MCW Students Help Address Vaccine Hesitancy in Latinx Community

Concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the Latinx community in Milwaukee’s South Side, Ana Maria Viteri, a second-year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), decided she needed to do something to help. Following the example of her mother, who conducted outreach in the community for years, Viteri wanted to bring valuable information and resources related to COVID-19 and its vaccine directly to residents.

“I thought it would be important if we could encourage higher vaccination rates,” says Viteri, who was born in Ecuador but moved to the United States in 2006 at the age of 9. “Our underserved Latinx community members have been impacted disproportionately by COVID-19.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, communities of color, including Hispanics, in the state have experienced higher rates of death and hospitalizations from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. In addition, Latinx residents are 1.6 times more likely to catch COVID-19 than their white counterparts and have been found to have lower vaccination rates.

“This stems from so many different things – medical mistrust, language barriers, fear of disclosing immigration status,” Viteri says. “There are so many factors that contribute to vaccine hesitancy, so as future physicians, it is important to debunk some of the misinformation.”

Knowing the urgency of the challenge at hand, Viteri reached out to fellow executive board members of the MCW chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA): Jessie Duarte, Marisa Tobes, Tamara Schroeder, Gabriel Lira, Cristhian Gutierrez Huerta, Raquel Valdes, and Laura Carrillo. LMSA, a national organization created to unite and empower current and future physicians through service, mentorship and advocacy, happened to be offering competitive grants through the LMSA Midwest region to support community projects like the one Viteri and her colleagues had in mind.

Raquel Valdes and Laura Carrillo, community service co-chairs for the MCW chapter of LMSA, and third-year medical student, Jose Gomez, put together a grant proposal that was accepted. The award provided funds to purchase face masks to distribute to the community during outreach events with educational materials. The group also collaborated with Al Castro and Shary Perez, representatives of the United Community Center (UCC), a South Side nonprofit, which provided funds for materials and training for LMSA members on how to have conversations about COVID-19 and the vaccine in the community. The Medical College of Wisconsin’s Student Assembly also provided additional funding to support the cause.

“Having the opportunity to collaborate with UCC definitely helped us have a bigger impact. This is the importance of building community partnerships,” says Carrillo.

The group’s first stops were South Side churches.

“In Latinx populations, faith-based organizations are very important to our daily lives,” Viteri explains. “From a cultural standpoint, religion and places of worship play a central role in the lives of many of our Hispanic/Latinx community members who oftentimes turn to spiritual leaders for guidance.”

At the time, there was less information about who the vaccine would be made available to and how to access it, Viteri says, as well as a large amount of false information about the vaccine spreading throughout the community. By speaking to congregants during sermons at church, the group was able to dispel some of that false information and build trust in the vaccine in an intimate and important setting.

“We got a very positive response. Our community members feel so grateful to have future physicians that speak Spanish, understand the culture and have that passion of service,” Viteri shares.

The LMSA members also expanded their outreach efforts to other community events, including back-to-school fairs. Cristhian Gutierrez Huerta, an LMSA member and second-year MD/PhD student at MCW, helped the group coordinate outreach events with the organization Hispanics for School Choice. Originally from California, Gutierrez Huerta viewed this project and his other work at LMSA as extremely beneficial to helping him provide education and better understand his new community.

“LMSA gave me a really good outlet to do that and engage with people, meet with the community and understand local barriers,” Gutierrez Huerta says. “This project helped us filter out the amount of misinformation that exists in a community that can be prone to it.”

LMSA members also participated in community events that offered mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinic services. This allowed residents to have easy access to the shot once they received more information. Although some were still adamant that they didn’t want the vaccine, Viteri acknowledges, some walked right over to the mobile clinic and obtained or signed up to receive the vaccine.

“It was so rewarding to see someone that I had spoken to go and get the vaccine – to see real-life results,” Viteri shares. “As future physicians, we need to take that initiative and give back to our communities.”

“Being part of LMSA is a great way to help achieve that goal,” adds Valdes.

“Being able to impact Latinx lives in Milwaukee and elsewhere is very rewarding and something LMSA believes in,” Valdes says. “It’s really nice to help people see someone who looks like themselves or grew up in a similar community tell them, ‘Oh I got the vaccine, and it works!’”