Study: After getting hospitalized for COVID, some unvaccinated Latino patients went on to advocate for vaccinations

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Medical assistant Yasmin Tellez preps a Moderna COVID-19 vaccination at Globeville’s Clinica Tepeyac. Jan. 26, 2021.

A new study finds some unvaccinated Latino patients hospitalized for COVID-19 were motivated to encourage vaccination after their illness.

A team of Colorado researchers interviewed 25 unvaccinated hospitalized with the coronavirus and survived. Dr. Lilia Cervantes, one of the researchers, said before they got sick many felt COVID didn't exist or they didn't trust information about the virus.

“And after being hospitalized, felt like, 'Wow, yes, I had COVID. I was really sick. I saw other people that had COVID and were also really sick.' This thing is real,” said Cervantes, an associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Latinos in Colorado and nationally have lower COVID-19 vaccination rates than other groups. 

Why? And do views about the vaccine change after someone gets hospitalized due to the virus? Colorado researchers aimed to find out by asking unvaccinated Latino patients hospitalized with COVID-19 how their views changed and if hospitalization inspired a change of heart about vaccine shots.

One of the survey respondents described being scared they were going to die after hearing hospital staff discuss bringing in a machine to intubate them.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to die.’ I didn’t believe in COVID,” the patient told researchers.

But catching a bad case of the virus changed the patient's views, encouraging them to get the vaccine.

“My opinion changed for the best, because I said, ‘I’ll protect myself with the vaccine.’”

The team conducted the survey interviews at Denver Health, a public safety-net hospital that provides healthcare for people regardless of their insurance status. The patients' perspectives offer insight into what shaped their views before and after getting sick.

“The majority do end up getting vaccinated because they don't want to experience near death again,” Cervantes said.

Some got motivated to share positive vaccination messages with friends and family

After hospitalization, 18 of the people surveyed received the COVID-19 vaccine. Others in the Latino survey group were in the process of scheduling them, were undecided or declined to get the vaccine.

Cervantes says before they got sick many of the Latinos in the survey group felt COVID didn't exist or they didn't trust information about the virus.

Many, but not all, were motivated to encourage vaccination to their friends and families.

“Because so much of this information is word of mouth, they wanted to sort of engage in their own advocacy in sharing positive information,” she said.

Cervantes said until now, the hesitancy question had been little studied in the Latino community. The new research was published in JAMA Network Open. It details an array of familiar explanations people had for opting out of vaccines and reveals their reasoning for deciding whether or not to get one after being hospitalized due to the virus.

The question is an important one since less than half of Colorado’s Hispanics — the demographic term used by the state health department — are vaccinated, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard. That vaccination rate is worse than it is for other major demographic groups. More than two-thirds of white, Black, American Indian and Asian Coloradans are now vaccinated with two doses. Hispanics also lag behind for booster shots, state data show.

Latino individuals in the U.S. have higher rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths than non-Latino white individuals.

Life expectancy in Colorado has dropped sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Hispanic residents, life expectancy dropped from 81.4 years to 77.3, from 2019 to 2020.

'I didn’t believe in it.'

Some study participants described sharing their COVID-19 hospitalization experience with friends and family. “Yes, I told them, take care of yourselves, get tested, because look at me, I didn’t believe in it and see where I am now,” one said.

Hospitalization scared some of the patients, who reported being afraid of dying or wanting to avoid reinfection or another trip to the hospital. For others, surviving COVID was a close brush with death. The newfound fear of death outweighed concerns about the vaccine. 

One participant told researchers, “I have a 10-year-old son, and if anything were to happen to me, I don’t know.” 

“I could have lost my life to COVID,” said another. “And it just changed my whole opinion about the vaccine … I could have ended up dying and then my mom burying her youngest son and leaving behind my friends and family.”

Some study participants said they got their shots mostly due to pressure from others. One participant said, “I still don’t trust the vaccine. I was pressured to get the vaccine by my daughters,” who said you’re selfish if you don’t do it.

Some described feeling forced to be vaccinated because their employers required it.

Cervantes says the findings suggest low Latino vaccination rates could be improved by addressing mistrust, misinformation and helping recovering patients encourage family and friends to get the vaccine.

Why did the patients not get the vaccine originally? The patients expressed concerns about its experimental status and short production timeline, what’s in the vaccine, whether it’s effective, as well as worries about immediate and long-term adverse effects and mixed/conflicting information.