Local officials say they are pleased with the effort to increase the COVID-19 vaccination rate among Whitfield County Hispanics

The percentage of Hispanics in Dalton who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 has increased significantly during the past five months. It once lagged other ethnic groups but now exceeds that of whites and Blacks, but local political leaders and leaders in the Hispanic community said more still needs to be done.

In August, just 31% of Hispanics in Whitfield County who were eligible for a vaccine were fully vaccinated. By comparison, 34.1% of white Whitfield County residents were fully vaccinated, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health, 32.1% of Blacks were fully vaccinated and 58.7% of Asians were fully vaccinated.

Today, 40.2% of Hispanics in Whitfield County are fully vaccinated, an increase of 9.2 percentage points. By comparison, 39.2% of whites are fully vaccinated, 38% of Blacks and 65.3% of Asians are fully vaccinated.

What happened?

In August, the Dalton City Council and the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners agreed to provide $25,000 each in funding for a program to send Spanish-speaking healthcare educators into the Hispanic community to provide information on COVID-19.

The Dalton-based Coalition of Latino Leaders (CLILA) agreed that during the next five months it would send two Spanish-speaking healthcare educators, known as promotoras, into the community to provide information on vaccines for COVID-19 as well as testing for the virus, and to set up two vaccination events each month in areas accessible to the Hispanic community.

"We are happy with the program's results since we had at least 3,082 vaccines at our site for people that otherwise wouldn't go anywhere else," said CLILA founder America Gruner. "And also we're very satisfied by knowing we made our best effort to promote the vaccine by canvassing hundreds of houses and businesses, we distributed thousands of fliers and held many events to educate the community. And we did something very important for us: We advocated for health equity, and facilitated access to vaccines and testing in our site."

Gruner expressed some disappointment that the organization did not reach its goal of getting 55% of Hispanics in Whitfield County fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

"But we worked really hard with multiple efforts to get people vaccinated," she said. "However, the low vaccination rate was a national trend, and many other factors affected the results."

Gruner said that, at first, access to the vaccines was an issue for the Hispanic community.

"Later it has been hesitancy thinking that the pandemic was going away after the summer," she said. "But now people are realizing we have a long way to go to overcome COVID-19."

While there's no way to quantify exactly how much of the increase in the share of Hispanics being fully vaccinated is due to CLILA's efforts, local officials said they believe the organization definitely played a role.

County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jevin Jensen said he was pleased to see the progress CLILA had helped create.

"CLILA set a stretch vaccination goal and made good progress towards it, which I appreciate," he said. "In the future, we will work with our city of Dalton partners to understand CLILA's evaluation of progress to date and any needed strategic modifications based on current needs."

Dalton Mayor David Pennington said he was also pleased with the progress that has been made.

"Everybody we can get vaccinated is a victory," he said.

Pennington pointed to Hamilton Medical Center where on Wednesday 44 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, 70% of them unvaccinated. There were two patients in the intensive care unit with COVID-19, one on a vent. Both of them were unvaccinated.

Pennington said he believed the city would continue to fund CLILA's efforts.

"We're ready to continue," said Gruner. "Only together can we overcome this pandemic. We're so grateful to the authorities of the city of Dalton and Whitfield County for their visionary approach to acknowledge specific needs in the Latino community and for the funds they provided for the program, because at the end, all of us will benefit as part of the whole community.

"Yes, we'll seek more funding to continue since the pandemic has intensified. Hopefully we can continue with their support.

But Gruner said CLILA isn't waiting for additional funding to move forward.

"We've already expanded our services," she said. "Since last Wednesday, we started offering pediatric vaccines with the appropriate and trained personnel. And from next Saturday on, we'll offer two vaccination events per week for people from 5 years old and up, in collaboration with other agencies."

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