UCLA-led coalition works with minority communities on COVID-19 and vaccine education

UCLA is leading a state-wide coalition aiming to address COVID-19's impact on at-risk communities.

The coalition includes 11 academic institutions and their community partners across California. It has received a $4.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to address COVID-19 among minority communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The coalition is called the COVID-19 California Alliance, or Stop COVID-19 CA.

"We at UCLA and across the state of California feel like it is important to meet the community where they are and address their needs in order to mitigate some of the disproportionate burden. Many of us are also physicians and have been following the COVID-19 pandemic in our own practices and so a lot of realities that are faced by our patients, we're aware of through our practice," said Yelba Castellon-Lopez, a UCLA Doctor and Assistant Professor with Department of Medicine.

Castellon-Lopez said the coalition utilized focus groups to address needs in the community.

"We became aware of some of the needs of the community and one of the things that came up was community members really want to hear from their primary care doctors and from trusted sources and among the trusted sources were doctors," said Castellon-Lopez.

Castellon-Lopez is one of the doctors coordinating meetings with community partners to provide education and information directly to community members. She describes it as a "rewarding experience."

"I'm a Latina physician. I grew up in South LA and it's really been my central mission to address health care disparities and when the pandemic came around, we started to see a disproportionate burden in our communities and so it was sort of a calling to me. As a primary care doctor, and also a researcher, I saw this as a unique opportunity to engage with the community directly and address some of the myths and empower patients just the same way I would in the exam room, but in a different platform," said Castellon-Lopez.

She said it's important to make sure community members have accurate information.

"It's important to have ongoing access to information and in culturally sensitive ways. We have provided town halls. We have provided community organizations with educational sessions that are in Spanish or culturally tailored to the communities that we want to serve. For example, some of us have presented at churches," she said.

Castellon-Lopez said they have been able to focus on specific communities.

"The populations that we've been focused on include the Latino, including mono language Spanish communities, Black or African American community, the Asian, Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Native American Indigenous communities. We've also been working with essential workers, immigrants, the LGBTQ community and with an emphasis and focus on low-income communities," said Castellon-Lopez.

One of the organizations Castellon-Lopez worked with is Vision y Compromiso, a nationally respected organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of underrepresented communities.

"[Vision y Compromiso] is a network of promotores and community workers. They specialize in professional and personal development of promotores and community workers specifically in the areas of health, of education and advocacy. Every year, we complete a community needs assessment and we see what the community is currently needing and then we support those needs either through educational forums, webinars, and health fairs," said Graciela Jimenez, a volunteer and Promotora for the Vision y Compromiso San Fernando Valley Committee.

Jimenez said they saw the need in the community for a webinar about vaccinations and COVID-19.

"We are aware that there's a lot of really valid mistrust and fear in the community so we wanted to be mindful of that, and we wanted to bring an institution that was able to provide information that was both linguistically and culturally appropriate for the community. We were able to receive information that was current, that was reliable, and it was evidence-based, and I think that is so important especially as we try to figure out how to make an informed decision," said Jimenez.

Leticia Ortiz, who is also a Promotora, attended one of the virtual meetings with Castellon-Lopez.

"She is very involved in the community here and it was great to learn from her and she also speaks Spanish. A lot of times in the community, we need people like her that are professional to teach us," said Ortiz.

Ortiz said there is a lot of confusion surrounding the vaccine and she had questions before the seminar.

"There is a lot of confusion about the vaccine because there are things online that say that it is bad, that people die, and that it is not good to get vaccinated because a lot of people put things on social media that are bad and scary," said Ortiz.

Ortiz said the seminar with Castellon-Lopez was very helpful and informational. Ortiz and her husband both got vaccinated.

"We took the first dose and we don't feel any bad symptoms like people said we would," she said.

Ortiz is encouraging others to get vaccinated too.

"It would be very good for everyone to participate [in getting vaccinated] to finish this [pandemic]," she said.

Castellon-Lopez said she addresses some of the myths and fears during her seminars.

"There's a lot of misinformation. There's a lot of disinformation around the vaccine and people don't know what information sources to trust but in general like I said what we've learned is community health clinics are trusted sources of information. Physicians and primary care doctors have traditionally been trusted sources of information so we really are poised well to provide the information that we know about vaccine safety and to answer questions, questions about will it affect my fertility or myths or disinformation that is out there to really unravel those and address them and present the science objectively," she said.

Jimenez said around 50 people attended the virtual event for Vision y Compromiso.

"I think that the individuals that participated in the webinar left really empowered to make that choice and we did hear that they felt a lot more comfortable. They felt safer after hearing all of the information. They were also able to debunk a lot of myths they've been hearing in the community such as being inserted with a microchip or that it could potentially cause infertility problems," she said.

Jimenez is also hopeful people will get vaccinated.

"As soon as the vaccine is made available to you, I do hope that you're able to make the decision to get vaccinated. We're seeing now individuals that are vaccinated can lower a little bit of those precautions and that's coming straight from the CDC today. We have this new guidance that's super heartwarming and gives me so much hope," said Jimenez.

Castellon-Lopez said UCLA plans to continue holding events to educate community members.

"If I could look into the future, we will likely be presenting seminars and opportunities like this for months. If we continue to see disproportionate uptake of the vaccine in our communities and hesitancy then we're here to help," she said.

The grant for the coalition given by the National Institutes of Health is for one year and began on Sept. 9, 2020. 

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