A group of community health workers, or promotoras, is taking information about the COVID-19 vaccine directly to Latino communities in the San Diego area.

They are outside supermarkets. They carry flyers with phone numbers to call for assistance to schedule an appointment for the vaccine or to find a place nearby to receive free testing.

They are the moms, aunts or comadres who live in the neighborhood, and know their community well. They converse in the same language, and with their familiarity it’s hard to ignore them.

“Pásele, mascarillas gratis,” meaning, “we have free masks” or “We are giving out information about the COVID vaccine for you to read,” they tell people entering and exiting grocery stores in City Heights.

There are dozens of promotoras, part of the San Diego Latino Health Coalition, educated to answer questions from the community. The idea is to eventually have more out there and in more places.

They want to safely reach those who do not have easy access to transportation or to a computer, or those who don’t have time to call and schedule an appointment because of work.

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“We know our families are not used to, especially our culture, to go to a website to get information,” said Miriam Rodriguez, who has been a promotora in City Heights for 15 years.

“It’s more neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, so (here) they see us, they know us; we are here because we are trustworthy, and we love our community,” she added.

They have found many harbor doubts about the vaccine and potential side effects. Also, they encounter undocumented immigrants who are afraid to share their information or adults who are eligible for the vaccine but did not know it or where to go to get a shot.

“Usually, their concerns come from what they hear from other people, like a broken phone,” said Yoli Rodriguez, a promotora in the community for 16 years. “But that’s what we are here for, to bring clarity.”

Erica López, a school janitor, expressed her gratitude for the community effort, as she recognizes that she herself has doubts about the vaccine.

“We still are a little bit, at least I am, confused about the vaccine,” said the City Heights resident, who received one of the brochures from the promotoras.

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Latinos have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Of the more than 254,000 COVID-19 cases in the county, about 56 percent are Latinos. In contrast, the vaccination rate among Latinos is about 15.6 percent.

These promotora groups have been outside in the communities since before the pandemic. Once the health emergency started it was impossible for them to continue their outreach like before.

Nancy Maldonado, leader of the Latino Health Coalition, explained that after months of conducting campaigns to inform Latino communities, they noticed that there was still a segment of the population that was not being reached.

That is why once the stay-at-home order was lifted, they got to work.

“We know how important it is to hear the message from a trusted messenger or voice,” said Maldonado, who is also executive director of Chicano Federation.

“The promotoras are members of the community, who can speak the language and can relate to the questions, the barriers and the challenges that people are facing. We thought it was a good strategy to shift to specially in this time.”

They believe the program has been successful. They have noticed more people are calling the resource centers advertised in the brochures they distribute.

The resource centers are staffed with Spanish-speaking personnel.