By Anne Blythe
Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti is a Duke pediatrician who readily acknowledges that she can encourage teens to get vaccinated and give them all the reasons why she thinks they should, but the reality is that their peers are likely to have more influence.
That’s why LATIN-19, an organization that Maradiaga Panayotti and other Duke health care workers founded at the start of the pandemic, is raising money to start a program through which teens can become vaccine ambassadors in Durham communities and get paid for it.
The organization is partnering with ISLA, a Triangle-based organization that works to build youth leadership with Spanish language and cultural immersion programs.
“These Latinx youth ambassadors will communicate directly with families in their own communities through social media and other events on why it is so important to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Maradiaga Panayotti said.
The idea builds on the kinds of community health worker programs that are widely used throughout Latin America. Trained workers go out into neighborhoods, to homes, workplaces and places outside traditional health care settings to provide public health information.
With bilingual skills and a cultural understanding of the communities, the teens will be trained to empower their peers and Hispanic families to make informed decisions about COVID-19 vaccines.
“We immediately jumped in,” said Natalia Rivadeneyra, policy research and advocacy manager at ISLA. “A goal is to see public health provided by real agents of change.”
Changing the trajectory
One in three pediatric deaths from COVID-19 in this country have been Latino children, according to LATIN-19. In North Carolina, one in six, or nearly 400,000 children, are Hispanic.
From the start of the pandemic, LATIN-19 has worked to get accurate information to Latinos in Durham and elsewhere throughout the state. During the weekly Zoom sessions that have occurred since March 18, 2020, Maradiaga Panayotti and others discuss timely public health issues and develop strategies to attack problems.
A year ago in December, the group was talking about the promise of the COVID vaccines and how they could get Hispanic communities to embrace them as a necessary protection in the pandemic.
With the help of LATIN-19, teams of community health workers, the efforts of public health officials and more, Latino residents went from being one of the least vaccinated populations in the spring of 2021 to having one of the highest vaccination rates by the fall.
Fifty-four percent of the Hispanic population has had at least one shot compared to 52 percent of non-Hispanic residents, according to the DHHS vaccination dashboard.
Maradiaga Panayotti uses soccer, her favorite sport, to help teens and others understand what’s needed to attack the pandemic.
“Sometimes playing our best game means thinking about changing our approach,” Maradiaga Panayotti says in a DHHS public service announcement. “When you’re playing a new team and you use a new move against them you score. But once the rival team sees your moves, they can prepare against you in the future. That’s how viruses like the coronavirus work, which means as new variants pop up, we have to adapt to defend ourselves.”
COVID vaccines, the pediatrician says, help bodies recognize COVID-19 and its variants and mount a defense against the virus.
“Don’t wait to vaccinate,” she says, repeating a phrase that public health officials often use.
Vaccinating the children
The North Carolina vaccination rates are nowhere near as high as public health officials would like to see, especially as the Omicron variant adds a new layer of worry to the pandemic.
Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services until the end of last month, have tried different tactics to lead more adults to COVID vaccines. Recently they have been encouraging parents of children as young as 5 to get them the kid-size vaccines.
Pfizer’s vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 was given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November.
When Pfizer vaccines were approved for teens and pre-teens, ages 12 to 17 in the spring, there was an initial wave of eager parents getting their children vaccinated followed by a lull, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation Vaccine Monitor Poll. By Dec. 9, a survey of parents with children ages 5 to 11 before reports of the Omicron variant in the United States found even less enthusiasm for COVID vaccines.
Sixteen percent of the parents at that time reported that their child in that age group had at least one dose of the vaccine. Thirteen percent said they would get their child vaccinated “right away,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, while three in 10 parents of teens and younger children responded that they would “definitely not” get their child vaccinated for COVID-19.
In North Carolina, only 21 percent of the children ages 5 to 11 had at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the DHHS vaccine dashboard.
In Hispanic and Latino families, it’s often the teens and children who are able to bridge the worlds between their home countries and North Carolina, where they are, to make the best arguments for the families.
Maradiaga Panayotti said some of her teenage pediatric patients go home and share information with their parents about how vaccines can help the older generations in their family stave off serious illness caused by COVID-19. They might persuade their loved ones to get vaccinated so they can protect an aging grandmother or grandfather.
Often children who speak English and Spanish become leaders in the family because of their language skills and cultural understanding that build bridges between different worlds, said Rivadeneyra. In many immigrant families, children become de facto interpreters for non-English speaking parents and grandparents.
Through the Spark Hope: Latinx Youth Ambassadors program, teens will deliver messages through TikTok and other social media platforms, at events, in schools and homes. The goal is to give the young ambassadors enough information and training so they can deliver direct, simple and consistent messaging with a sense that they are part of the solution.
“As a pediatrician, I often see how children are left out of the conversations, or an afterthought,” Maradiaga Panayotti said. “I really love the idea in the youth ambassador program that they are getting a voice.”