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OPINION

In Mattapan, the uphill battle against COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

Vaccine misinformation can be conquered with the right dose of persuasion and resources mixed with cultural competency.

A teenager gets the COVID-19 vaccine at the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan.
A teenager gets the COVID-19 vaccine at the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan.Handout

When it comes to reasons why immigrants in Mattapan might reject the COVID-19 vaccine, Geralde Gabeau has heard it all.

There was the Haitian immigrant who showed Gabeau — the executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute, a nonprofit in Mattapan that serves primarily Black immigrants — a video on WhatsApp of a Haitian woman telling online radio listeners that God does not want them to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Otherwise, “the woman said they’re going to get a rare disease in less than a year or be transformed into an animal,” Gabeau said. At the vaccine clinic Gabeau’s organization holds every Friday, others tell her they would rather wait and see what effect the vaccine has on those who have already gotten the shot.

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“We’re dealing with a lot of mistrust in the Haitian population,” Gabeau told me. “We had a 19-year-old girl who told us she wanted to get vaccinated but her mom wouldn’t let her. The mother was worried her daughter wouldn’t be able to have children if she got the shot. So I had her call her mom and spoke to her, in Haitian Creole, and after I explained to the mom what the vaccine is and how it works, the mom gave the OK. We vaccinated her daughter. Everybody was clapping!”

Mattapan has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated residents in the city, at 39.9 percent. For weeks it’s remained dead last, and the rate of increase has been marginal. Mattapan also has the lowest share of residents ages 12 to 24 with at least one shot, according to city officials.

Health authorities and Haitian advocates on the ground point to resistance among Haitian immigrants as one reason why Mattapan is lagging in vaccination. Nearly three-quarters of Mattapan’s residents are Black, and the neighborhood is home to a large share of the roughly 25,000 Haitians living in Boston. Overall, the Boston metro area has the third-largest Haitian population in the United States.

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The Immigrant Family Services Institute, a nonprofit in Mattapan serving primarily Black immigrants, holds a vaccination clinic every Friday. Many Haitian immigrants have been reluctant to get the vaccine.
The Immigrant Family Services Institute, a nonprofit in Mattapan serving primarily Black immigrants, holds a vaccination clinic every Friday. Many Haitian immigrants have been reluctant to get the vaccine.Handout

The efforts in Mattapan are a reminder that vaccine hesitancy among immigrants takes many forms along a broad and dynamic spectrum. Vaccine misinformation stands at one extreme and, to be clear, the false information infects all racial and ethnic groups. It requires a comprehensive and multifaceted approach to target the full range of vaccine rejection. But it can be conquered with the right dose of persuasion and resources informed by cultural competency.

When discussing vaccine equity solutions, experts often call for “meeting people where they’re at.” In Mattapan, it must involve deploying trusted partners who can knock on doors to persuade people to get the vaccine, much as a candidate running for office would do to convince Bostonians to vote for them. It means recognizing that whatever happens in the immigrants’ homeland — in this case, the troubling aftermath of the assassination of the Haitian president and the fact that Haiti has barely begun to vaccinate its citizens — has an effect locally.

Vaccine access does not seem to be a problem; there are free clinic options available in Mattapan, many of them funded by the city. Nor are incentives being ignored. Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of health and human services, said in an interview that a successful effort involved a Mattapan community group offering free sessions with immigration attorneys to those getting the shot. Martinez mentioned there is also a strategy around barbershops and beauty salons currently being coordinated with health centers.

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The question remains whether grass-roots messaging and word-of-mouth validation is any match for vaccine resistance. But every Bostonian should be invested in increasing Mattapan’s vaccine uptake. As summer turns to fall, more and more lives will hang in the balance.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.