Vaccine Hesitancy and Older Hispanic Adults: Truths and Myths about the COVID-19 Vaccine
Published April 2021 | Read this article in Spanish.
* Some of the information in this post is outdated and no longer accurate. To get the most up-to-date information about vaccines, please visit the CDC website at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/index.html. *
Older adults have been identified as a group that should receive vaccines as soon as possible. As has been widely reported in the media, the risk of death and severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age. In fact, older adults are more likely to experience severe illness from the disease,1 and roughly 8 out of every 10 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. occur among this age group.2
Hispanic older adults often live in multi-generational homes and receive care from younger family members. They spend significant time with family members who work or go to school outside the home, which further increases their risk of exposure to COVID-19. This population also has higher rates of certain health conditions, like diabetes, which increases the risk for severe illness. Delayed vaccination or medical treatment among this population could have severe consequences.
Misinformation surrounding the vaccine may delay Hispanics from receiving the vaccine in a timely manner. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, at the end of 2020 about 29% of Hispanic adults were hesitant about the administration of the vaccine.3 Four out of 10 Hispanics indicated they would wait and see the outcome on others before getting vaccinated themselves.4 This number may be even higher among older adults.
Why would older Hispanic adults be hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine?
As the COVID-19 vaccine distribution ramps up across the United States, we find ourselves confronted with the consequences of a long and troubled relationship between the medical establishment and minority populations who have historically experienced a great deal of harm in the name of science.
As recently as the 1980s, federally funded programs intentionally harmed vulnerable communities. Perhaps the most famous example is the Tuskegee syphilis study which denied life-saving treatment to African Americans with the disease. Other instances include the forced sterilization of women in Puerto Rico and California; Native American women receiving tubal ligations when they thought they were getting appendectomies; and Black women in Mississippi receiving unnecessary hysterectomies.
This disturbing history often leads minority communities to understandably have distrust in the medical community and the government. Many instead are relying on other sources for medical information, like word-of-mouth and social media, which lays the foundation for COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. The spread of false information about the vaccine is fueling the already existing sentiment of mistrust in the community and causing hesitancy around getting vaccinated.
An MHP Salud CHW provides education to older adults.
Let’s address some common myths about the COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines:
Myth: The vaccines are not safe because they were developed and tested too fast.
Truth: The vaccines were developed rapidly because they built off of many years of previous research on coronaviruses. Together with the urgency to develop a vaccine due to the magnitude of the pandemic, additional funding, and global collaboration led to developing a vaccine faster than ever before.5
Myth: The mRNA technology in the vaccines will alter your DNA.
Truth: Injecting mRNA molecules will not change your DNA. The mRNA in the vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell where our DNA is stored.6 It works by telling your body how to make a viral protein and developing an immune response, so if you are exposed to the actual virus in the future, your body can fight it.7,8 The body breaks down the mRNA and gets rid of it once it makes the proteins.9
Myth: The vaccine is an attempt by the government to insert a microchip inside people and track or control them.
Truth: The vaccines do not insert any microchip into an individual and cannot track or control people.10
Myth: The second dose of the vaccine is not necessary.
Truth: During vaccine testing, it was found that after just one shot, there was a weaker immune response. In other words, the body’s ability to recognize and defend against the virus was not as strong as it could be. The second dose is more of a “booster” shot, which reinforces the immune response from the first shot to provide more protection and gives longer-lasting immunity.11,12
Myth: If you have already had COVID-19 you do not need to get vaccinated.
Truth: There is not enough information about how long immunity will last after someone has had COVID-19 and getting the vaccine can provide protection for longer. It is recommended to wait until 90 days after all symptoms have disappeared before getting the first shot.13
Myth: The vaccine’s side effects are too strong so it is not worth getting the vaccine because you will need to stay home from work.
Truth: The most common side effects include soreness or rash at the injection site on the arm. A stronger reaction (fever, chills, tiredness, and headaches for a few days) is not uncommon after the second dose and indicates your body is having a strong immune response to the vaccine.14 Older adults are less likely to experience side effects after vaccination.15
Myth: After getting the second dose of the vaccine, you can “go back to normal.”
Fact: After getting the second dose of the vaccine, an individual does not have full immunity for another 2 weeks.16 It is also still unknown whether the vaccine prevents someone from spreading the virus, so to keep others safe it is still important to practice social distancing, use masks, and wash your hands regularly.
How CHWs can help reduce vaccine hesitancy.
Trust between a medical provider and their patient is important for good health; it is one of the best predictors for people to engage in healthy behaviors like taking medications as prescribed, getting preventive care, and being satisfied with care.17 Community Health Workers (CHWs)/Promotores de Salud, as trusted members of the community they serve, have a deep understanding of the historical mistrust and hesitancy among their peers and are in a unique situation to connect underserved communities with healthcare. They build trust through providing culturally appropriate education to Hispanic older adults in their preferred language, connecting people to health and social services, and helping providers understand the cultural influences of the community.
CHWs/Promotores de Salud are playing a vital role in COVID-19 prevention among older Hispanic adults by:
- Reaching out to vulnerable and isolated older adults
- Promoting healthy behaviors to prevent the spread of COVID-19
- Providing accurate health information and answering basic questions people may have about the vaccine
- Assisting in getting people tested for COVID-19
- Contacting eligible older adults to get vaccinated
- Educating older adults on the use of technology to connect them to care
- Assessing health and social needs of older adults and connecting them to services
- Providing follow-up to check up on people after getting vaccinated
Medical mistrust and vaccine hesitancy are issues that run deep in the Hispanic community. Addressing our country’s dark and unethical history with minority communities must be done before we can build trust, and building trust is key to promoting health and preventing illness among Hispanic older adults. CHWs/Promotores(as) de Salud play an essential role in doing just that.
Free Technical Assistance for Service Providers and Individuals that Serve Hispanic Older Adults
Our Strengthening Aging Services for Hispanic Older Adults project is holding Virtual Technical Assistance calls to build the capacity of service providers and community members that address issues in the aging Hispanic communities. Get information, tips, resources, and more from our experienced team! Reserve your spot now!
This project was supported, in part by grant number 90HDRC0004-01-00, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.