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Grassroots organizations are crucial to closing health literacy gaps in immigrant communities, report finds

Reverend Dieufort Fleurissaint, known as Pastor Keke, used television programs, radio shows, and social media to dispel myths about the pandemic and try to help immigrant communities understand the importance of getting vaccinated. PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

By Katie Mogg Globe Correspondent, Updated November 1, 2022, 7:24 p.m.

When COVID-19 vaccinations began to roll out in early 2021, it finally seemed as if there were a light at the end of the tunnel. But manyimmigrant communities in Boston and across the state remained in the dark as they faced misinformation and language barriers to the resources they needed to stay healthy during the pandemic.

That’s whenReverend Dieufort Fleurissaint, a local Haitian American leaderbetter known as Pastor Keke, stepped up to help.

Fleurissainttook to the airwaves, using television programs, radio shows, and social media to dispel myths about the pandemic and try to help immigrant communities understand the importance of getting vaccinated.

Fleurissaint’s efforts demonstrated the critical role local leaders and grassroots organizations play in the effort to close health literacy gaps among immigrant communities during the pandemic and in the future, according to a new report released Tuesday.

“That’s my duty, just to find the correct information by listening to health experts,” Fleurissaint, executive director and chairof Haitian advocacy groups True Alliance Center and Haitian Americans United, told researchers in the report by Equity Now & Beyond, an immigrant health equity coalition made up of Haitian, Brazilian, African, and Latino immigrant groups.

Fleurissaint said he also aimed to learn how to access accurate information and how to “disseminate the right information to our people.”

Those efforts paid off, according to the report, entitled “Expanding the Network: The Role of Immigrant Community Based Organizations in COVID-19 Vaccine Information and Access.”

Throughout the past year, Equity Now & Beyond was able to vaccinate more than 6,250 immigrants, educate more than 100,000 community members, and distribute tens of thousands of personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer, said Kevin Whalen, co-director of the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing, which coordinated the coalition.

Equity Now & Beyond hired research assistants from immigrant community organizations to build trust and form relationships with immigrants and learn about their health concerns and knowledge gaps, the report said. Researchers sought to discern what role immigrant community organizations in Boston played in responding to the pandemic, as well as how Equity Now & Beyond was building partnerships with communities and health care organizations.

Over the summer and fall of 2021, researchers conducted 877 surveys, observations, and informal interviews at 36 vaccination clinics. grassroots and They interviewed immigrants in their native languages. Besides gathering information, their goal was to ensure community members felt heard, were properly informed, and had access to resources like health insurance, vaccinations, and referrals to health providers.

Now, the coalition plans to replicate those strategies to help immigrant communities consistently access COVID-19 resources and other health needs to navigate everyday life and future health crises,the report said.

The researchers also made other recommendations about how to improve the health of members of immigrant communities.

“Resources should be put into ensuring that the health safety net is widened,” saidClare Louise Okalany, chief operating officer of African Community Economic Development of New England, one of the groups in Equity Now & Beyond. Okalany was among nine panelists at a Tuesday morning press conference unveiling the coalition’s report.

The report outlines several policy recommendations to improve social determinants of health such as housing, job opportunity, and health care. Itcalls for increased permanent supportive housing, fast-track certification for foreign-trained health care personnel, and “wrap-around” clinics offering not only COVID-related resources, but primary care services as well, like blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol screenings.

“We recognize the essential role that social and structural determinants of health play in producing stark disparities in health outcomes,” Fleurissaint said at the press conference. “All of these organizations [in Equity Now & Beyond] will try to promote more equitable policies and practices.”

Katie Mogg can be reached at Follow her on twitter @j0urnalistkatie