By Ana Martinez-Ortiz Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Apr 10, 2021 at 11:01 AM Photography: Sue Vliet

Community groups have long been the bridge between the government and the community, and they are often the key players when it comes to distributing information.

With several COVID-19 vaccines now available, organizations throughout Milwaukee are doing their best to educate residents, address their worries and dispute misconceptions.

“Our main objective is to essentially allow people to know that they have a choice,” said Marlene Zahran, the public health coordinator for Southside Organizing Center, or SOC.

“It’s harder to get individuals to understand the reasons why they should get the COVID-19 vaccine if you’re constantly pushing it down their throat,” Zahran said. “When you give them the choice, you have more of that openness and safe space for individuals to feel like, ‘Yes, this is my choice.’”

The group has been sharing information through phone calls, texts, social media and contactless drop-offs, Tammy Rivera, executive director for SOC, said. It also transitioned its in-person forums, a longtime SOC tradition, to a digital format with its Facebook Live series “3 o’clock with SOC.”

To better gauge what information the community needs about COVID-19, SOC recently launched a COVID-19 committee, which consists of local community members. The committee connects to local leaders and experts, including its partners Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers and the United Community Center.

“That’s how we approach all our work,” Rivera said. “Ask the people with the lived experience, what their needs and dreams are and then bring subject matter experts in to answer any questions or add any data.”

The three organizations partnered last year to apply for a grant through the Wisconsin Partnership Program. Together, they have been pushing equitable public health messaging through billboards, bus ads, toolkits and more.

SOC’s COVID-19 committee, for example, held a meeting about the community’s perception of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“A majority of the fear is that individuals are afraid that if they get the COVID-19 vaccine then they’re going to essentially have either extreme health issues or they have this fear of dying because of the COVID-19 vaccine,” Zahran said.

The committee also learned there are worries that the vaccine isn’t free or that individuals will need to show documentation. It suggested using radio to spread awareness and target the Latino male population, which has had high cases of COVID-19.

Caroline Gomez-Tom, director of patient and community engagement at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, said people are worried about the safety of the vaccine.

“We are building confidence in our community, so people are comfortable making a choice when getting the vaccine,” Gomez-Tom said. “The general fear over vaccine symptoms is slowly waning as more people get it.”

She reaffirmed that having questions is OK and that there is information available to help people make the right choice. The health center has a call center, an active social media presence and a bilingual website where people can get their questions answered.

Gomez-Tom said it’s not just making sure the information is available, but making sure the information is accessible, that it’s culturally and linguistically competent.

Hesitancy around the vaccine is further heightened by the mistrust of the health care system among minority communities due to a history of mistreatment, Zahran said. Well-known examples include the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the contraceptive trials in Puerto Rico and forced sterilizations among minority women.

“You see it today with undocumented folks, they have this fear of going to their health care providers because they don’t want to get deported,” Zahran said. “It’s definitely played a huge part in trusting the government and trusting the health care facilities.”

SOC previously worked with youth leaders to create videos urging people to follow CDC guidelines. Moving forward, the group plans to make videos from the perspective of medical professionals.

“We started to see that individuals were more likely to listen to their primary physician talk about COVID-19 than anyone else,” Zahran said.

Vaccine distribution expanded 

In recent weeks, steps have been taken to expand vaccine distribution, which now includes anyone 16 and older.

The Milwaukee Health Department and Northwestern Mutual, for example, partnered with Metcalfe Park Community Bridges and the Dominican Center to provide the vaccine to residents in the 53206 and 53210 ZIP codes.

Christina Chronister, the communications specialist for the Dominican Center, said the organization is trying to provide the best and most recent information to its community, especially its vulnerable senior population.

The biggest challenge is making sure that everyone is reached, she said.

The Dominican Center’s awareness efforts include phone calls and dropping off information at people’s doors. The group is working with other trusted community groups such as Amani United, the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and COA Youth & Family Centers.

“The way that we’ve started to approach now is to get individuals to see that if you do get vaccinated, you’re doing it not only for your safety, but you’re also doing it because you want to go back to doing the things that you love,” Zahran said.