DAVENPORT, Iowa — Getting vaccines to underserved populations in Iowa — immigrants, refugees, Hispanics, African Americans 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 in Des Moines.
Heather Nahas, public relations manager for the governor’s office, organized the conference call because “we want to ensure vaccine equity for all Iowans,” including all underserved populations.
“The church has a unique opportunity to reach those communities and their other community partners,” she said.
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.”
Nahas indicated the state does not want to disrupt efforts already underway in the Archdiocese of Dubuque and the Davenport, Des Moines and Sioux City dioceses.
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,” Glenn Leach, a longtime diocesan volunteer, told The Catholic Messenger, the diocesan newspaper.
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, Iowa.
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 Conference, 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 to apartment buildings.
He noted 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.
The deacon 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 and the population to be served, and she suggested key messages to increase people’s willingness to receive the vaccine. She and other state staffers on the call planned to 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 afterward. “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.”
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,” he said.
“We are concerned not only for the immigrant/refugee worker and family populations but the folks that they see and can expose,” he said, describing a scenario like this: “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 (Deacon) Mark said, these good folks will not go to hospitals, massive government tents or in the case of Davenport, former stores in a mall,” Leach said. “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,” he said. “Again, mobile clinics are the answer there too.”
Arland-Fye is editor of The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.