As N.J. still lags on vaccinating Black and Latino residents, Salem County tries to make inroads

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Sean Brown receives a COVID-19 vaccine

Penns Grove Business Manager Sean Brown gets his COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic hosted by the Puerto Rican Action Committee. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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New Jersey is still struggling to boost COVID-19 vaccinations among communities of color.

Of the more than 4.6 million residents who are fully vaccinated, only 7% identify as Black and 15% as Latino, despite making up 15% and 20% of the population, respectively.

“I think we can do better,” said Ralph Padilla, CEO of the Puerto Rican Action Committee (PRAC) of Southern New Jersey. His organization hosted Wednesday Salem County’s third Community Health Fair in Penns Grove, which included a pop-up vaccination clinic.

Ralph Padilla stands in front of a vaccine clinic while wearing a black face mask
Ralph Padilla, CEO of Puerto Rican Action Committee in Penns Grove, N.J., hosts a clinic on Main Street aimed at bringing the COVID-19 vaccines to the town’s Black and Latino residents. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“As a state, we’ve trended that way, but we’ve kind of hit a plateau,” he added. “So we’ve got to get creative and find ways to get this done.”

Among those who came to the fair to get her shot was Penns Grove Mayor LaDaena Thomas. She decided to get the Pfizer vaccine after reading over materials and making a call to her doctor.

Thomas said she didn’t get the vaccine sooner because of her busy schedule, and she wanted to take time to do her own research about the available vaccines.

Mayor LaDaena D. Thomas stands in front of a COVID-19 test site
Mayor LaDaena D. Thomas thanks everyone who participated in the pop-up clinic at the Puerto Rican Action Committee in Penns Grove, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“You hear things in the news and sometimes those things can frighten people and discourage people from getting the shot,” said Thomas, who did not elaborate on her specific concerns, though many people have expressed fears about the potential side effects, or the safety of taking the vaccine if they are pregnant or lactating, among others.

While health officials continue to spread the word that the vaccines are safe, for many people it comes down to seeing how others around them respond after getting vaccinated.

“I know a lot of people who have gotten Moderna, I know a lot of people who have gotten Pfizer, and I know some people who have gotten Johnson and Johnson and they’re fine,” Thomas said.

Thomas was among 27 people who received shots on Wednesday. At a fair the previous week at the Woodstown-Reliance Fire Company, 26 people were inoculated.

June Sieber poses while wearing a black face mask
June Sieber, director of Salem County Health and Human Services, looks in on a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Penns Grove, N.J. The county arranged four clinics in June in towns like Penns Grove and Salem, which have low vaccination rates. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It is a big number at this point of the game,” said June Siebert, director of health and human services for Salem County. “Every county is really struggling to get people at this time.”

Once she receives her second shot, Thomas, who is Black, will be among a small number of residents of color who have been fully vaccinated in Salem County.

As of Thursday, the county reports 25,831 fully vaccinated residents, according to state data. Of them, only 9% of them identify as Black, despite making up 13% of the population. About 8% of vaccinated people in Salem County are Latinos, which make up 9% of the population.

Penns Grove resident Rebeca Lopez came to the clinic to get vaccinated along with her two children. Through a Spanish translator, she said she had some concerns, including about the potential side effects.

A poster with COVID-19 vaccine information
The COVID-19 vaccination clinic hosted by Puerto Rican Action Committee in Penns Grove, N.J., offered a choice between three vaccine types. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Siebert says transportation in this rural county and language barriers within the Spanish-speaking community are also among the issues they’ve run into in getting people vaccinated, along with trust. The department said it wants to do more outreach.

“We’re really just trying to educate [and] work with other agencies such as PRAC to gain that trust,” she said. “Get the education materials out to the public into those communities and really just come to them. We want to come to them. We want them to know that we’re here for them.”

Padilla thinks pop-up clinics will continue to help make the numbers climb, echoing the messaging of top state health officials. He said his group is trying to make the clinics as convenient as possible, offering evening and weekend hours.

Samantha Madden sits while wearing a black face mask
Samantha Madden waits for 15 minutes after getting a COVID-19 vaccine at Puerto Rican Action Committee in Penns Grove, N.J. She said transportation issues prevented her from getting the vaccine earlier, but she was able to walk to the pop-up clinic on Main Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We’re at the point now where we can’t let our communities let their guard down,” he said. “The best way to protect yourself and protect people around you … is to get vaccinated. And to overcome these fears and some of the conspiracy theories.”

Salem County will hold another community health fair where vaccines are available at the Pittsgrove Senior Center from 10 a.m. to noon on Wed., June 23.

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