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Among Latino immigrants, false vaccine claims are spreading as fast as the virus

Blanca Espronceda, a community health worker with Casa de Maryland, hands out brochures with information about the coronavirus vaccine to people lining up at a food distribution site in Silver Spring. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Since November, Blanca Espronceda has spent many mornings chatting up other Latinos about the coronavirus vaccine, recruiting her neighbors in Maryland’s heavily immigrant suburbs to participate in ongoing trials.

But even as a community health worker, she has her own fears about getting the shot.

“What if the side effects make me sicker than the virus?” asked Espronceda, a 36-year-old native of Mexico who lives in Hyattsville. “What if I should wait a year, just to make sure it works?”

For those she approaches with fliers at food distribution sites and supermarkets, the objections are stronger: Some falsely insist that the vaccine contains a microchip or that it will give them cancer. Others fear their personal information will be used to spy on them. Many point to religious beliefs, claiming that God will cure them if they contract covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, or that the vaccine is a sign of the Antichrist.

“As Hispanics, we like to gossip, pass on messages from one person to the next,” said Espronceda, who works with a program called Salud y Bien­estar, or Health and Wellness.” “But if we listen to all the negative things people say, we will have a problem on our hands.”

Latinos face higher chances of being infected by the coronavirus, getting hospitalized and dying of ­covid-19 but are twice as likely to lack the health insurance to afford treatment. They have suffered the sharpest drop in employment since March, and many who have held onto jobs are essential workers who risk exposure every day.

Yet they also appear to be getting vaccinated at very low rates.

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More than 753,000 Maryland residents had received at least one coronavirus shot as of Thursday, according to state data. Among the 587,000 residents for whom ethnicity was reported, less than 4 percent identified as Latino or Hispanic. Nine percent of the state’s population is Hispanic.

Latino immigrants are far from a monolithic category, and many, including those in the Maryland suburbs, are eager to get vaccinated. Yet faced with language and literacy barriers, immigration fears or a lack of outreach from local and state governments, some of the most vulnerable communities have become fertile ground for vaccine misinformation, advocates say.

“People are being manipulated,” said Norma Martinez, who coordinates Salud y Bienestar’s efforts across Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. “It’s making them nervous and mistrustful of the vaccine. But it’s a matter of education. Little by little, we will ensure that people get on board.”

Groups such as hers must fight falsehoods that spread far and wide on social media, powered by a deep trust in religious leaders, skepticism in government and, in some cases, a mere lack of other information.

An 'info­demic'

Floridalma Galvez, 34, said the calls and WhatsApp messages began weeks before any vaccine was approved, from cousins in Chicago, Florida and her native Guatemala: The vaccine was “the mark of the beast,” they told her, a reference to Satan or the Antichrist in the Book of Revelation.

Her family members heard it from evangelical pastors at church, she said, and passed it on to Galvez and other social media contacts, spamming their family chats with images and videos that baselessly claimed a coronavirus vaccine would alter their DNA.

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“These conspiracy theories are like the virus itself,” said Oscar Soria, a campaign director at the human rights group Avaaz, which has studied the matter and pushed social media companies for stronger regulation. “They mutate and develop new strains, which makes it very difficult to detect them. If something starts in English and continues in Spanish, it’s going to keep spreading.”

Soria said the most common falsehoods circulating among Spanish-language networks — such as the claim that chlorine dioxide will cure covid-19, which has been disavowed by the Food and Drug Administration — may have spread from the United States or Europe to Latin America.

One of the most prolific sources of vaccine disinformation, Doctores por la Verdad, or Doctors for Truth, appears to have started in Spain and moved to Argentina and a dozen other countries, peddling myths that eventually reached the United States.

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Yet just like during last year’s presidential election, social media companies have been far less likely to flag misleading posts or videos in Spanish, Soria said, prompting what he called an “info­demic.”

In an analysis of viral misinformation on Facebook last year, Avaaz found that 20 percent of Spanish-language posts received warning labels, compared with 70 percent in English.

Once falsehoods move to encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp, it becomes significantly harder to monitor and put a stop them.

In his own family’s WhatsApp groups, Soria said, his father has posted images baselessly claiming that the Sputnik vaccine being distributed in Argentina is a coordinated effort — by the country’s left-wing government, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Rockefeller family and Pope Francis — to control the Argentine population.

Flavia Colangelo, a researcher at the firm GQR, which advises political campaigns on misinformation, noted that Spanish-language myths circulating among Latino immigrants are not necessarily dissimilar from those that spread in English.

“But you have the added complexity because it’s in Spanish,” Colangelo said. “You have Spanish actors, Spanish influencers, and when we don’t have a lot of counterinformation in Spanish, they become a lot more dangerous.”

Pushing back with science

Some state and local governments have rolled out plans to target vulnerable sectors of their immigrant population with accurate resources. Oregon and Washington state, for instance, are planning radio ads to reach migrant farmworkers and a digital ad campaign entirely in Spanish.

Others are trying to address concerns that undocumented residents might be reluctant to seek out the vaccine because of their legal status or because of a set of Trump administration rules that make it harder to obtain permanent residency after relying on safety-net programs.

Earlier this month, President Biden’s Department of Homeland Security announced that federal immigration agents would not be conducting arrests at vaccination clinics. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has pushed to ensure that personal data collected during vaccinations is not shared with the federal government, and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) has encouraged undocumented residents to get vaccinated.

Yet some efforts have resulted in misinformation issues of their own. In Maryland, the state’s Spanish-language vaccine registration page initially used the word for “car race” in the section that asked people for their race, sex and ethnicity, Montgomery County Council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) told state lawmakers Tuesday. Because of a Google Translate error, the Virginia Department of Health’s online Spanish-language FAQ at one point falsely stated that vaccines were not necessary — when officials only meant to say that no one would be forced to get a shot, an agency representative said.

Advocates such as Salud y Bienestar’s Martinez say the bulk of the work falls on trusted community members, like her small army of more than 70 volunteers.

Churches pair up with clinics to deliver coronavirus vaccine to those who need it most

In areas such as Langley Park — where 70 percent of adults are not U.S. citizens, and more infections have been reported than in any other Zip code in Maryland — these community health workers are trained to hand out face masks and offer resources on everything from free testing to rent assistance.

“People are so desperately in need of answers,” Martinez said, “and we know the community, because we’re a part of the community.”

Since the summer, Salud y Bienestar volunteers have taken on a second mission: recruiting volunteers for Moderna and Novavax trials at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Few states are accurately tracking coronavirus vaccinations by race. Some aren’t at all.

Milagritos Tapia, a Maryland pediatrics professor who helps coordinate the trials, said the arrangement allows researchers to confirm the vaccine is effective for an especially hard-hit community, while sowing seeds of trust though the participants. Because many of the community health workers participated in Moderna’s Phase 3 trials in the fall, they can point to their own experiences to show there is nothing to be afraid of.

Such was the case one recent Saturday outside a Korean Korner supermarket in Silver Spring, where Dolores Fontalvo, a volunteer with Salud y Bienestar, approached George Ura, 17, to see whether he might be interested in participating in ongoing vaccine trials.

“Isn’t this stuff made by big corporations? They might be lying about what’s in there,” Ura answered, saying his parents had told him the vaccine could cause cancer.

But Fontalvo, 74, gently shot back with rapid-fire questions: Did Ura ever study how other epidemics were put to an end? Does he know anyone who died of covid-19? Has he looked at the staggering death toll? And hadn’t he received other vaccines as a child?

Accepting a flier from her, the teenager was left with little to say in response.

Erin Cox and Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.

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