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Kentucky is Ramping Up Vaccinations. What About Refugees?

Lisa Autry

Kentucky hit a major milestone on Monday when the one-millionth vaccine was administered during a ceremony at the state Capitol.  With an increasing supply of the vaccine, the state has ramped up immunizations with a goal of vaccinating every Kentuckian by the summer.  In communities with large international populations like Bowling Green, part of the challenge is getting refugees and immigrants to roll up their sleeves. 

Understanding COVID-19 and the vaccine has been a bit of a learning curve for all of us, but what if you were new to the U.S. and not a native English speaker?  That’s the scenario for thousands of refugees living in Bowling Green.  Albert Mbanfu heads the Bowling Green-based International Center of Kentucky.  He says groups like his are working to combat a lack of knowledge and false information about the vaccine.

Credit Lisa Autry
Fr. Steven Vanlalthen, a priest at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, served as a translator for many in the Burmese community receiving their COVID-19 vaccine.

"They have been told the vaccine is not safe, the vaccine will make them sick, the vaccine will make them die, the vaccine will render them sterile and unproductive, etc., Mbanfu told WKU Public Radio. "So all of those false stories going around have also infiltrated the refugee community, and that’s posing a big concern for us.” 

The international center has promoted the vaccine on social media with educational material in multiple languages.  Staff have also posted videos of themselves getting vaccinated to counter any hesitancy. Outreach to refugees has become a community effort.  Just ask Father Steven Vanlalthen, a priest at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Bowling Green.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Father Steven, as he’s called, traded the pulpit for a nursing classroom on the campus of The Medical Center at Bowling Green.  He’s the only Burmese priest in the area and served as a translator at the hospital’s mass vaccination clinic.  He held up paperwork and walked his audience of Burmese refugees through the vaccination process in their native language.

"We have a responsibility to protect ourselves and to protect others," said Vanlalthen. "It’s also good to have somebody who can be a bridge builder between the people and those who are working in this environment.”

Holy Spirit Catholic Church has 168 Burmese families. Many of them received the vaccine on Sunday, and among the first in line was Andrew Mung, 37, who arrived in Bowling Green two years ago.

"I never expected to get it this soon because I feel like we’re the minority here," Mung said. "I expected to get it in the summer, so I’m very excited about it.”

Mung expressed gratitude and thought the vaccine, in his words, would at this point only be available to the wealthy. A healthcare worker instructed him to relax his shoulders and take a deep breath right before giving the injection.

"Relax, take a deep breath," the healthcare worker said. "There we go! Good job! Here’s a band aid for you. You’re good to go!”

Mung said his motivation for getting vaccinated was his family, including his 77-year-old mother.

"I live with my sister’s family and I got my mom here," he explained. "We live together.”

Credit Lisa Autry
Burmese refugee Andrew Mung received the COVID-19 vaccine at the Medical Center's vaccination clinic in Bowling Green.

In line behind Mung was Muan Vung, a petite young Burmese woman in a white puffer coat.  She didn’t speak English, but with Father Steven translating, she talked about contracting COVID-19.

"She was saying when she got COVID, she wasn’t feeling good," Father Steven said, as he translated. "She got fever, body aches, and was shivering. She couldn’t go to work and had to quarantine.”

This was the Medical Center’s first time vaccinating a large international group.  Dr. Melinda Joyce, Vice President for Corporate Support Services for Med Center Health, knows there are many more in the refugee community who still need to be reached.

"Probably the biggest challenge is language barriers," Joyce said. "So many of the papers, the informed consent and information about the vaccine itself, many of those aren’t in other languages. That’s one of the things that make it difficult, just translating that so everybody can understand.”

Communication challenges are one reason it’s an all-hands-on-deck for finding and vaccinating other refugees.  The Barren River District Health Department will host a pop-up clinic on Tuesday, March 16, at a local church for the international population.  Director Matt Hunt said the clinics target those in underserved areas where many refugees live.

"The nice part about pop-up clinics is that they’re mobile in nature, and so we’ll be able to go to various sites in not just Warren County, but our eight-county service region to provide the vaccine for hard-to-reach individuals," Hunt said.

Credit Lisa Autry
The Medical Center has vaccinated several refugee populations living in Bowling Green, including Burmese, Bosnians, and Congolese.

The International Center says it doesn’t track the number of COVID-19 cases within the refugee population, but an outbreak last year at an Ohio County poultry processing plant led to a large number of infections among Burmese workers.

Burma ranks third as the source of the most refugees living in Bowling Green, behind only Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the Kentucky Office for Refugees, nearly 850 Burmese refugees arrived in Bowling Green from 2015 to 2019.  Vaccinating them and other nationalities remains a work in progress.


Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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