‘Glad I’m able to help’: UW Health vaccine educators connect with underserved communities

MADISON, Wis. – COVID-19 has hit close to home for the Hernandez family at the same time it’s kept loved ones far away.

“We have some family members, they passed because of COVID,” Efren Hernandez of Madison said. “It’s hard because you cannot even say bye to them, not even a hug.”

Hernandez said those in the Spanish-speaking community can feel kept at arm’s length, too.

“Sometimes we get that sense we don’t belong here, so I don’t think they can get the vaccine for us,” he said.

He wanted to get the vaccine to protect his family.

“I tried to call,” Hernandez said. “It was really busy or no answer.”

UW Health got ahold of him.

UW Health hires vaccine educators

At a time when the COVID-19 vaccine is more available than ever, some groups still face barriers.

The pandemic disproportionately impacted communities of color, and disparities remain in the vaccination process. State data shows Black people are getting vaccinated at lower rates than white people, and Hispanic people at lower rates than non-Hispanic people, including in Dane County.

UW Health hired seven vaccine educators this year to proactively work with Black, Latinx and Hmong communities. Registered Nurse Anerlee Vang connects with Hmong patients.

“Within the Hmong population or community, the language barrier is such a big problem,” Vang said.

She can help them navigate the scheduling process. Without some extra help, she worries older adults would be left behind.

“For the elders, they can’t get out of their homes. There’s no one at home to help them schedule an appointment or to educate them as to why it is important to get the vaccine,” Vang said. “They’re the most vulnerable to COVID-19, so I’m glad I’m able to help.”

UW Health can help with transportation, which is often a barrier. In some cases, they can bring the vaccine directly to patients.

“We do whatever we can to get these people vaccinated,” Vang said. She also reached out to medically-homed patients of color to get them appointments and information.

As a vaccine educator, Vang can explain potential side effects and clear up concerns.

“They hear rumors all the time, and they get scared or shaken up,” Vang said, adding that she doesn’t want people to be afraid to ask questions. “I make sure they are comfortable before getting scheduled. I’m not here to pressure them.”

‘We feel safety with this vaccine’

English isn’t Hernandez’s first language, and his wife doesn’t speak it, but UW Health was able to help the two get both shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, letting them know how the appointments would work and what to expect.

“It’s better to get a vaccine,” Hernandez said. “You don’t want to get COVID. It’s really bad.”

He, his wife and 11-year-old daughter know that firsthand.

“Everything changed since we got COVID,” he said. “My wife, she’s diabetic too, she got the worst part, honestly. It was a little scary.”

His daughter, who isn’t old enough to get vaccinated yet, had another COVID scare in recent weeks, but tested negative.

“We really recommend a lot of people get the vaccine, honestly,” Hernandez said. “This vaccine really helps a lot for us, (personally) and my family, I speak for them too. We really feel safety with this vaccine.”