Mar 2, 2022 - COVID

Tackling Polish vaccine hesitancy

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Polish-language vaccine event posters from January and February. Courtesy of state Senator Robert Martwick's office

You may have heard about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Chicago's Latino and African-American communities, but less light has been shed on the issue in Polish-American communities.

Why it matters: Overcoming vaccine hesitancy requires careful attention to language, a recent University of Chicago study suggests.

  • And while the city has made progress using messaging primarily in English and Spanish, more needs to be done for the local Polish-American community, according to social service workers.

State of play: Health officials say they don't have specific data about Polish vax hesitancy but have heard about the problem from "some constituent groups."

  • They've tried to address it with Polish messaging on the Vax Chi Nation site, interviews in Polish media, and campaigns with Chicago Fire players.
  • In January and February, state Sen. Robert Martwick, whose 10th district includes a Polish area on the northwest side, co-sponsored vaccine drives at the Copernicus Center using Polish-language marketing.

Yes, but: Attendance has been disappointing, says Martwick's outreach director Alexandra Sobor.

  • "They think it is a hoax, imported from China, or no worse than the flu," Sobor tells Axios of some Polish seniors she spoke with about vaccines.
  • Sobor says she and Martwick have also met with local Polish clergy who are "vocally anti-vaccine."

What they're saying: "You have to win the trust of the community by getting local leaders to talk to the people, not just posting an ad," Polish American Association executive director Kinga Kosmala tells Axios.

Zoom out: Our local picture reflects wider vaccine hesitancy in Poland, where COVID deaths per capita were among the highest in the world this winter due in part to low vaccine rates.

What's next: Kosmala urges health authorities to partner on messaging with trusted figures in the community, like clergy and Polish Saturday school principals.

  • To this point, Sobor says they listed the phone number of a trusted Polish-speaking volunteer on their February vaccine event posters, "to answer any questions and quell any concerns."
soccer poster
The city is using athletes, including members of the Chicago Fire, to help promote vaccinations in the Polish-American community, though the Chicago Fire player they use in this poster, Stanislav Ivanov, is actually from Bulgaria. Photo courtesy of the City of Chicago

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Chicago Fire player the city is using to promote vaccine awareness, Stanislav Ivanov, is from Bulgaria, not Poland.

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