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Vulnerable immigrants in Philly are scrambling to get the COVID-19 vaccine with few resources or outreach

Finding a vaccine appointment now is tough for many people, but especially so for immigrants with limited English. For undocumented immigrants, the situation is even more dire.

Olivia Ponce, a lab technician at the Garces Foundation and a member of Philadelphia's Latino immigrant community, works at a Garces food distribution event during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Olivia Ponce, a lab technician at the Garces Foundation and a member of Philadelphia's Latino immigrant community, works at a Garces food distribution event during the COVID-19 pandemic.Read moreCourtesy Olivia Ponces

Before the sun came up over their home in Ardmore, Vivi Zayas shook her husband awake to share her good news: She’d just scored a vaccine appointment for three people.

Zayas is not a health-care professional. She and her husband own a child-care business on the Main Line.

But Zayas, who speaks both Spanish and English, has become a touchstone for the region’s Spanish-speaking immigrants as they scramble for protection against a virus that has hit their community especially hard.

Working late into the night, she has so far signed up 27 people in the Philadelphia area for the vaccine.

Finding a vaccine appointment now is tough for many people, but especially so for immigrants with limited English.

For undocumented immigrants, the situation is even more dire. Many of Pennsylvania’s 170,000 undocumented immigrants work in jobs where social distancing is impossible, making vaccination vital for their own health and that of the wider community. And they fear not only the virus but also federal government scrutiny.

Add to all that the same technology barriers that are hurting many people who don’t have smartphones or computers. With public health departments still formulating outreach programs, the task of helping immigrants has fallen to a patchwork of advocacy organizations and individuals.

Yimi Hernandez, a South Philly construction worker originally from Honduras, is learning English in night school and using his new skills to help friends translate vaccine sign-up forms and emails. “My friends — they’re learning English, and it’s not easy for them,” he said. “And they want the vaccine. We’re scared, man.”

Zayas starts checking for appointments at 10 p.m., refreshing Walgreens’ and Rite Aid’s websites on her phone. She keeps at it until 1 a.m., then sleeps until 5:30, when she’s up with her three young children. Then it’s back to the phone.

“I try to understand that they’re starting to work on having ample supply for everyone, but I feel like we shouldn’t be in this position — [finding an appointment] is pure luck sometimes,” Zayas said. “It makes it so much harder for everyone, especially for people of color and the Hispanic community.”

In Philadelphia, city officials say they have tried to balance limited supplies of the vaccine with quickly changing eligibility and other guidelines, making it hard to get information out in any language, said James Garrow, a spokesperson for the city health department.

“We don’t want to direct people to go get vaccinated if there’s not enough available,” said Amy Eusebio, the director of the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Plus, the city underestimated demand for vaccination information.

“What we learned, and what we’re owning now, is that the public wanted to know now. Even if the message was ‘Hold on, wait,’” Eusebio said.

The city’s vaccination sign-up form is now available in five languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and French. Eusebio’s office and the health department are also reaching out to “trusted ambassadors” to spread word about the vaccine and how to sign up, Garrow said.

Compounding the problem is a lack of trust in the city’s rocky vaccine rollout, advocates said. Only 20% of the city’s vaccines have gone to Black Philadelphians — less than half of their overall representation in the city — and just 4% have gone to Latino Philadelphians, though nearly 15% of the city’s population is Hispanic or Latino, according to census data. Seven percent of vaccines have been administered to residents of Asian descent, who also make up about 7% of the city’s population.

“I think we are a national embarrassment in terms of vaccination rollout,” said Thoai Nguyen, the CEO of SEAMAAC, an organization serving immigrants and refugees in South Philadelphia. He said that he had to push the city to get vaccines for the frontline staffers working at his organization’s food program, and that many of his staff find themselves translating for clients whose languages aren’t yet included on vaccine forms.

“There are significant portions of communities of color, and working-class people from every race, who don’t trust the vaccine or the rollout,” Nguyen said.

Some students in Jillian Gierke’s English as a Second Language class with the Garces Foundation — a local organization that serves immigrants — signed up for their vaccines through the form provided by Philly Fighting COVID, the disgraced start-up whose founder admitted to taking vaccines to give to his friends and whose privacy policies would have allowed the selling of patient information.

“There’s the fear of putting one’s information out there. We were trying to make it very clear that this information won’t be shared with anyone else,” she said. “The situation with Philly Fighting COVID makes that a little bit less believable.”

Many immigrants are concerned about jeopardizing their chances at becoming a legal permanent resident by accepting government-funded benefits like the vaccine. Under former President Donald Trump, a long-standing law that kept people likely to become a “public charge” from receiving permanent residency status was greatly expanded. Though, Reuters reported last month, the current administration is expected to abandon that rule, the fear remains.

» READ MORE: FEMA’s mass vaccination site at Pennsylvania Convention Center prepares to open

“People don’t want to do anything to jeopardize an application,” said Medha Makhlouf, a law professor and director of the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson Law.

Federal officials have said information used to register people for vaccination will not be shared with other government entities like ICE. But fear among the undocumented runs deep, said Thais Carrero, state director for Casa, an immigrant advocacy group in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and a commissioner with the Governor’s Commission on Latino Affairs.

“We can say we’re not going to ask for immigration status, but if folks get there and they’re asked for their Social Security number, what’s the difference?” Carrero said. “I think it’s got to be very explicitly said from a health institution.”

Fliers and information sheets too often are not available in Spanish, Carrero said, and information tables at grocery stores aren’t always staffed with people who are bilingual.

Many immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants who are often isolated from health care in general, don’t know where to access even the limited resources available to them, said Mariana Lazo, a Drexel University public health professor and physician. Lazo sits on a panel of organizations that serve the Latino community and regularly speak with the Philadelphia health department.

“No one has heard about the [vaccine registration] form,” she said. “There’s a huge, huge problem there in terms of people simply not learning the system the city has put in place currently.”

Olivia Ponce, a single mother and organizer in the Latino community who’s lived in South Philadelphia for 21 years, said her community desperately needs vaccines. “We’re on the front lines. We’re in the factory. We’re in the restaurants and cleaning the hospitals and the hotels,” she said.

Ponce contracted the coronavirus early in the pandemic, and had been terrified by the possibility of spreading it to family and friends — and about all that she didn’t know about the virus.

Ponce was an English student and volunteer at the Garces Foundation, and now works as a lab technician for the organization’s COVID-19 testing operation — which has helped test hundreds of Spanish-speaking Philadelphians. She says she’s still battling that lack of information in her community. She was recently able to receive the vaccine because of her status as a health care worker -- but still found the process confusing.

”Many people don’t want the vaccine, because they say, ‘I saw the news, and many people have had side effects. So I don’t know what’s better for me,’” Ponce said. “The information is not enough in my language. If we had enough information, people would feel more comfortable.”

Staff writer Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at