AKRON, Ohio — Some Akron-area immigrants and refugees are slow to get the COVID-19 vaccination, but it’s not for lack of trying.

What You Need To Know

  • Clunky online scheduling tools, troubling urban myths and fear influence vaccine rollout of immigrant communities

  • Several erroneous tales circulate among Akron’s Congolese while Bhutanese immigrants are hindered by clunky online scheduling systems

  • Community leaders Samantha Byake and Naresh Subba help circulate accurate information, while the North Akron Community development Corp. has several videos underway in Spanish, Swahili, Nepali and English

Clunky online scheduling tools, troubling urban myths and fear are influences that impact how immigrant communities receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

In Summit County, the COVID-19 vaccine is prevalent — shots are administered at more than 40 locations from the fairgrounds to urban parking lots.  As of April 12, nearly 40% of Summit County residents who want the vaccine have gotten them, according to the state.

But several erroneous tales have been circulating in the Congolese population, said community leader Samantha Byake.

Byake, 24, came to the U.S. two years ago with her family through the federal Refugee Resettlement Program. She helps communicate vital information to about 50 local Congolese families through programs at the Exchange House, a facility of the North Akron Community Development Corporation that offers year-round programming for immigrants, from healthcare clinics to social gatherings.

One potentially dangerous rumor about the vaccine, with the World Health Organization at its center, is based on the controversy over hydroxychloroquine. Early in the pandemic, the drug was considered a possible treatment for COVID-19.

When the WHO rejected it as a treatment, Africans were deeply troubled, Byake said. Hydroxychloroquine is an antimalarial drug commonly used in Africa, and Africans believd it could treat the virus.

“So people had doubts, they’re like, 'So why are they bringing the vaccine when we came out with medication?' And, they're not accepting it?” she said. “Because even Congolese [who are] old get infected here in Akron, they use remedies and get healed.”

The story was fueled by a viral social media post touting Uganda’s low COVID-19 infection rate and crediting hydroxychloroquine.

Byake said most Africans were immediately mistrustful of the vaccine, so theories flew. 

“You know, having a microchip in the vaccine and then the apocalypse so that they can control the world,” she said.

People were worried that even though the vaccine is not mandated it would become so soon, she said, so world powers could monitor and control global travel.

Africans also feared that China had unleashed COVID-19 to gain control of Congo’s natural resources, she said.

“We have a lot of things that people love to exploit,” she said, pointing to the country’s rich mineral deposits — copper, cobalt and zinc — as well as, iron, ore and diamonds.

Another story considers the virus an expression of white supremacy.

“People said it was kind of trying to manipulate the population,” she said. “Those big powers together to try to reduce the population of the world, to try to put their power into practice.”

Clunky online scheduling tools have also hindered immigrants’ ability to get vaccinated, said Naresh Subba.

“For the people that I've spoken to and who are willing to get the shots, it’s the appointment, you know, making an appointment is so difficult,” Subba said. “There are some people who have tried with their providers or pharmacies, the website, online forms. A number of times they are on the waiting list, and they don't get the calls again.”

A leader in the Bhutanese community, Subba has been in the country since 2002, earning a doctorate in nuclear physics at Kent State University. He now owns Family Groceries, a popular gathering place for the Bhutanese in North Hill, Akron’s international neighborhood.

Subba said some immigrants are just afraid of the vaccine.

“It's the stories, you know, they get from the social media: Vaccines are really bad,” he said. “They’ll be adversely affected.”

Subba does whatever he can to get helpful information to the immigrant community. When he and his wife were vaccinated a couple weeks ago, Subba posted on message boards a photo of himself wearing a sticker announcing he’d been vaccinated.

His grocery-store employees were all vaccinated at the Summit County Fairgrounds and Subba hung a vaccine flyer from Summa Health System in the front window of his grocery store.

He's is also is a member of the Bhutanese Community Association of Akron, which distributed vaccine information in chats and on social media for the Bhutanese, Hindu and Karen communities.

BCAA members also created audio messages on the chat boards for immigrants who can’t read English.

“So we’re trying our best,” Subba said. “But it’s not like reaching out to these people in person.”

To reach more immigrants, the North Akron Community Development Corporation this week partnered with Summa Health and Visual 14 Productions to create videos with vaccine information in Spanish, Swahili, Nepali and English. The videos are expected to be published in the next week.