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Eyes wide with surprise, Adelita Cantu, PhD, RN, FAAN, pulled into the parking lot of the UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing in December 2020.
Media trucks populated the parking lot and reporters bustled in and out of the nursing school on a mission to capture their next headline.
Adjusting her mask, Adelita took in the unexpected flurry of media, stepped out of her vehicle, and made her way into the nursing school.
Inside, amid her chatting colleagues, reporters readied their pens, cameras, and microphones.
Nearly a year after COVID-19 began infecting Texans – especially Latinos – Bexar County had finally gotten its hands on its first COVID-19 vaccines – and it was time to celebrate.
Applause rightfully flooded the room as all eyes focused on the vaccines that would save lives.
“This is a historic moment,” Adelita thought. “And I get to be a part of it.”
She patiently waited for her turn to be one of the first to receive the vaccine in Bexar County. When it was time, Adelita rolled up her sleeve and gratefully welcomed the small poke of the vaccine needle.
In that moment, Adelita felt nothing but joy, privilege, and feelings of hope for the future of public health and infection control in healthcare settings and the community.
A Leader in Infection Control
Being one of the first people to receive a COVID-19 vaccine is not the first time Adelita rolled up her sleeve to support the health of San Antonio, nor will it be her last.
As a UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing associate professor, Adelita is at the forefront of COVID-19 infection control, especially for vulnerable San Antonio populations, like the Latino community.
The west-side San Antonio native has a strong understanding of the health inequities Latinos face, and how those inequities contribute to health disparities, including still-present COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
That’s why she took the opportunity to be one of the first Latinas in Bexar County to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. She wanted to show the Latino community that the vaccine is safe.
“Since publicly getting the vaccine, I’ve had Latinas and Latinos tell me, ‘I saw you get it. I got the vaccine because you got it.’ That makes my heart feel full,” Adelita said.
But as vaccines became more widely available in 2021, it was apparent that uncertainty was not the only problem preventing Latinos from getting vaccinated.
Socioeconomic barriers, such as lack of transportation, were slowing vaccination rates among Latinos.
Adelita helped break these barriers by coordinating one of the first mobile vaccine clinics in San Antonio. She teamed up with UT Health colleagues, nursing students, and other organizations to bring the COVID-19 vaccine to over 300 communities, including vulnerable Latinos.
While providing these vaccine services, volunteers like Adelita noticed a strong need for health literacy resources to help people make appropriate health decisions, such as getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
With funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, UT Health and community partners formed Health Confianza, a local resource hub for healthcare providers and an initiative to fight health literacy disparities among Latinos and all San Antonians.
Adelita continues to be involved with the mobile vaccine clinic and Health Confianza.
One of her upcoming projects for Health Confianza includes bringing health literacy and infection control resources into an important area of communities – schools.
She will be helping coordinate five workshops for school nurses in August 2022. The workshops will focus on giving school nurses the tools to respond to vaccine myths with evidence-based COVID-19 information.
“The school nurses are not just seeing the kids, they’re also interacting with the kids’ parents and caregivers and can give this information to them,” Adelita explained. “So that’s why school nurses are so important to connect with.”
Preparing the Next Generation of Nurses
Beyond infection control, Adelita has helped contribute to the long-term health of communities by overseeing nursing students as they deliver exercise, healthy food, and abstinence-plus programs to thousands of South Texans, including Latinos, through Good Samaritan Community Services.
“In all of the programs, I give direction, but the nursing students do the teaching and work with the community members,” Adelita told Mission magazine. “This gives the students a perspective they will not get from just treating patients at the bedside. Students must understand the context of the community in order to better treat each individual patient.”
Adelita further contributes to the long-term health of Latinos and all communities by teaching nursing students the complexities of health inequities, and how to address them in their career.
“Students complete a simulation in which they complete certain tasks,” Adelita explained. “For instance, they’ve just been evicted, and they go need to go to San Antonio Housing Authority and apply for housing. But they don’t have a car, so they have to take the bus. I don’t tell them how to get there, they need to figure that out themselves.”
This activity can be eye opening for students, especially for those who have never faced health inequities before.
“It’s an opportunity to give students an understanding of why health disparities exist,” Adelita said. “We are giving students the tools not just to care for acute patient problems, but also provide resources to help patients better manage their health in the future.”
Climate Change as a Public Health Issue
Throughout Adelita’s career, climate change has remained a public health issue that disproportionately affects Latinos and other vulnerable populations.
About 12 years ago, Adelita joined the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and has since taught other nurses and students about the human health implications of environmental issues.
Additionally, she helped the City of San Antonio develop a climate action plan in 2017 that outlines how the city will address and mitigate the consequences of climate change.
Adelita is also on CPS Energy’s Rate Advisory Committee and is currently helping with generation planning to lessen climate change impact.
“There are a lot of the layers to addressing climate change, so we need to work together,” Adelita said.
Keep on Rolling
After 45 years of a successful career in nursing, education, and public health, Adelita only hopes to contribute even more to her treasured San Antonio community.
“I grew up in a very traditional Hispanic home and culture, and I think that connection makes me want to continue contributing to the health and well-being of that community,” Adelita said. “I want to look back and say I’ve been able to contribute in many small ways, and maybe even some large ways.”
Considering her diverse dedication to Latino health and her unrelenting willingness to roll up her sleeve for the health of her community, she is far surpassing those goals.
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.