Keck professor shares coronavirus work with White House task force

Photo of Dr. Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati’s posing for a selfie. In the background is a red "Keck Medicine of USC" and "I Got My Shot" poster. Baezconde-Garbanati’s also wears a multicolored scarf and a white mask with a "I Got My Shot" sticker on the left side of her mask.
Dr. Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati’s work utilizes canvassing and logistics, as well as a collaboration with local artists to promote vaccination accessibility. 

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, teams of volunteers and community members have been canvassing door-to-door in the houses of East Los Angeles to determine if people are eligible for the coronavirus vaccine. Currently, L.A. County is in Phase 1B of the vaccination distribution process which includes anyone 50 years or older, people with health conditions and disabilities and people working in healthcare, education, childcare, emergency services, maintenance, transportation and food and agriculture. Starting April 15, all individuals over 16 will be eligible for vaccination.

Dr. Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, associate dean for community initiatives at the Keck School of Medicine, has collaborated with a variety of organizations to promote messaging on the virus and help with the vaccination process. Her Stay Connected Los Angeles project focused on Latinx communities in East L.A. who are 65 years and older. 

“We’ve been able to [vaccinate] thousands of people literally, many of them who would have probably not been able to come in,” said Baezconde-Garbanati, who has been working in public health for over 20 years. “We really jumped on that part of the effort and got a team together to alleviate some of the issues that people were facing in terms of the logistics of getting vaccinated.”

With the success of the project, Baezconde-Garbanati — who also serves as the chair of the board of directors of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health — was invited by the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to present her work on Stay Connected Los Angeles to help the task force determine the next course of action for the nation in addressing disparities between different groups of people. The NAHH recently received a grant to work with 18 other organizations across the country on grassroots level efforts focused on coronavirus vaccinations among people from the Latinx community. 

“What’s happening is the task force is gathering information from multiple different groups and people in order to develop the best strategy at the federal level to be able to reach people in the most effective way,” said Baezconde-Garbanati. 

Stay Connected LA first started in order to provide a more impactful way of promoting information on the virus. Then, the year-old project grew to provide more support for Latinx communities who lacked the resources to get the vaccine. 

Challenges like the digital divide, misinformation and vaccine hesitancy have made it difficult for people to feel safe and to have access to the proper tools to schedule appointments and go to vaccine sites. According to the L.A. County Department of Public Health, Latinos make up 64% of L.A. County’s COVID-19 cases, and 53% of coronavirus deaths in L.A. County are from the Latinx population. These cases and death rates persist despite the fact that Hispanics and Latinos account for only 48.6% of the county’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

To combat this, the project collaborated with many community partners to get shuttle buses to bring people to the Keck Medical Center for vaccines. They also called about 96 churches and multiple organizations, and went door-to-door to determine vaccine eligibility. 

“One of the folks that we had acclimated said to one of our workers, ‘You’re giving me a chance at life… I would have never been vaccinated because I didn’t know where to go, who to talk to.’ She was 65 and older and she had two sons that had both left home… so she didn’t even know how to go about any of this and was not planning on getting vaccinated,” said Baezconde-Garbanati. 

Funded by the Keck Foundation, the project team also worked with local artists in the community who created images and messages to educate and inform people about proper hand-washing, mask-wearing and tackling vaccine hesitancy. From there, the project evolved to collaborate with other teams and organizations to become one unified outreach project to help Hispanic individuals get access to the vaccine.  

“We’d always intended from the start to have those sort of layers [in the project] that will be needed for people that just have more barriers and more challenges with adopting some of the things,” said Dr. Kayla de la Haye, the co-primary investigator who also spearheaded the project with Baezconde-Garbanati. “We want to get this messaging out, and this art that really gets people thinking about this and changing their mind, but there’s going to be a group of folks who have way more barriers to getting vaccinated… For that group of people we’re really going to work with community organizations and promotores de salud [health workers in Spanish-speaking communities] to have higher touch support for certain higher risk populations.”

Eleven East L.A.-based artists are currently working on their designs and concepts, which will be released between late April and May. The project also plans on having a digital art festival in the late summer or early fall. All of the artwork is culturally inspired by the local community and their insight to resonate with Latinx culture.

“They’re the vehicles that are getting a lot of this information out to people, and so they’re doing all of these amazing projects from billboards to GIFs. I’m working with an artist who’s putting up COVID-related art on a stairwell in East L.A.,” said de la Haye. “They’re just super passionate about doing that for their community and helping their communities recover and move through this and they’ve had so many amazing ideas.” 

Jane Steinberg, assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine and secondary researcher in the project, has facilitated meetings with the artists, town halls and focus groups to achieve a more democratic process. 

“This was very much community based participatory research. This is the community guiding what they think the messages should be from the artists, as opposed to us researchers coming in and saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this for your community, whether you like it or not,’” said Steinberg. 

Baezconde-Garbanati is also working on another project, Vaccinate Los Angeles, with the help of a creative agency, WONDROS, to expand messaging on the coronavirus and vaccine access to Latinos and African Americans in L.A. County. She emphasizes the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and the need for vaccinations for as many people as possible in order to establish a new normal. 

“There’s been many bad things about COVID, but there’s been many good things also that we’ve learned through COVID. I think that some people have had awful experiences; so many deaths, so much illness. Yet at the same time, there’s been images of hope — children that have been born, grandchildren that have been born and people are finally getting to hug them and see them,” said Baezconde-Garbanati. “I think COVID has helped us [reassess our core values] because we’ve been so isolated that we’ve realized the value of a family, of our friends … and we want to feel those people again.”