By Elizabeth Dougherty
In a nation where the pandemic has disproportionately affected the Latinx community, one Carol Emmott Fellow’s work has raised $16 million to advocate for COVID-19 vaccine equity and has reached more than 36 million Latinos with public health information.
“I didn’t expect us to have such a huge impact,” says Rita Carreón, ’20, UnidosUS vice president of health, who leads “Esperanza Hope for All,” a bilingual, culturally responsive public health education and outreach campaign. UnidosUS is the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, based in Washington, DC. Rita oversees its health efforts to improve Latinos’ well-being and access to quality, equitable healthcare by addressing the social determinants of health; expanding where health happens; building healthy, equitable, and resilient communities; and cultivating healthcare leaders.
“We knew we needed to set up a holistic way to mitigate the health, economic, and educational impact on the Latino community,” Rita says of the pandemic and specifically of an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. To do this, the Esperanza Hope for All campaign deploys what Rita describes as an “air” game and a “ground” game.
The air strategy uses traditional and social media to provide accurate vaccine information in English and Spanish and to counter ubiquitous misinformation and disinformation. The campaign also targets specific groups, such as parents, and works with influencers and trusted messengers.
At the heart of the ground game are a national mobile educational tour and close to 300 community-based organizations (CBOs), including federally qualified community health centers, which serve as trusted public health messengers to the Latino communities they serve. Thirty-three of the CBOs are also part of an initial cohort working on a five-year CDC-funded effort to address COVID 19 vaccine disparities among Latinos, which resulted in the administration of 114,000 vaccines during the first year.
“With trust, comradery, and collaboration we can do big things,” Rita says, crediting the CBOs with closing the disparity gap through education, partnerships with private/public entities, and increased access to COVID-19 vaccines. For example, San Ysidro Health Center in San Diego took mobile vaccination units to neighborhoods and administered 2,000 vaccines within a six-month period. Key to this success: transportation to/from the site and onsite childcare.
Nationwide the numbers are encouraging with the number of Latinos who have had at least one vaccine reaching approximately 38 million as of the end of February, according to CDC.
Throughout the campaign, Rita is grateful to have had the support of UnidosUS leadership and cross-component teams; the CEF community, including her national mentor, Sachin Jain, president and CEO of SCAN Group and Health Plan; and her network of Carol Emmott Fellows. “I knew I wasn’t alone,” she said.
As a Carol Emmott Fellow, Rita reports that one of her biggest changes as a leader has been “recognizing that my voice matters.” Through the Esperanza campaign she has become a regular spokesperson in English and Spanish national media. “It became clear that lives are at stake,” she says. “My voice and our [Latino] narrative need to be heard.”
She also gives herself (and her team members) permission to be vulnerable. “This self-awareness matters because it allows you to show up as your authentic self,” she says. Part of that identity is the daughter of immigrants, a lived experience that informs her personal and professional stories.
So, what keeps Rita up at night? “I’m afraid that our nation will forget or not have the systems in place to make sure that we continue to learn from the pandemic and will not invest in public health, healthcare systems, and communities to be ready for the next crisis,” she says. “How can you support everyone and set up stronger and more equitable healthcare systems? That’s the challenge.”
Elizabeth Dougherty is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA, who specializes in women’s leadership and gender equity. She also works directly with women executives to define, refine, and amplify their voices.