State reaches out to Iowa dioceses on vaccine access

Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DES MOINES — Getting vaccines to underserved populations in Iowa — immigrants, refugees, Hispanic, African American and other communities — needs to happen through their faith communities and other local groups they trust. Representatives of Iowa’s four dioceses emphasized that message during a March 26 conference call with staffers from the Iowa Governor’s Office.

Craig Cooper/Genesis
Sarah Smith, D.O., of Genesis Family Medicine, vaccinates Tracy Diaz of Davenport at the Genesis Vaccination Clinic in the former Dick’s Sporting Goods in Davenport. More than 4,000 doses of the vaccine to protect people from COVID-19 were delivered last week, the first week of the clinic.

Public Relations Manager Heather Nahas of the Governor’s Office organized the conference call because “we want to ensure vaccine equity for all Iowans. That includes minority populations, immigrants, refugees and other underserved populations. The church has a unique opportunity to reach those communities and their other community partners.”

She made a commitment to the eight diocesan representatives on the call to “identify opportunities where we can partner with you and understand your ability to reach the various communities in your dioceses.” The state does not want to disrupt efforts already underway.

Religious Supply

Concerns raised around the state about underserved populations lacking access to vaccines prompted the call to action. Conference call participants reiterated access issues: language barriers, lack of computer access and transportation to clinics and a mistrust of government.

“Our interest is trying to help local community efforts, those trusted faith and community leaders, working with our parishes, and making sure they can host pop-up clinics if they are available,” said Kent Ferris, director of the Davenport Diocese’s Social Action Office.

People working in meatpacking plants in the Davenport Diocese, represent “multiple languages and religions and are not just members of the Catholic Church,” said Glenn Leach, a longtime diocesan volunteer. Many of them trust leaders from their native lands who serve in their faith or secular communities, such as the Burmese community in Columbus Junction. Trust is essential; the fear of deportation discourages immigrants without documentation. Other immigrants and refugees fear the government because of experiences in their homeland.

Tom Chapman, Executive Director of the Iowa Catholic Community, said Iowa’s Catholic schools have been working closely with local health departments throughout the pandemic and those relationships create opportunities for collaboration with Community Health Care centers.

Deacon Mark Prosser of the Diocese of Sioux City recommended an even more granular approach to reaching underserved populations, taking the vaccine to their neighborhoods and even apartment buildings. State officials need to keep in mind that some of the diverse populations cannot read their native language, which makes traditional forms of communication less effective. He suggested video messages and talking points for priests and other community leaders to share with underserved populations. Working with Community Health Care centers, which work closely with underserved populations, is crucial, he said.

Nahas thanked the conference call participants and asked each to provide a list of possible contacts to host a vaccine clinic, the population to be served, and suggested key messages to increase people’s willingness to receive the vaccine. She and other state staffers on the call will brief Gov. Kim Reynolds about the meeting and begin to move the vaccine equity process forward. “This is just the first of many conversations to come,” Nahas said.

“I am pleased that the governor’s office seemed concerned,” Leach told The Catholic Messenger afterwards. “I am more pleased that we were able to go beyond what the church could do personally to what the larger community of the dioceses could do if engaged. It is really through the immigrant/refugee community-based organizations that the work will get done. The governor can best serve these communities by working through those organizations.”

Leach’s recommendations for the next steps:

• Get vaccines to Community Health centers.

• Establish a relationship with the Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) that the underserved populations accept and respect.

• Determine which of these groups can arrange for vaccinations directly or through Community Health Care center mobile units or Proteus, which offers health care for farmworkers. “The Mary Treglia Community House in Sioux City is an outstanding example of an NGO that provides a full range of services to immigrants and refugees,” Leach said.

• Establish a working relationship with the Iowa Human Rights Commission, which has multiple contacts within the communities.

• Provide Nahas with a list of contacts and encourage those contacts to email her with a statement of the conditions they see and their ability to respond.

Vaccination needs to happen ASAP, Leach said. “In virtually all cases we are talking ‘essential workers,’ many of whom, particularly at the packing plants, are at greatest risk of exposure and once exposed, passing it on to the larger community. We are concerned not only for the immigrant/refugee worker and family populations but the folks that they see and can expose. Father/mother exposed at work. Pass to children. Children go to school, play with and expose others. Parents shop, expose others.”

“Pop-up clinics are the way to go. As Mark said, these good folks will not go to hospitals, massive government tents or in the case of Davenport, former stores in a mall. They would likely avoid a church-based site if there were a lot of people involved as ICE has previously staked out such gatherings.”

Leach also referred to mobility and computer access and computer knowledge aspects. “We need to empower ways of reaching the retirement communities, handicapped development centers, hearing and vision support groups, LGBTQ organizations, anyone outside the mainstream. Again, mobile clinics are the answer there too.”


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