Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Saturday, Aug. 28 @ 6 a.m. / COVID-19

Relationships Key To Vaccinating Del Norte's Indigenous, Hmong, LatinX and Unhoused Communities Against COVID-19

Along with the tacos he serves to friends and neighbors at his family’s shop in Smith River, Miguel Pelayo-Zepeda says he urges them to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Raised in the LatinX farming community that works the lily bulb fields and Alexandre Dairy north of Crescent City, Pelayo-Zepeda says he tells his neighbors about the pop-up vaccination clinic that visits La Joya Market every Thursday.

At a Friday briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services on inoculation efforts in rural ethnic and indigenous areas, Pelayo-Zepeda said he became involved with True North Organizing Network’s outreach because of the isolation COVID-19 has forced on his once tight-knit community.

“There’s quinceañeras that go on every year when we all unite,” he said. “And it’s not just the LatinX population. We invite our teachers. We invite our community members — everybody has a good time at these events. And so, moving into COVID … people weren’t gathering socially anymore.”

Coming amidst an ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases locally fueled by the Delta variant, Ethnic Media Services’ briefing also included input from Melody Cannon-Cutts, program manager for the Del Norte Public Health Branch; Khou Vue, of the Hmong Cultural Center of Del Norte County California; True North’s executive director, Terry Supahan; Daphne Cortese-Lambert, founder of Del Norte Mission Possible; and 16-year-old Thayallen Gensaw, a member of the Yurok Tribe and a Del Norte High School student.

As of Friday, 22 people have died from complications related to COVID-19 in Del Norte County  — two more people than reported the previous day, according to the Del Norte County Public Health Branch.

Fifty-three new cases were confirmed, making for a total of 318 active cases with 20 people in the hospital, according to the Public Health Branch.

On Friday, referring to the surge in local COVID cases, Ethnic Media Services Director Sandy Close said she felt each speaker's input was relevant in the race to vaccinate groups that have a history of government mistrust.

“Del Norte is a microcosm for what it takes to promote vaccines to diverse populations in remote rural regions with limited communications infrastructure,” Close said.

Nearly every participant in the conversation said relationships, trust and getting information to people in a format they could use and understand was important in urging them to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

But Del Norte's vaccination rate continues to lag behind the state average, Cannon-Cutts said.

“Despite these efforts, our fully vaccinated rates are low in comparison with the rest of California,” she said, adding that Del Norte’s public health officer, Dr. Aaron Stutz recently issued a mask mandate for the county. “We’re at 43.6 percent of those totally vaccinated and the state is around 66 percent. We’re experiencing significant vaccine hesitancy in the community. The recent surge we’re seeing has resulted in an increase in vaccination rates, but we have a long way to go.”

Though Del Norte had its first real COVID-19 surge in November and December 2020, Cannon-Cutts said the increase in hospitalizations began recently and up until April 2021, there were only five deaths.

In the last week 10 people have died, Cannon-Cutts said.

The Del Norte County Public Health Branch began providing the first COVID-19 vaccinations in December 2020 and through April 2021 had administered 400 shots at clinics at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds, the Del Norte County Airport and at specialty clinics in outlying areas.

Cannon-Cutts acknowledged True North, the Hmong Cultural Center and tribes such as the Tolowa Dee-ni’ nation and the Yurok Tribe for their help getting people vaccinated.

She also noted that with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent final approval of the Pfizer vaccine as well as an appeal from officials to the community on Thursday, she’s hoping more residents will get the COVID-19 shot.

According to Supahan, however, for many in the local community, final approval for the Pfizer shot wasn’t so much an issue as making sure people had basic information and were able to ask questions and talk to those spearheading vaccine outreach.

Supahan also pointed out that local tribal governments reacted quickly to the pandemic.

“We masked and we socially distanced and we waited for vaccines and were listening to epidemiologists and scientists and trying to get the best information,” he said. “Part of what we’ve seen in our region is that True North has been a bridge between Public Health and the institutions and the hospitals to our communities.”

When asked during the briefing and later about vaccination rates for indigenous communities, Supahan, citing to the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, said those statistics are hard to verify.

According to state data, which includes statistics for American Indian and Alaska Native residents of California, the vaccination rate is about 50 percent.

However, according to Virginia Hedrick, executive director for the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, shots administered through United Indian Health Services, K’ima:w Medical Center in Hoopa and Karuk Tribal Health hasn’t been reported to a state database.

“During early rollout it was most pressing to get everybody vaccinated in the most efficient way, which included not doubling down on reporting,” she said. “Otherwise, Indian health firms report to the federal CDC system in addition to the state.”

According to Lambert, who also founded the Winter Shelter In Place program earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 60 percent of the unhoused individuals she works with are seniors. Many deal with developmental, physical and mental health disabilities, she said. Helping them access services was already a challenge now compounded by the pandemic, she said.

Citing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent Point in Time numbers for Del Norte County from 2020, Lambert said 248 individuals were identified as unhoused and 183 were unsheltered.

However, the real number, she said, drawing from her experience, is closer to 700 people.

“They are more isolated than ever,” she said. “There’s a greater distrust of government agencies because of the disabilities. And in this population, many of them I’ve found as I’ve tried to help with paperwork, is they can’t read. They’re very great at adapting to that, but when we give them printed out information, they’re not getting it and the ones that do know how to read often times have a lot of distrust of government agencies.”

Like Pelayo-Zepeda in Smith River, Del Norte Mission Possible has also focused on relationships to reach the population it serves, Lambert said. She called it “relationship-based case management,” but said it was simply treating everyone as an individual by listening to their situations, addressing the barriers they face and helping them find solutions.

Lambert even admitted that she herself wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19 until recently.

“I felt like I would be a tremendous hypocrite if I didn’t get a vaccination myself,” she said. “I would never ask someone to do something I myself have not done. That personal experience and building those relationships is key to vaccination with this population.”

Though they’re part of different communities, Khou Vue, a representative of Crescent City’s Hmong population and Gensaw, a Yurok Tribal Member, cited COVID-19’s potential impact to the elders in their communities as a reason they took the pandemic seriously.

Vue said the local Hmong community canceled religious rituals such as funerals and weddings because they knew that COVID-19 was real and it was scary. Since many Hmong elders and families don’t have access to Facebook and the Internet, the Hmong Cultural Center relied on phone trees and each family’s clan leader to pass along important information from the Public Health Branch.

Gensaw said he wasn’t worried about getting sick, but got vaccinated to protect others. As soon as the shot was approved for teens, he said he hopped on the band wagon. Gensaw said he’s also shared his story with his friends urging them to get the vaccine, but he doesn’t know how many students at Del Norte High have followed that advice.

"They don't know what kind of effects that can have on older people they're around: Their grandparents, their aunties, their uncles, their little siblings," he said. "There's a lot of families here that have younger siblings that can't get vaccinated."

For more information about getting vaccinated, visit the Del Norte Public Health Branch’s COVID-19 Information Hub.


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