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Vaccine fears in undocumented community stem from years of neglect, organizer says

Mercy Health doctors say they understand and 'we have always tried to maintain the privacy and integrity of their records'
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Vaccine fears run deep in undocumented community, but docs say they’re working to build trust
Posted at 7:04 PM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 20:26:19-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Mercy Health wasted no time in administering the vaccine to communities of color and marginalized groups, including the immigrant and undocumented communities. A few weekends ago, they put together a pop-up clinic on the Southeast side of town at the Browning-Claytor center, vaccinating dozens of people.

Activists said some in the Latino and undocumented communities welcome the vaccine. However, some don't and their fears and concerns should be considered.

“When the pandemic hit, our government wasn’t there for us, the community,” said Sergio Cira-Reyes, an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha. “So, I think this is something that needs to be considered as beyond the vaccine. In order for us to survive this pandemic we need more than just vaccines.”

Cira-Reyes said the Latino and undocumented communities need economic assistance. During the pandemic in 2020, the Latino community made up 40 percent of COVID cases in Kent County, but comprised of only 10 percent of the population.

Many, he said, worked in the service industry and had to go to work during the pandemic. However, they did not qualify to receive unemployment.

“For the unemployment checks that came to everyone, the undocumented community didn’t qualify for them, didn’t qualify for other relief and they were declared essential workers,” Cira-Reyes said during a Zoom interview last week. “We kept the economy going.”

Cira-Reyes said Movimiento Cosecha and other grassroots organizations raised money to help people get by.

He said some people in the community are worried that the vaccine will harm them more than help them, and that it was created too quickly. He believes a lot of the mistrust stems from years of neglect, and the rhetoric from the Trump administration only added to their fears.

Doctors with Mercy Health said they understood their concerns. However, there’s no need to worry.

“There’s a lot of discussion about people being undocumented or not, but I feel that I can practice the way I practice with anybody, that it’s just not a concern to us,” said Dr. Schneider during a Zoom interview alongside Dr. Karen Kennedy. “We maintain the confidentiality of everyone. And, we purposefully work in these centers to offer our services to people who otherwise may not get them.”

Dr. Schneider works in the Sparta Center where the staff treat undocumented patients all the time, he said. They have translators available to help them understand the messages they are trying to communicate.

Dr. Kennedy agreed that their top priority is treating their patients no matter their status.

“The health system is supposed to keep information private. We actually have something called HIPPA, which would penalize us monetarily. Quite a bit of money would be lost if we were to give up information incorrectly to the wrong people,” Dr. Kennedy said, the regional medical director with Mercy Health Physician Partners. “So, even if COVID wasn’t a thing and vaccines weren’t needed for, we have always tried to maintain, in utmost, the privacy and integrity of their records.”

If patients are skeptical of the vaccine, the doctors reassure them that the it is indeed beneficial, Dr. Schneider said. He warns his patients that they may feel "crummy" the next day but it simply means that it’s working.

“We get joy from seeing people make progress towards health goals,” Dr. Schneider said. “We have joy in having people show up for immunizations. We have joy in being able to connect with folks and try to reassure them that this is something that’s good.”

The doctors said that their goal is to build trust.

Cira-Reyes agreed that trust is needed to bridge the gap between the medical field and the Latino and undocumented communities. He said the best way to do that is by allocating resources to the communities, not just COVID relief dollars, and to establish methods of accountability to make sure undocumented individuals are receiving the same quality treatment as everyone else.

“I think they need to build permanent capacity to establish and develop real relationships with the undocumented community, with the Latino Community in general,” he said. “Relationships based on trust that are sustainable and that are growing so that when a crisis like this one happens, it doesn’t catch them off guard.”