Local organizations work to inform refugees about COVID-19 vaccine

This story originally appeared on KOMU 8. View the full story at their website: KOMU

COLUMBIA – While the COVID-19 vaccination rollout promises a new beginning, many questions remain among the refugee community in mid-Missouri.

“If you get vaccinated, … how many do you have to take so that you can be 100% [immune]?” said Mahinga Tubirori, owner of the African Market on Old Highway 63.

“I want to know about my kids. I have four kids, so I don’t know when they’ll get [vaccinated], how they’re going to do it,” said Soethu Hlamyo, manager and founder of Shwe Market International Foods on Vandiver Drive.

Tubirori and Hlamyo both came to the U.S. from over a decade ago and both are entrepreneurs who started their own businesses from scratch. Tubirori came from the Democratic Republic of Congo where economic instability is widespread, and Hlamyo came from Myanmar, where military dictatorship has been a problem for many decades.

They both expressed interest in getting more information about the vaccine. Lori Stoll is the health promotions coordinator for Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO), the only refugee resettlement agency (LRA) in mid-Missouri. She said this interest is shared by many in the refugee communities.

“We had surveyed our refugee community back in February, and the hesitancy of the vaccine came from lack of information.” Stoll said.

In response, CCCNMO partnered with MU and Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services to host a live webinar April 21, attended by around 30 people, to answer questions from the local refugee population. This webinar is part of CCCNMO’s various attempts to provide this population with information about the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to KOMU’s previous reporting, CCCNMO is the only LRA in mid-Missouri and has resettled over 4,000 refugees since 1975.

“We’ve been getting our information from the CDC and from different organizations around the country that have professionally translated information.” Stoll said. “So we’ve been handing out flyers on vaccination facts and what vaccination looks like, the process of vaccination, in six different languages.”

According to Sara Humm, public information specialist of Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services, language is a strong barrier that requires a collaborative effort from local organizations to overcome.

“Part of the hurdle there is just knowing which languages are spoken, and what information needs to be available in which languages.” Humm said. “That’s where we rely on our community partners to help us figure out ‘Okay, so the people that you serve, which languages do they speak? And how can we get them information in their language?’

In addition, differences in cultural backgrounds create another barrier.

“People are hesitant for different reasons.” Humm said. “For people where this is not their home country and where their home country is, maybe vaccines are viewed differently, … we have to understand that the trust isn’t inherently there all the time.”

Humm emphasized the importance of herd immunity as a reason for making sure the refugee population maintains the same vaccination rate as the general public.

“For folks who might be at risk of getting COVID and having a serious illness or even death, the more people who can get vaccinated around that person, the better,” Humm said, “because we want to make sure we’re protecting and keeping our friends and family safe and healthy. So this is very personal, but it’s also about community.”

For refugees still hesitant, Stoll said it’s important for the local community to treat them with dignity and respect with whatever choice they make.

“At the root of it, concerns are really similar,” Stoll said. “I mean, people really want to be safe and healthy. And I think that is universal.”

Despite many barriers, things are looking up as according to Missouri’s COVID-19 Dashboard, Boone County maintains the highest rate of vaccination initiation and vaccination completion in Missouri as of May 16th, at 46% and 39.5% of the total population, respectively.

Having taken the first dose by a May 5 interview, Hlamyo described his experience as mostly positive.

“I hear some people get dizzy or they get pains,” Hlamyo said. “For me, it was okay. … before I get [vaccinated], I feel like my customers are not comfortable. Then, after I get [vaccinated], they came back here and I tell them, it looks like they were happy.”

While Tubirori has not been vaccinated, he has a good reason to consider it.

“The only scary thing is if I get COVID, I can spread to my kids and my family so I don’t want that to happen.” Tubirori said.