HMS Genetics Anti-Racism Group Launches Team to Bolster Spanish-Speaking Custodial Staff’s Access to Vaccine Information


In its second semester of organizing, a group of Genetics postdoctoral and graduate student activists launched an offshoot team tasked with increasing support for custodial staff members and providing them with Covid-19 vaccine information in Spanish.

The Harvard Medical School Genetics Anti-Racism Group — which was formed last fall to implement anti-racist initiatives at the school and foster diversity in science — gathered volunteers for this new initiative at its second Town Hall on Feb. 26.

Since then, the resulting seven-person team has been holding weekly Q&A sessions to answer any questions custodial staff members have surrounding the vaccine and how to receive it.

HMS Genetics postdoctoral fellows Israel Pichardo-Casas and Yasmin Escobedo Lozoya began leading teach-ins in Spanish to disseminate information about Covid-19 testing last fall and winter. Some custodians at HMS do not speak fluent English and, as a result, did not fully understand how to access testing information and results online.


Jean I. Phane, a custodian at HMS and a shop steward for 32BJ Service Employees International Union, brought these issues to the student activists’ attention when he approached the group last fall.

Pichardo-Casas and Escobedo Lozoya continue to translate information to Spanish for staff members during the new team’s teach-ins about vaccines.

“Some of those questions were around which brand to use, whether there are risks,” Pichardo-Casas said. “People have known to have side effects in some instances, so they want to have a reference.”

Activist and genetics research fellow Marta Florio said the HMS custodial staff asked thoughtful questions.

“They had concerns about the comorbidity of other diseases,” Florio said. “Now after talking to us, I think some of them seem way more convinced that it's a good idea to get vaccines.”

In addition to the Q&A sessions, Florio said she hopes the team’s work can expand into Cambridge. She specifically envisions setting up kiosks where volunteers can help anyone pre-register for the vaccine. According to Florio, people who are excluded from networks of information sharing — either due to their language or other factors — may be uncertain about when and how they can receive their vaccines given pre-existing conditions.

“I hope that being reassured that they can be guided in the process of setting up an appointment may make a difference,” Florio said.

Genetics researcher Heather L. de Rivera, who formally joined the new initiative after last month’s town hall, has found the opportunity to connect with HMS custodial staff members “rewarding.”

“It's nice to see and make connections with people that I wouldn't necessarily run into every day or might not have the time to stop and talk to,” de Rivera said. “The human connection part of it — especially now, during the late stages of this pandemic — [is] pretty rewarding.”

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meimeixu7.