Oct 20, 2021 - COVID
Removing barriers to vaccinate Polk County's immigrants and refugees
People getting vaccinated at EMBARC'S vaccine clinic.
EMBARC holds a clinic with Vineyard Church in Des Moines in May 2021. Photo courtesy of EMBARC

Vaccine hesitancy is holding back Iowa's ability to reach a meaningful immunization level, but one way Polk County is making headway is through outreach with immigrant and refugee populations.

Why it matters: As of 2018, at least 9% of Polk County's population of nearly 500,000 people are immigrants or refugees.

  • They're a big part of our community, but they face unique obstacles to getting vaccinated, such as misinformation and language barriers.

What's happening: The Polk County Health Department is giving grants and training to local organizations and leaders to encourage them to educate their communities about COVID-19 vaccines, said Nola Aigner-Davis, who's leading the initiative.

  • The department is also paying individuals $20 an hour for vaccine advocacy work. Some are making YouTube videos or holding one-on-one WhatsApp conversations.
  • Church leaders are also becoming important liaisons, since many groups rely on them for their social network.

Zoom in: EMBARC, an Iowa nonprofit that typically works with refugees from Burma, is holding clinics for diverse groups across Des Moines, thanks to grant funding from PCHD and other sponsors.

  • Since January, they've helped vaccinate 600 people through clinics, 18 of which were specifically for the Burma community. They offered rides and translations.

What they're saying: Mu Paw of EMBARC said one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is false information from social media posts.

  • For example, some people in the Karen community believed they didn't need to get the vaccine if they previously had COVID, Paw said. Others were nervous to get it, especially when it first came out.
  • Talking with them and showing them people they know get vaccinated helped alleviate fears.

At this point, what's working is educational outreach through trusted people, Aigner-Davis said.

  • Tangible rewards, such as free Iowa State Fair tickets, have also proven successful incentives. Lotteries are nice — but many families want something they're assured, like a Visa gift card for groceries, Aigner-Davis said.
  • Employers, like Tyson Foods, that have mandated their workers get vaccinated is another method that appears to be making headway.

And for our new refugees: They're offered COVID-19 vaccinations once they arrive in the U.S.

  • Iowa is expecting 1,800-2,000 new refugees between now and next October, Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa reports.
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