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These Fresno students are combating misinformation about the COVID vaccine in their communities

Madi Bolanos
Santiago Ocega and Andrea Gracida are directing students and their families to the vaccine clinic at Mclane High School.

A D.J. blasts music across the McLane High School campus in east Fresno. In the cafeteria nearby, medical professionals are administering the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s all part of the Fresno Unified School District’s new effort to bring vaccine clinics to students and their families.

Nereida Galvez Peñaloza, 17, is a senior at McLane. She hands out flyers to her peers at school with information about the COVID-19 vaccine. She’s a member of the Youth Squad, a new program that encourages young community members to get the vaccine. The squad was created by The Immigrant Refugee Coalition in Fresno and trains high schoolers to be junior community workers, also known as promoteritos in Spanish. 

Nereida says she joined the program to remind her peers why it’s important to get vaccinated.

“They're not only protecting themselves, they're protecting their loved ones, and the people that they care about,” she says. “And since there's a lot of variants of the virus, they have to protect themselves from that, too.” 

Her promoterito training has paid off with her family. She says her parents, who work in the fields, were hesitant to get the vaccine. But once she translated information about the shot into Spanish and Mixteco, they felt more comfortable getting it. But it hasn’t been as easy convincing her peers.

They’ve heard a lot of crazy things about the vaccine, she says, like “that it has chips inside” or “the government was going to track them.”

“But that’s just rumors,” she adds. 

She says people her age are seeing this misinformation on social media platforms. 

“Right now, everybody's trying to make rumors through TikTok about the vaccine, but you have to get your sources from a good source like from the CDC” she says.

Youth can help boost vaccination rates among their peers 

Among people ages 12 to 15 in the 93726 zip code where McLane High School is located, 41% have received the vaccine, according to the Fresno County Health Department. 

That’s where the promoteritos come in, says Genoveva Islas, executive director of Cultiva La Salud.

“To make sure that we're doing everything we can to help protect the health of our students,” she says. “Sick children don't learn; Sick teachers can't teach.” 

Sue Watson is the director of Together Toward Health, a California program that connects with community-based organizations to amplify public health outreach efforts during the pandemic. She says they’ve seen the importance of having trusted messengers who reflect the community leading those efforts.

And the natural extension of that, she says, “is now bringing youth more into the picture.”

Program inspires youth to become community health advocates

A few yards away from the D.J. booth, 16-year-old Gisel Gonzalez is stationed under a canopy, pointing students and their families toward the cafeteria where the vaccines are being administered. She’s a junior at McLane. She says the power of the promoteritos became evident to her when they went door-to-door, informing people in the area about the vaccination event. 

“We would go canvassing and sometimes they don't open the door to people they don't see as part of their ethnicity,” she says. “So then I decided to join [so that] people could get the vaccine, and that way we could give them more information.”

And being a part of the promoteritios has also helped her keep her family safe, she says. She says her mom, who works at an Amazon warehouse, didn’t believe COVID-19 was real at one point and didn’t want to get the vaccine. But Gisel shared the information she learned in the promoteritos program. 

“I was like, ‘you should get it because it's not only us, you're protecting yourself and others around you,’” she says. “And the vaccine isn't approved for younger kids, so you're also protecting them.” 

Her mom eventually got it to protect Gisel’s 6-year-old sister. 

Santiago Ocega, is a junior at McLane and another promoterito. He says the experience of informing his community about the vaccine has inspired him to provide medical services in Mexico in the future.  

“I have envisioned myself going to Mexico, and working like half of the year there to help out my community over there,” he says. 

The Youth Squad program has also given Nereida and Gisel the confidence to pursue a career in the medical field to keep their communities well and healthy. But first they have another vaccination event to staff. They’ll be at Roosevelt High School on Saturday providing information about the vaccine. 

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.
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