Mobile vaccine clinics aim to bridge the gap for Latinos, immigrants in Kent Co.

By: - September 29, 2021 9:55 am

Kent County Health Department mobile vaccine clinic outside the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Sept. 22, 2021 | Lauren Fay Carlson

Before COVID-19 hit Michigan, registered nurse Melissa Bisel oversaw the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), as well as immunization programs at the Kent County Health Department (KCHD). 

Now, as a public health program supervisor in KCHD’s health clinics division, Bisel oversees mobile vaccination clinics to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Bisel and her team have been operating these mobile clinics since July. She said they will continue to evaluate the demand for mobile clinics and numbers of COVID-19 cases on a month-to-month-basis. 

“We’ll have to see what the need is,” she said. “We just want people to be vaccinated … everyone counts.”

She also oversees vaccinations for home-bound individuals, offering a $50 Meijer gift card incentive for those who choose to receive the vaccine, and employer-organized clinics for local organizations like The Rapid and ABC Technologies. 

Medical staff at the Kent County Health Department mobile vaccine clinic outside the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Sept. 22, 2021 | Lauren Fay Carlson

Currently, the health department has two trucks in weekly rotation dispatched in the 49503 and 49507 ZIP codes — which Bisel said have the lowest vaccination rates in Grand Rapids, Kent County’s largest city — and one in the 49341 ZIP code.

The lowest-vaccinated areas also have the highest Latino and Black populations in Grand Rapids; 49507 is 39.3% Black and 27.7% Latino and 49503 is 17.7% Black and 22.1% Latino.

The Kent County Health Department utilized federal COVID-19 relief dollars to fund the outfitting of these three mobile vaccination trucks and the staff necessary to administer the shots on site. Bisel then identified local community organizations interested in partnering with KCHD by allowing the trucks to set up and vaccinate community members, free of charge, on site.

On Wednesdays from 1 to 4 p.m., Bisel and her team set up at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, a nonprofit that provides a large roster of services for the local Latino community and beyond, including language services, basic needs and workforce development.

The Hispanic Center is located in the heart of the predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Roosevelt Park, which is 76.5% Latino.

“We tend to have the greatest response here,” says Bisel. “We’d like to see more, but we’ll take what we can get.” 

Bisel adds that her team often sees an increase in clinic visitors when Caesar E. Chavez Elementary School, which is across the street, lets out at the end of the day. “We just assume that it’s more convenient.”

Hispanic Center Executive Director Evelyn Esparza-Gonzalez initially began the partnership with the KCHD in early 2021, when they hosted on-site clinics that vaccinated over 200 people each day. Since then, the goal of the nonprofit has been “to make sure that vaccines were accessible to our Latino community,” Esparza-Gonzalez said.

“We have been very grateful for [the health department] because they have been very flexible to the needs of our community.”

The three location partnerships are:

  • North Kent Connect, 10075 Northland Dr. NE, Rockford, 49341
  • Great Giant Supermarket, 1226 Madison Ave SE, Grand Rapids, 49507
  • Hispanic Center of Western Michigan,1204 Grandville NW, Grand Rapids, 49503

Spanish-speaking residents may already be familiar with the services offered at the Hispanic Center, and feel at ease coming there. “I think what’s unique about this spot is a lot of people come here and are comfortable with the services being provided,” said Bisel.

“They know they can count on the Hispanic Center to advocate for them,” added Esparza-Gonzalez.

With a full staff of registered nurses and nursing students on hand to assist in answering questions about and actually administering the vaccine within the specially designed truck, the KCHD also provides a translator for Spanish-speaking sites, like the Hispanic Center. That’s important because, “This is our biggest Spanish-speaking location,” notes Bisel.

Esparza-Gonzalez says that the local Latino population has been “hit by the pandemic in the worst ways.” Particularly during the first few months of offering vaccinations, the nonprofit experienced a “very positive and wonderful response from our community members.”

“Especially for those that don’t have access to the language or who are scared to go to clinics downtown” visiting a clinic on the site of a Spanish-speaking nonprofit is helpful, Esparza-Gonzalez said.

This effort to address disparities echoes a struggle across Michigan and nationwide to vaccinate BIPOC communities. In April 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created a COVID-19 task force on racial disparities.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 43% of all white Michiganders are vaccinated compared to 33% of Blacks, 40% of Hispanics and 51% of Asians. Nationally, 53% of white people are vaccinated compared to 43% of Blacks, 49% of Hispanics and 69% of Asians, using data from 43 states.

The state of Michigan has a goal for 70% of those 16 and older to be fully vaccinated, or 5.7 million people. Currently, 68% have had at least one dose.

Kent County Health Department mobile vaccine clinic outside the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Sept. 22, 2021 | Lauren Fay Carlson

Since the Hispanic Center also provides resources for undocumented immigrants — like translating documents, organizing rides to Detroit’s immigration court and providing resources for local immigration attorneys — the Hispanic Center’s mobile clinic is a natural location for Spanish-speaking immigrants seeking their vaccine. This accessibility works to combat the disparity of vaccination among undocumented immigrants in West Michigan.

“One of the main barriers for people getting the vaccine right now is fear” of the side effects, or fear of one’s immigration status being exposed, Esparza-Gonzalez said. But at the Hispanic Center, “We are not asking for any kind of identification when they come and access the vaccine,” she added, including social security numbers or “anything that would put them at risk.”

On site last week was Jessica Mercado, a clerk typist for KCHD Community Clinical Services. Mercado speaks with and translates for Spanish-speaking community members seeking more information about the vaccine, and helps them complete the necessary paperwork. 

That afternoon, Mercado spoke to one couple, Sergio, 30, and Karla, 23, who declined to give their last name, and did not initially see eye-to-eye on receiving the vaccine. Sergio was ready to complete his paperwork and get the Pfizer vaccine. Karla, however, hung back, busy speaking on the phone as she shook her head and smiled when asked if she also wanted a shot.

As Mercado translated for Sergio and assisted him with his paperwork, Karla eventually approached the crew of nurses and support staff. Along with Sergio, they encouraged her to receive the vaccine. Eventually, the two received their vaccines together inside the truck.

Kent County Health Department mobile vaccine clinic outside the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Sept. 22, 2021 | Lauren Fay Carlson

“Some people don’t know what to ask,” said Carol Glover, a part-time RN for the KCHD. 

“There’s a fear there, but they don’t even know what their fear is,” added Melissa Brooks, an RN.

Many residents drive into the parking lot and talk to the nurses from their car windows, asking about the safety and side effects of the vaccine. Recently, several have approached the mobile clinic to ask about the availability of booster shots in light of recent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for immunocompromised people, seniors and others with health conditions to receive their third shot of the Pfizer vaccine.

“People who are on board [with the vaccine] are really on board,” said Brooks.

For those who are still hesitant, Esparza-Gonzalez’s main focus is on disseminating accurate information. “We think education is the biggest piece,” she said. “There are so many other channels where they’re getting their information that’s not necessarily accurate.”

That’s why, as the pandemic rages on, the Hispanic Center aims to gather information and how to best encourage community members to receive their vaccination. “Our focus is creating materials and learning how to have those conversations with our communities so we can just focus on the education piece so we can encourage people to take the vaccine,” she said.

Mostly, the KCHD is administering the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but has Moderna doses available, as well. Bisel said about half of clinic patrons are receiving their first shot, while the other half are receiving their second.

Regardless of the questions posed or type of vaccination received, all hands are on deck at each mobile clinic. In addition to Bisel, full-time and part-time nurses, the KCHD partners with the University of Detroit Mercy through Aquinas College to engage its student workers in the vaccination effort. 

UDM Nursing students Emma Nellis and Elysee Gerondale were pitching in last week at the Hispanic Center as part of their clinical rotation.

“There’s either a rush, or no one,” said Nellis. 

“It depends on how much help they need,” added Gerondale. 


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Lauren Fay Carlson
Lauren Fay Carlson

Lauren Fay Carlson is a freelance writer and editor. She is the former Managing Editor for Rapid Growth Media and has written for GR Magazine, Michigan BLUE Magazine and more.