NEW BEDFORD — Four in the afternoon is a busy time on the Rite Aid block on Acushnet Avenue in the near North End.
The vans carrying undocumented workers begin dropping off truckloads of immigrants, who travel every day from the city to jobs throughout the region then back to their home neighborhood. Many of them find it difficult to legally obtain driver’s licenses, so they walk home when left off by the vans.
One of those workers, Maria, an Indigenous Guatemalan woman, was walking by last week when she realized that Seven Hills and the CEDC were giving out COVID-19 vaccinations.
The 44-year-old woman is diabetic and works two jobs — one picking vegetables at a farm in Dighton and the other in the kitchen of a restaurant in New Bedford.
During a visit to the nonprofit Greater New Bedford Community Health Center a month ago, Maria said they were going to vaccinate her but postponed the shot because she had a cough.
“Since then, I didn’t have a chance to do it,” she said in Spanish.
Maria, who did not provide her last name, spoke to The New Bedford Light through the translation of Corinn Williams, director of the Community Economic Development Center, which helped Seven Hills stage the mobile vaccine clinic.
Maria said she jumped at the chance to get vaccinated when she saw the vaccine tents in the drugstore parking lot.
The clinic is one of several staged in recent weeks in the heart of New Bedford’s large undocumented Latino immigrant neighborhood in the North End.
It is an area that is a focus of city and nonprofit officials as they try to combat New Bedford’s low vaccination rate. As of July 1, just 39.7% of the city’s residents were fully vaccinated, compared to a 60.4% statewide average.
One of the two groups in New Bedford that far away have the lowest rates of vaccinations are Hispanics (the other is young people), according to Department of Public Health tracking numbers.
The number of fully vaccinated Hispanics in the city is just 24%, compared to 40% of whites, 36% of Blacks and 17% of people who identify as multiracial, which straddles the white, Black and Hispanic communities.
If anyone ever needed a vaccine badly, Maria would be the person who did. She has health challenges that were worryingly evident just two weeks ago.
“I was working out in the heat. I had to go to the hospital in Fall River because I was having heart palpitations,” she said.
Asked why she does such a rigorous job as farm work, given her diabetes, she said, “What can I do? I gotta work.”
Maria said a lot of folks in her community are afraid to get the vaccine, including members of her own family.
“They get scared by different news that they hear,” she said, but after the doctors at GNBCHC told her she needed the injection, she said she decided to get it.
“People in my family are still afraid. So, I’m going to be the good example.”
Williams, who works closely with the city’s Latino residents, said her agency hears a lot of stories that have been published outside the United States about bad batches of vaccines that have led to deaths, including ones in Mexico. The word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire through the community.
“I think the sense of fear is pervasive,” Williams said. “There is a lot of misinformation.”
Standing along the fringes of the parking lot last week were people who watched as others got vaccinated but shook their heads no, saying they didn’t intend to get the shot.
One woman said she would wait until the government or the employers force them. Another young man, seeming the picture of health, smiled and just said no.
Connie Rocha-Mimoso, the head of community health services for Seven Hills, confirmed that there is a large amount of fear in the community.
“I think that’s why education is so important,” she said.
But the education is not going to come from a piece of paper translated into Spanish, she explained. It’s going to come from someone inside their own circle whom they trust.
“It has to be somebody from your culture that understands the barriers and the concerns,” she said.
Misinformation is not the only barrier to getting vaccinated in the Latino community. The health and nonprofit workers said that families who work long hours, with the husband working one shift and the wife working the other, is another big reason.
There is a lack of time and lack of access to health care.
That was the case with Maximo, a 37-year-old construction worker, who like Maria is from Guatemala.
Maximo was walking down the Avenue with his two little girls last Thursday afternoon when he came upon the mobile tent site. He was taking care of the children while his wife works the second shift at a seafood processing plant.
When he saw the vaccination site, he brought the girls home and came back to get his shot.
“I had been hearing about the vaccine, but I wasn’t too sure about where I would go and get it,” he said in Spanish, also translated by Williams. “I just found out today that this was going on, so I decided to come and get it.”
Maximo works outdoors and said he has been trying to be careful about not contracting COVID-19. He had gone to Market Basket the previous day, where another mobile clinic was staged, but he arrived too late.
He also has been trying to find a vaccine that his wife can get in the morning, he said. He knows people who have contracted COVID-19 and were lucky enough to be able to beat it with some natural medicines and home-like remedies.
“God bless all of you who are helping out,” he said.
Trying to encourage participation, the CEDC gave out free tamales for those who attended the clinic in the Rite Aid lot, as well as gift certificates to Latino storefronts on the Avenue for those who got their vaccinations.
They also convinced a group of Mayans who do traditional dancing in colorful costumes to dance in the parking lot as a way of attracting a crowd.
But last Thursday was the first of four days of rain and gray skies, and it poured while Pedro Lucas’ group performed “Dance of the Conquistadores,” a parody of the conquest of the Mayan civilization in Central America by Spanish conquerors.
Lucas outlined how he said the Spanish enslaved the Mayan people and eradicated their memory of their own traditional dances and cultures.
“It’s a Mayan way of kind of making fun of the conquistadores,” he explained.
Lucas, who works as a lobsterman, said he personally had not yet gotten the vaccine but that he intended to.
He acknowledged the fear in the community, saying that if you get the vaccine, there will be no reversing it. But he thinks people will get it as they learn more.
“I think it’s like a 90% chance that you are OK?” he said. “So I now think they are going to come.”
But whether it was the rain, or the fear, or just the sleepy Thursday afternoon, those coming to get vaccines came slowly at the Rite Aid spot.
The clinic vaccinated only between 17 and 20 people on Acushnet Avenue during the rainy three hours they worked. The previous Saturday, at a similar clinic held at Seabra supermarket in the South End, another provider had vaccinated more than 50 in the first three hours of a four-hour time period.
New Bedford’s vaccine rate between the last week in June and the first week in July inched up slowly, from 39% to close to 40%.
But the health care and community workers say they are not giving up, they are committed to this work.
“I think we’re a city that’s working together to make sure we’re not missing anybody and removing all the barriers for people to take the vaccine,” said Rocha-Mimoso.
“These mobile vaccines are so important for people that can’t get access to or go down to their doctors.”
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