Back in the spring of 2020, the line of people waiting to get tested for Covid-19 in the parking lot of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on any given day could be hundreds deep.
The pandemic was taking a huge toll on the church’s heavily Hispanic congregation, then-pastor Bruce Lewandowski realized.
“On a number of occasions, people collapsed in line. Or we had to call ambulances,” said Lewandowski. “And some of those people didn’t make it. It was really frightening.”
After he sounded the alarm, city officials, healthcare leaders and area nonprofits helped him morph Sacred Heart of Jesus into a Covid vaccination hub.
Now, Baltimore residents of Hispanic/Latino origin – 67.1% of them fully vaccinated – have the second-highest vaccination rate in the city, trailing only Asians, according to data from the health department.
Community leaders and immigrant advocates are celebrating the milestone as a needed win for what has been one of the hardest-hit communities by the pandemic.
But they know, especially with the Omicron variant’s appearance in Baltimore and Covid outbreaks erupting in schools and workplaces, that they need to stay vigilant.
“We are winning important battles, but we’re still in a pandemic, a pandemic that’s like a kind of world war,” said Pedro Palomino, who runs Somos Baltimore Latino, a Spanish-language news and information outlet.
Palomino urges all of his followers, many of whom are heavily at-risk frontline workers, to not let their guard down – “no baje la guardia.”
Still, he and other Latinx stakeholders want to highlight the lessons learned from their success – not just to help their community, but to better prepare the whole city for what is coming next.
One of the biggest challenges the community faced early on was the abundant misinformation that spread about the virus and its vaccines.
“We’re still fighting against it,” Palomino told The Brew.
It’s normal, he said, for many in Spanish-speaking cultures to fall for “chisme,” or rumors. Some are quicker to believe friends or family than what they might see on the news, turning communication platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook into primary sources for Covid information and misinformation.
Lewandowski has seen or heard most of the rumors himself. He points to prominent faith leaders in Hispanic communities across the United States who have equated receiving a Covid-19 vaccine to getting an abortion or dubbed the injection the “mark of the beast.”
“When you equate something good like getting a vaccine to sin, a lot of people of good will and strong faith will say, ‘I’m not gonna get this,’” observed Lewandowski, who was designated a bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore last year.
“To put myself out there really made people believe me,” said Palomino, who went on Facebook to livestream his own vaccination.
So he and those in his parish community fought fire with fire. They used their parish’s own WhatsApp groups to get out messaging. Covid fact sheets were placed into the boxes when distributing food to those in need.
Most important, Lewandowski says, were the personal conversations, be it over the phone or during a visit.
Palomino came to the same conclusion.
He invited doctors and public health leaders to come on his Facebook Live show to dispel myths about the virus and promote both testing and vaccination. He even shared his own experience of getting sick with Covid with his 60,000 followers each step of the way.
“To put myself out there really made people believe me. . . I said, ‘Look, this is real. This exists,’” said Palomino, who even went on Facebook Live to livestream his own vaccination.
Leap of Faith
Medical experts joined the effort. Dr. Kathleen Page, associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Medicine, was one of several Spanish-speaking clinicians to go on Palomino’s program to take questions and dispel Covid myths.
Page says that the fear in the community is still “real and pervasive” and that plenty of patients make the sign of the cross on themselves right before receiving the shot.
“They think that it’s a leap of faith, that something terrible might happen,” said Page. “It can be hard to discern what’s true and what’s not, so us as physicians, public health people, we have a long way to go to communicate things to people.”
Lewandowski recalls a Guatemalan parishioner who came to him in January 2020, distressed over his wife’s sudden and serious sickness.
She had come home exhausted from a long day cleaning hotel rooms. She went to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Thursday and died on Saturday.
While he can’t be sure she was an early victim of the virus, he knows that by April the janitors, kitchen staff, construction crews and other worshippers at his church were among its biggest targets.
“I think a lot of our folks didn’t realize that they were frontline workers, and they somehow thought they would be immune to it,” said Lewandowski. “And then, all of a sudden, it was literally like an avalanche.”
Case rates then and now indicate the highly-exposed community is still hard hit.
Latinx’ residents currently have the highest case rate – 171.6 per 1,000 residents – of all specified races or ethnicities, according to Baltimore’s Covid-19 dashboard
Data from Highlandtown in the early days of the pandemic were just as striking. While most testing sites around Baltimore would show daily positivity rates in the single or low double digits, positivity rates at Sacred Heart at times reached nearly 50%.
“There was already a recognition at Hopkins that this community was being impacted,” Page said. “We were seeing a huge number of Latino immigrants in the hospital wards in the first wave.”
Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, says that both data and a working relationship with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center are what propelled the Baltimore Health Department into action in Highlandtown.
They worked with Lewandowski to set up the Sacred Heart testing site before eventually handing-off the program to Hopkins, said Rodriguez-Lima, who also made appearances on Palomino’s Facebook Live program.
She noted that other community partners were also key to the effort.
The Esperanza Center, a resource for immigrants located in Upper Fells Point, created a hotline that connected area immigrants with the Sacred Heart testing site. Their staff could follow up with people who tested positive and connect those with severe symptoms who lacked a primary care doctor with Page or another Spanish-speaking physician.
“I realized that I’d lost a lot of close friends,” said Rogerio Avila said, who recently received his first vaccine dose.
Now that the Sacred Heart site has expanded to offer vaccinations, Page and others continue to get the word out to the community – she even encourages those she inoculates to bring along someone they know who needs a shot to their next appointment.
That’s how Rogerio Avila, a longtime Baltimore resident originally from Ecuador, ended up at Sacred Heart on November 19. He and his wife heard plenty of rumors about the vaccines, but ultimately trusted in the words of public health experts.
“I realized that I’d lost a lot of close friends” to Covid, Avila said, after receiving his first dose.
He attributes his wait to get vaccinated to his long work hours, but added that the operation at Sacred Heart made it particularly accessible for people whose primary language is Spanish.
Sacred Heart’s clinics, which operate on Wednesday and Friday evenings, offer vaccinations to children as well.
Heidi Rios, a Baltimore County high school Spanish teacher originally from Nicaragua, also has a busy schedule, but made sure to take advantage of the church’s Covid clinics, for the safety of her family and her students.
“I always knew that it was necessary to get them [my kids] vaccinated once it was approved,” said Rios, who had just brought her seven-year-old daughter to get her first dose .
Lessons to Carry Forward
While celebrating their strides taken towards making the communities they serve healthier, Lewandowski, Page and others concede there’s plenty more to be done.
Beyond fighting the Covid pandemic amid surges and new variants, they want to use insights from the success at Sacred Heart to tackle other public health concerns within Baltimore’s Spanish-speaking community.
“We’re looking at how do we expand services now? We’ve talked about mental health issues, physical health and well-being and also trauma-informed care,” Lewandowski said. “We’re trying to come up with this umbrella or more holistic approach with all these services that can go out from Sacred Heart.”
Rodriguez Lima agrees the community has forged bonds that are sure to be useful for tackling a wide variety of big social problems.
“These partnerships and systems have proved to be effective in vaccinating immigrants and Latinos,” she said. “We want and need to continue them.”
• Daniel Zawodny is a Baltimore-based paralegal and freelance journalist who reports on immigration law and immigration issues. His writing has appeared in Catholic Review and NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) as well as in The Brew.