumption that there would be in-person classes.
Clark said information and resources should be readily available to immigrants from a variety of different languages and platforms in order to reach them. This is especially true when it comes to immigrants living in the Triangle area who speak less common languages.
“Our clients tend to be the last people to hear about anything that is vital and has to do with public health information,” Clark said.
A study from North Carolina Central University's Advanced Center for COVID-19 Related Disparities in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services found that open and consistent discussions about the vaccine's side effects, safety and effectiveness can help those from marginalized backgrounds over hesitancy with the vaccine.
The study found that only 58 percent of Latinos and 63 percent of African Americans in North Carolina were willing to take the vaccine, versus 78 percent of white individuals.
Luisa Pereche, a 64-year-old immigrant from Chile, found out about La Semilla’s vaccination event through a WUVC-DT news broadcast last week and quickly made plans for her and her husband Jose to attend.
“We were so happy because we’ve been trying to get vaccinated for the last month,” Pereche said.
They made calls to local health centers and have been put on the Wake County vaccine waitlist but to no avail.
So, when they finally got the vaccine, all was peaceful. As refugees sat roughly six-feet across from each other shortly after being vaccinated at the North Carolina Conference Building, Luisa and Jose sat next to each other, holding hands.
They were one step closer to finally being immune.
“We were calm,” Pereche said. “We knew our time would come.”
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