COVID-19 From the Perspective of a Community Health Worker: Veronica Martinez Vargas
[Editor's note: Today's blog post comes from Dillon Nguyen, MCN intern. He is a senior at Salisbury University, majoring in Sociology with a double minor in Social Justice and English. Coming from a Vietnamese family, and with his mother working as a nail tech worker, Dillon has seen a lot of the struggles of the immigrant worker and he hopes to be able to improve the lives of people in less fortunate communities.]
COVID-19 has resulted in changes and struggles in our lives that most of us were not prepared for or expected. This includes dealing with illness, the loss of loved ones, mental health struggles, loss of income, food insecurity, and more. The services and knowledge that community health workers (CHWs) have provided during this pandemic have been instrumental in the fight against COVID-19, alleviating these struggles the community has been facing as a result of the pandemic and providing people with the appropriate resources, tools, and information needed to protect their health and the health of their loved ones.
Veronica Martinez Vargas, a CHW who is driven to help others and to give a voice to those who are less fortunate, has provided significant help against COVID-19 for her community in Salisbury, Maryland. Martinez Vargas experienced the limitations and struggles of being an immigrant without documentation. In turn, she wishes to make the lives of other immigrants better and easier with everything she can do as a CHW.
She has been helping as part of the Lower Shore Vulnerable Task Force, and has found many of her interactions with patients “genuine and meaningful.” One example is Maria Garcia,* a young woman whose father passed away from COVID-19 in Mexico. Martinez Vargas met Garcia at a local clinic. Garcia was fearful of getting the vaccine. Martinez Vargas told her that if she wanted, she would go to the clinic to walk Garcia through the vaccine process. Martinez Vargas gave Garcia her number. Soon after, Garcia called Martinez Vargas, who went to the clinic to support her. Martinez Vargas’s guidance helped her realize that if her dad got the vaccine, he might have still been alive and made her less hesitant to get vaccinated. She was very appreciative that Martinez Vargas went to the clinic just for her.
Martinez Vargas’s path to becoming a CHW is a result of earlier work in her career which connected her to members of the Lower Shore Vulnerable Populations Task Force. The members of the Task Force were looking to bring more Latinx voices to their organization and meetings. Their work specifically focused on how to reach the migrant and immigrant Latinx population, to let them know that there are resources available for them. There was concern about vaccine hesitancy in the Latinx community, and fear that there were not enough vaccines available. In anticipation of these obstacles, there was a need for members of the community to go into the field and reach out to people in these communities to help them. In September, Amy Liebman, Director of Environmental & Occupational Health at Migrant Clinicians Network (MCN), invited Martinez Vargas to join the Task Force’s efforts as a community health worker.
Martinez Vargas believes the number one trait a CHW should possess is relatability. CHWs speak with people from all walks of life; therefore, being relatable is essential to ensure that the communities being served feel that they are equally represented and that their voices are heard. Martinez Vargas delineates that it is important to have a CHW who speaks the native language of those the CHW helps to establish the relatability and connection between the trainer and the trainee. Furthermore, Martinez Vargas states it is important for CHWs to engage people with what they know and work from there to educate them further.
Martinez Vargas states that academic terms may be difficult for migrant community members to follow. Therefore, Martinez Vargas has fun with her message by giving examples of her own family members and in response community members found that this was relatable and often responded with phrases like “yes, I understand more now”.
COVID-19 has made it challenging to do traditional outreach such as one-on-one engagement and going to people’s homes. It can also be difficult to have good attendance for virtual trainings because many people do not have access to the internet, or they lack the knowledge on how to navigate Zoom.
In response, local CHWs serving migrants and immigrants began relying on platforms like radio shows, one-on-one messaging, flyers, WhatsApp, social media channels, and local TV news such as Telemundo Delmarva to emphasize important messages on the vaccine or to show what the vaccine is, what it does, and what are some potential side effects of it.
Despite increased access to vaccines, Martinez Vargas believes there is still a lot to be done due to a spike in hesitancy, and a new fear of vaccines due to the rare possibility of blood clots from the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Recent strategies that Martinez Vargas has used for the community are vaccine campaigns which share positive images surrounding vaccination with messages such as, “Vaccination is hope.” Martinez Vargas reached out to multiple organizations including the Lower Shore’s regional hospital, Tidal Health, to participate in the campaign through social media and the distribution of fliers and posters. These strategies offer positive messages that reinforce accurate information and reassure community members.
Martinez Vargas plans to continue to serve the health needs of her community, even after the pandemic has passed. She plans to study to become a Physician Assistant. She emphasizes that through her work in the community, she has learned what it means to be resilient and united. Thanks to her work, the community is safer and healthier.
* Patient name was changed to protect the identity of the patient.
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