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Strong COVID-19 Vaccine Demand May Mask Concerns Among Communities of Color

Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio

Overall demand for COVID-19 vaccinations is strong in the Peoria area and statewide. But that high demand can mask a hesitancy among some groups to roll up their sleeves and get the shot. This is especially true among Black and Latinx communities.

It's an issue local public health officials are addressing on multiple levels in the quest for herd immunity through widespread vaccination.

More than 19,000 people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in the Tri-County area since December. That's included frontline healthcare workers and long-term care residents, so far.

There hasn't been a major lack of demand as of yet. But upon drilling down, enthusiasm is far lower among some communities.

With an 80 percent vaccination rate needed among the general population to achieve herd immunity, public health officials are launching a media blitz to encourage widespread acceptance of the vaccine.

Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson says the health department is partnering with the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria to survey specific communities about their concerns at the ground level.

"We can talk about it in a very academic way. But it can come down to something as simple as, there's two different brands. There's a third brand coming to the market, Johnson & Johnson. Which one's the best? So we have to be able to digest that information and be able to approach them," she said.

Another component of the outreach strategy is identifying "champions" to advocate for vaccination on a more personal basis.

Catalina Zavala at the Peoria Friendship House is one of those champions. She's worked with the Latinx community for more than 40 years. She said she's heard some of her clientele  say the vaccine is "from the devil."

"There's a fear in the community. Yes, there's a fear. A lot of fear. And right now, it's pretty bad," Zavala said.

Chris Wade agrees. He's another advocate, and the chair of the Peoria NAACP's health committee.

For people of color, Wade says fears of the COVID-19 vaccine are compounded by distrust of the medical community and the politicization of the virus.

"You'll hear people say, oh, it got rushed out too fast, and with the fact that it's tied to a certain administration that a lot of people have a lot of issue with right now," Wade said.

But for Wade, any reluctance is outweighed by a responsibility he feels towards his partner, family, and community.

"My push is to really meet people where they are, talk about that fear, explore that fear, but hopefully, demonstrate and show to people that yes, I got the vaccination," he said. "I was wary at first, but I had to put in a leap of faith and do what's right."

That sentiment is echoed by Dr. Tamara Olt, a Peoria OB-GYN and the founder of Jolt Harm Reduction. As a health worker, she was among the first people in the area to roll up her sleeves and receive the shot.

She says she understands the reasons for hesitancy among communities of color, but hopes health workers leading by example helps assuage some of that reticience.

"A lot of the African-American and Hispanic community, they're really out there first line, working in hospitals and the service industry, and just constantly being exposed," Olt said. "So I hope that they will trust, especially when they see medical staff not hesitating to get the vaccine."

Zavala said she's citing the stories of those who took the plunge to convince others it's safe.

"A lot of people have done it already that I know, and nothing happened to them. So I have examples of people that had it, and nothing happened. They're still working," Zavala said. "And I specify that we need to do it so we can finish this pandemic."

Zavala also plans to get vaccinated herself.

And it's those personal stories that Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson is banking on.

"It's always good to make sure that, if you are interested in getting vaccinated, you get vaccinated. And share that story with others," Hendrickson said. "A lot of times, we can talk about it, but you know, peer-to peer communication is going to be strong."

Currently, Illinois is heading into the 1B vaccination phase , which covers people over age 65 and frontline, non-healthcare workers.

Illinois health departments are being overwhelmed with inquiries about vaccinations. In the Peoria area, officials are asking you not to call or email. Instead, wait to be notified by your health care provider or health department about your opportunity for a turn.

WCBU Story

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Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.