For NKY's undocumented immigrants, COVID-19 vaccination comes with fear of exposure

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Posted at 6:35 PM, Mar 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-23 10:46:53-04

Representatives of the Esperanza Latino Center of Northern Kentucky were at Dr. Eric Soper’s free dental clinic on Thursday — not to receive examinations, but to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic with families who are in the United States illegally.

“I’m worried, because it's very contagious,” said Elvira, a woman who came from Guatemala to the United States five years ago.

Her 5-year-old son was one of Soper’s patients on Thursday. Elvira said her fear of COVID-19 is mostly for him. Despite that anxiety, and despite the risks that she’ll catch the novel coronavirus herself, she’s too afraid to attempt a vaccine appointment.

“I trust in God that he won't get sick,” she said. “I haven’t gotten COVID yet, and I just trust God that I won’t get it.”

Immigrants like Elvira, who live in the United States without documentation, are among the most vulnerable people in the country. The pandemic curtailed their already limited access to health care.

Without compassionate outreach and Esperanza-run vaccine clinics, those in Northern Kentucky might not be able to get the shot. They might not even know it’s safe.

"Some of it has to do with the language barrier, some of it has to do with economic situation, and then some is an aspect of some fear,” said Reid Yearwood, Esperanza’s executive director.

Just like their documented neighbors, some worry about the safety of the vaccine and struggle to get trustworthy information; others have reservations unique to their community, such as the fear that signing up for an appointment will attract attention from immigration officials.

The Department of Homeland Security announced in February that immigration and customs agents "will not conduct enforcement operations at or near vaccine distribution sites or clinics,” but that announcement hasn’t reached everyone who might be affected by it. And even people who’ve seen it might not believe it.

"We've been trying to spread awareness about the truth of the vaccine and then also have people rely on us or reach out to us if they have any questions,” Yearwood said.

He hopes building relationships will persuade more vaccine-hesitant members of the area’s immigrant community to sign up for their shot.

It might already be working, he added. Three hundred people are in line for a Northern Kentucky Health clinic set up with Esperanza’s help. It’s been such a success, in fact, that Yearwood anticipates another.

“I think it comes down to the trust,” he said.