Classmates often stop Alma Gallegos as she makes her way down the bustling hallways of Theodore Roosevelt High School in southeast Fresno, California. The 17-year-old senior is frequently asked by fellow students about covid-19 testing, vaccine safety, and the value of booster shots.
Alma earned her reputation as a trusted source of information through her internship as a junior community health worker. She was among 35 Fresno County students recently trained to discuss how covid vaccines help prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death, and to encourage relatives, peers, and community members to stay up to date on their shots, including boosters.
When Alma’s internship drew to a close in October, she and seven teammates assessed their work in a capstone project. The students took pride in being able to share facts about covid vaccines. Separately, Alma persuaded her family to get vaccinated. She said her relatives, who primarily had received covid information from Spanish-language news, didn’t believe the risks until a close family friend died.
“It makes you want 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 covid vaccine fears persist. According to a 2021 survey commissioned by Voto Latino and conducted by Change Research, 51% of unvaccinated Latinos said they didn’t trust the safety of the vaccines. The number jumped to 67% for those whose primary language at home is Spanish. The most common reasons for declining the shot included not trusting that the vaccine will be effective and not trusting the vaccine manufacturers.
And vaccine hesitancy is not prevalent only among the unvaccinated. Although nearly 88% of Hispanics and Latinos have received at least one dose of a covid vaccine, few report staying up to date on their shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimated fewer than 13% of Hispanics and Latinos have received a bivalent booster, an updated shot that public health officials recommend to protect against newer variants of the virus.
Health providers and advocates believe that young people like Alma are well positioned to help get those vaccination numbers up, particularly when they help navigate the health system for their Spanish-speaking relatives.
“It makes sense we should look to our youth as covid educators for their peers and families,” said Dr. Tomás Magaña, an assistant clinical professor in the pediatrics department at the University of California-San Francisco. “And when we’re talking about the Latino community, we have to think deeply and creatively about how to reach them.”
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