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How Vaccination Efforts Are Targeting A Vulnerable Demographic: New Orleans Day Laborers

WWNO Westwood undocumented vaccine 1.jpeg
Rosemary Westwood
Physician assistant Danis Walker vaccinates Florentino Roman, a construction worker, on the curb of the road outside a Lowes Home Improvement store in New Orleans on June 11, 2021.

It’s early on a Friday morning in June. Cars whizz by on Elysian Fields, and in a sprawling Lowes parking lot, day laborers wait for work. On a wide, grassy curb at the side of the road, Danis Walker is pulling out COVID-19 vaccines from a cooler in the back of a car.

“Y’all, we burnin’ up. And it's already seven in the morning, underneath the sun, we are underneath an oak tree,” Walker says. “But it’s okay, it’s cool, and we are out here to service the people.”

Walker is a physician assistant at the clinic CrescentCare and one of a handful of employees who’ve set up a table and chairs for this pop-up vaccination clinic. It’s part of an effort to give shots to a group facing a notably higher risk: day laborers.

Day laborers, many of them undocumented, came to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina, and they have not stopped building. Not even during the pandemic, when construction was deemed among the essential service industries that never shut down.

That’s one of the reasons that, early on, case rates of COVID-19 among the Hispanic community here dwarfed those of other groups. At one point last May, Hispanic people made up 20 percent of COVID-19 cases in New Orleans, despite being only six percent of the city’s population.

'There Are A Lot Of People Who Are Afraid'

On this morning, a man walks up to the table in jeans and a T-shirt. His name is Florentino Roman. He’s 52. He works in construction, and he’s here for his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

“The first time I came to get the vaccine was because a friend called me who was at Lowes,” he says, “and that's when I came.”

He says he tells everyone he can to get the shot to end a pandemic that has killed close to 4 million people across the globe and more than 10,000 people in Louisiana. Roughly 10 people continue to die from COVID-19 in the state every day.

I asked if he thinks that for those who don’t speak English, and especially for people who are undocumented, going to a clinic can be daunting.

“There are a lot of people who are afraid, because they don't understand, they don't know, and they think that if they go to a clinic, they are going to be asked for some documents or identification,” he says. “That's why there are a lot of people who don't go to the clinics.”

In nearly a dozen pop-ups like this one, CrescentCare has vaccinated over 140 people, most of them men, and many of them day laborers. The median age is in the late 30’s — a demographic with sluggish vaccination rates in Louisiana.

'We Cannot Wait For People To Come To Our Health Center'

Another regular pop-up clinic is hosted by Taqueria DF, one of the food trucks that posts up underneath the Pontchartrain Expressway, near a Home Depot, to feed the day laborer lunch crowd.

CrescentCare’s Dr. Jason Halperin keeps the vaccines in a $750 luxury cooler he found online. It comes with a temperature control and a car plug, and it’s typically marketed to upscale campers and California’s soccer moms.

He says the people he’s vaccinated here work from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, so he’s catching them during the lunch rush.

“We cannot wait for people to come to our health center, we need to go out to where our community is,” he says. “It is our responsibility. And it's how we get through this.”

Staff spend a lot of time fielding questions, some about the safety of the vaccines, others about privacy.

“The most common question is: ‘When I get vaccinated, who was informed that I'm vaccinated? What information needs to be provided to the government? And how would they use that information?’” Halperin says.

“And I must say, that is not only from the immigrant community, we hear that from all different people throughout this city,” he adds.

He tells patients that the state health department does not distribute identifying information to other agencies, including immigration enforcement.

WWNO Westwood undocumented vaccines 2.jpeg
Rosemary Westwood
Marita, 37, stands in front of her fruit and snack stand under the Pontchartrain Expressway in New Orleans on May 28, 2021.

A few steps from the taco truck, Marita, 37, who didn’t want to give her last name, sells snacks and fresh fruit.

She says she got a shot of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine from a clinic on the West Bank last month. Since the pop-up clinic began setting up at the taco truck, Marita has started posting videos to social media encouraging others to come get the shot. She says people have seen her videos online and come for the vaccine. And she urges anyone who comes to buy mangos to go get the shot.

“I ask them, ‘Have you already been vaccinated?’ and they answer, ‘No.’ And then I tell them, ‘Now is the time, this is your chance,’” she says. “Because many of us don't have papers and we think, how are we going to be able to get vaccinated? I tell them, ‘Now is your chance, because they don't ask for identification.’ It's good for everybody, so we can receive this benefit and it's completely free.”

Halperin says word is spreading.

“We'll have a day laborer, and he'll come and then he'll say, ‘Wait, my sister's here, I need her to come as well,’” he says. Then they’ll bring a niece or nephew.

“So we're seeing whole families now get vaccinated by us coming to the community.”

'A Bright Spot' For Vaccine Equity

Outreach to the Hispanic community in New Orleans jumpstarted after the city saw the high rates of viral spread a year ago. The concern went beyond day laborers.

The undocumented Hispanic community is overrepresented in janitorial, restaurant and other service industry jobs, all of them deemed essential during the shutdown. That meant a higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus, which translated to higher hospitalizations and deaths. So did the increased likelihood of living in multigenerational houses, Avegno says, in a trend that played out across the country.

“Many of these jobs do not come with paid benefits or benefits at all. So [you] can't take off work if you're sick, or if a family member is sick, and you want to quarantine or you have to stay home,” says Dr. Jennifer Avegno, director of the city’s health department.

Since the vaccine rollout began, there have been a series of vaccination events in the region and targeted messaging to the city’s Spanish-language news media.

Avegno says all indications are that these efforts are working.

“What I'm hearing is that there really is more of a widespread acceptance of the vaccine than we anticipated, which is a really a bright spot for us,” she says.

In the state health region that covers New Orleans, vaccination rates among Hispanic people come close to matching their percentage of the population. Data from the Louisiana Department of Health shows they comprise 7.78 percent of vaccinations and about 9 percent of the population.

And vaccinations are now accelerating among the Hispanic population in Louisiana, while they’ve slowed among white people and plateaued among Black people, according to data from the Kaiser Health Foundation.

Marita says she knows two people who have died from COVID-19, and has friends who’ve recovered. She says it makes her feel good to help others get vaccinated.

“It is something very important and we should not leave it for another day, this is the moment,” she says. “If we have the possibility to do it now, don't wait any longer,” she says.

She adds: Tomorrow is maybe too late.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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