Grassroots Work Leads to Vaccination Success in Georgia Refugee Community

Naw Mu Chaw had questions about the possible side effects of a covid-19 vaccine.

Chaw, a recent refugee from Myanmar, received medical care at a community health center near her home in Clarkston, Georgia, a city of about 14,000 people. Her English is limited, but the center has an interpreter to translate health information into her native language, esential oil Burmese.

Her questions began to fade as a health worker sent her text messages about the vaccine in Burmese. She got the shots and then urged other refugees to get vaccinated, too.

“Some people have underlying diseases, like diabetes, and if they get [the virus], they can die,” she said. “If they have diabetes or high blood pressure, they should get vaccination more than other people.”

Public health officials and resettlement groups across the U.S. have used such community strategies to encourage newly arrived refugees and other vulnerable people to get vaccinated against covid. And in places like Clarkston, health officials say these kinds of grassroots efforts are working. The metro Atlanta city — the hub of refugee resettlement in Georgia — has a higher vaccination rate than its county or state.

Refugees generally have been disproportionately affected by covid.

Those newly resettled may experience living situations or employment conditions that increase their risk of contracting the virus. Some refugees enter the country with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk of developing severe illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in multigenerational households, protecting older family members in cramped housing arrangements can be difficult.

Some refugees face other significant hurdles to immunization, including language barriers, a lack of transportation, and irregular work schedules.
“We want to make sure that these pandemics aren’t disproportionately affecting folks of color, migrants, refugees, and other folks in vulnerable categories,” said Kat Kelley, senior director of migration and refugee services at Virginia-based Catholic Charities USA. “If you have historically underserved communities, they’re going to remain underserved in any kind of crisis. You have to create a sustainable infrastructure that addresses those barriers.”

To create that infrastructure, the CDC developed a toolkit for local health departments and community organizations that includes covid-related messaging on the disease and vaccines in more than 30 languages. It also offered guidance for public health professionals, resettlement agencies, and employers on collecting data and work policies. And grassroots groups have hired bilingual, community-based workers to increase vaccination rates among refugees.