By Jayde Biggert

In describing her “why” for getting vaccinated against COVID-19, Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition Executive Director Mufalo Chitam spoke to the importance of the work that the organization has been involved in since the start of Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Given Maine’s troubling racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 cases and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the immigrant community, we anticipated many challenges concerning access and equitable distribution as the vaccine rollout began. MIRC’s vaccination efforts within the immigrant community have been twofold, focusing on increasing access to vaccinations as well as increasing vaccine confidence through education and outreach.

Jayde Biggert
Mufalo Chitam gets her second vaccine

“This week I took my second COVID-19 vaccine shot to help increase vaccine confidence in our communities of color, in light of the suspension in use of Johnson and Johnson. Our communities need to continue seeing more people they know get vaccinated, especially leaders who have been speaking about its importance.”

Mufalo Chitam

New Mainer communities have experienced many significant barriers to accessing the COVID-19 vaccines, including language, transport, technology, and education and outreach. Ethnic community-based organizations (ECBOs) have been working tirelessly to register community members for vaccine appointments and to provide onsite language support and cultural brokering at vaccine clinics. Due to barriers, and the severe impact the pandemic has had on Maine’s immigrant, BIPOC, and socially marginalized populations, MIRC has been advocating for these communities to be prioritized in the vaccine rollout. MIRC has been a critical community partner in the set-up and promotion of mass vaccination sites at the Portland EXPO, Scarborough Downs, and in York County. MIRC has worked to ensure that these sites cater to the cultural and linguistic needs of Maine’s diverse immigrant populations by doing site “walkthroughs” and collaborating with immigrant community leaders to produce multilingual promotion videos. Since the sites have been open, we have been advocating strongly for equitable distribution, and allocated appointment blocks specifically for our communities. In addition to these mass vaccination sites, MIRC has also supported various “pop-up” clinics organized by Maine Housing and Portland Housing Authority by facilitating interpretation and cultural brokering support.

In addressing vaccine access, a large part of our work has also centered on creating culturally appropriate educational materials in the 17 languages mostly prominently spoken by Maine’s immigrant communities. Building upon our earlier outreach work concerning COVID-19 safety, we have formed strong networks of information sharing and collaboration to ensure that our messaging is factually accurate and has a wide reach. We have been involved in community “pulse check” efforts through surveys and frequent check-ins with community leaders about community members’ concerns, questions, and challenges regarding the COVID-19 vaccines. This has enabled us to better craft our materials and their distribution based on community needs. With all the misinformation, vaccine myths, and changing information, it has been critical that we provide consistent and transparent messaging to our communities that is simultaneously culturally and linguistically accessible.
Initial data about Maine’s vaccination efforts illustrate persistent racial and ethnic disparities in doses administered, suggesting that we still have a long way to go to achieve equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. MIRC and its member organizations continue to be instrumental in working towards such equity, both in terms of systems advocacy to reduce barriers, as well as in changing individual perceptions and increasing vaccine confidence on the ground. We are proud to be so deeply engaged in this collective effort to keep our communities healthy and safe.

Originally from Eswatini (Swaziland), South Africa, Jayde Biggert serves as a MIRC program associate. She studied at Bates College, where she was a French major, and graduated at the beginning of the pandemic.