Facing COVID vaccine hurdles, Austin’s Vietnamese community looks for own solutions

Hojun Choi

Fed up with the difficulties in getting access to COVID-19 vaccinations, multiple Vietnamese American organizations in Austin say they’re taking it upon themselves to help vulnerable populations within their community.

While Austin Public Health has distributed translated information regarding COVID-19 vaccines, those who work directly with the local Vietnamese community say the resources are not reaching people, notably those who are older, because of barriers related to language, culture and technology.

“We have older people who do not speak English, who don’t know how to get on to the website, they don’t know how to register,” said Tony Pham, 67, a member of the Austin Vietnamese Senior Citizens Association. 

Although such information and help are publicly available, members of the community continue to have hurdles related to language and technology access, Pham said. The channels through which older people in the Vietnamese community get their information is disconnected from such social media platforms as Twitter.

Many in the older Vietnamese population also do not use email, adding yet another layer of challenges for volunteers who are trying to help them, Pham and other members of the senior citizens association said.

Those barriers, along with the anxiety of feeling unintelligent or ignored, has led many in his community to give up on getting the vaccine, Pham said.

“For them to know that they can get help is a major step forward,” Pham said. “You have to put in the idea that if you need help, there are people who can help you. That’s 90% of the game already.”

Quy Pham Nguyen, who is 79, told the American-Statesman that she was stonewalled multiple times at different locations when she was trying to get her second COVID-19 vaccine dose.

Though Nguyen said she felt fortunate to finally have gotten her second shot, she said others in the Vietnamese community who are elderly continue to face problems in getting vaccinated.

“The application is really complicated; they ask you too many questions,” Nguyen said. “You have to take a picture, upload information about insurance. I don’t know how to do that; there are too many problems.” 

After the senior citizens association learned of the difficulties with vaccine access, leaders in the organization started a list for members who wanted to get the vaccine, but did not know where to look.

Because many older members of the Vietnamese community do not get news from local sources or information from government agencies, however, leaders of the Vietnamese senior association said misinformation is making some hesitant to get vaccinated. 

Some believe that the COVID-19 vaccine is poorly manufactured and can harm them, or that inoculation could make them more vulnerable to being infected with the disease, Pham said. He said he thinks some of the misinformation stems from propagandistic news from Vietnam, while some is a product of unconfirmed rumors.

To dispel some fears related to the vaccine, a local organization called Open Eyes Beyond Border worked with the senior association in late March to hold a COVID-19 vaccine information session, where medical professionals from the Austin area answered questions in Vietnamese.

The organization will work Saturday and Sunday with a local pharmacy to hold a pop-up vaccination event that will offer about 600 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at MT Supermarket in North Austin, a location that Kim Chi Trinh, president of Open Eyes Beyond Border, said will be more easily accessible for the local Asian community. 

She said her organization worked with others, including the Austin Asian Community Health Initiative, to register people for vaccinations. The event has helped not only the local Vietnamese population, but also has signed up people from other Southeast Asian communities who are also experiencing difficulties with COVID-19 vaccine access, including people from Myanmar and Nepal.

Trinh said the organization also will have interpreters at the event who can guide people with limited English proficiency. 

“I think the fact that it’s a popular shopping center for the local Asian community and that it’s more centrally located helps. People in the Asian community know where it is, so it’s easier to find transportation,” Trinh said.

Dr. Luan Tran is the CEO of the Austin Vietnamese American Medical Professional Society, which participated in the March information session for seniors in the Vietnamese community.

Tran said her organization is collaborating with Williamson County and Curative, a biotech company that has been helping with COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, on a pop-up vaccine event for the Vietnamese senior community later this month.

Tran said 200 people will be able to get vaccinated through the event scheduled for April 16. The organization is in the middle of hosting a similar event in Travis County. 

Although nonprofits in the area have helped people register for vaccinations through local health authorities and pharmacies, Tran said pop-up vaccination events will better accommodate people in her community.

“It’s not as effective as bringing in Austin Public Health or Williamson County to bring in several hundred shots at once,” she said.

Tran said the organization hosts a health fair each year for the Vietnamese community, but it has had difficulty educating older adults about the coronavirus pandemic and the options available to them for vaccinations.

She hopes the pop-up vaccination clinics can be a step in the right direction. 

“I feel like I have not done enough. We had too many restraints with the pandemic. We couldn’t do our health fair, and that’s where we see them every year,” Tran said. “I just feel like we haven’t had a break, so I feel like if we can do this, I would feel so much better knowing that we did something to contribute.”


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