Every Saturday and Sunday, Daniela Racines leaves her home in Norcross, in Atlanta’s northeastern suburbs, gets into her car, and drives to sites around Gwinnett county and surrounding suburbs.
Her job is to find the unvaccinated. To reassure them, inform them and ultimately, if she’s successful, to lead them to a chair where they’ll get their first shot of Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson. And if she needs to, she’ll hold their hand.
Daniela works with the Latino Community Fund of Georgia (LCF Georgia). In a state where vaccination rates are already below the national average, it's a tough job - many members of LatinX communities here have been slow to get the jab.
At a clinic in a brick building off the corner of Buford Highway and Jimmy Carter Blvd - two major Atlanta arteries lined with hundreds of immigrant-owned businesses, Daniela is helping to organize a vaccination drive.
In February and March when LCFG started hosting events, up to 300 people, sometimes more, would turn up for their first dose. When I spoke to Daniela in June she said those numbers started dropping. “Right now, it’s maybe 40. We had only 10 people pre-registered today. Just 10. The rest who came in are walk-ins.”
So Daniela went on a recruiting mission. She marched across the six lanes of Buford Highway to the front of a Dollar Tree. “That’s my way of working. If I’m in an area where I can talk to people, I go there. We just talk to people, tell them where we are, when we’ll close, and that there’s no line.”
She’s not sure if anyone ended up coming, and admitted that targeting people outside the Dollar Tree on a hot, humid Atlanta afternoon isn’t ideal - they’re in a rush and don’t have the time to talk, let alone be convinced and walk into a vaccination clinic.
“When we had an event at the La Vaquita flea market, it was different. That was also a population that didn’t want to get vaccinated, but they were hanging out, more relaxed, so we had more time to talk to them, and a lot of them decided to get the vaccine.”
Since the Delta surge, Daniela has been organizing at least double the number of vaccination events than earlier in the summer. And the numbers of people getting vaccinated at each event are going up. Slightly. “Right now it’s about 40 or 50. It depends on the site.”
She’s also shifted her strategy to focus on places where people already are - like churches on Sundays. And, the LCF Georgia has hired two navigators tasked with addressing people’s fears around vaccination.
“Right now we’re targeting the most difficult population. The ones who don’t want the vaccine. They don’t have a lot of information, they’re scared, and they’re reading a lot of information on social media that’s feeding into their fear. And they don’t have the right people to answer their questions.”
Daniela and her co-workers have been setting up Facebook Lives with Spanish speaking doctors to address fears around everything from the vaccine causing infertility to changing menstrual cycles. “I know a lot of people were talking about that. I heard it in my country, but in the past week, I’ve heard those questions here too.”
It’s not just fears around the vaccine itself that’s holding people back. Gwinnett county’s undocumented residents had been routinely targeted by ICE for deportation under the Trump Administration. “We always promote our events telling people that they don't need to have insurance or ID."
Georgia joins a handful of other Southern and Midwestern states that have fallen behind the national average in vaccination rates. 35 percent of LatinX community members in Georgia have received one dose, lower than the national rate of 43 percent for the community. In Gwinnett, the second largest county in the state and home to one of the largest Hispanic populations, it’s even lower. Just 34 percent of Hispanic residents have received their first shot.
Dr. Audrey Arona is the district health director for Gwinnett, Newton, and Rockdale (GNR) Counties. She says a few months ago the health department’s vaccine events drew around 2500 people. By late June, numbers were way down. “A win for us was to have a mobile clinic where we get double digits.”
Since the Delta surge those numbers have ticked up to about 120 people per day during the week, and on the weekends, anywhere from 400 to 500 people are getting vaccinated in the area, according to the GNR Health department.
“The only way out of this pandemic is vaccination. Hospitalizations from COVID are nearly 100% in the young and unvaccinated. While the delta variant is certainly more contagious, it’s important to remember it’s still COVID-19, so the same measures can prevent the spread. It isn’t too late to increase vaccination in our communities. The vaccine is safe, it’s free, and no ID or insurance are required,” said Dr. Arona.
Daniela says the pandemic changed almost everything for her. Two years ago, she moved from Quito, Ecuador to Athens, Georgia to study. Back in Ecuador, several members of her family contracted COVID - her father, grandmother, aunt and two cousins. “It was awful. In the beginning, so many people were dying, just on the streets. There weren’t beds in hospitals. People were dying in their homes.” Thankfully, all of her family members recovered.
“When you live in a country where your language isn’t the main language and you don’t read enough quality information in your language that can help you process all this...what are your choices? At the beginning we only had those big pharmacies offering vaccines to anyone with insurance and who speaks English. You barely could find anyone who speaks Spanish. Our job is telling them we are going to be there, we are going to be there for them to answer their questions, IN Spanish.”
As she speaks, she has an eye on a young man in a t-gray shirt sitting in the vaccination chair next to a pharmacist about to administer the injection. “Yes, we need more people vaccinated, Georgia has the lowest numbers compared to other states in the U.S. But even if it’s one vaccine, one person, you’re saving one person’s life.”
A crowd of people are now surrounding the young man. The pharmacist says, “Relax, I’m not going to hurt you. Are you ready?” The young man’s mother comes and cradles his head. Daniela walks up and takes his hand “Mirame a los ojos” she says. Look into my eyes. She rubs his shoulder.
“There you go!” says the pharmacist. The small team of people around him cheer.