Cross-sector solution needed to address disparities

Community Builders Covid Safety

Ana Laura Piñeyro provides public health information about COVID-19 safety to residents in Boardman. Photo: Patricia Ortiz

Latino community suffers from disproportionate COVID-19 effects

When it comes to keeping the most vulnerable residents safe and healthy, the actions of community leaders throughout Oregon demonstrate that community building and public health create a powerful combination.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health professionals have spoken out about the disproportionate infection and mortality rates in people of color and in low-income communities across the country. Experts warn that social determinants of health, such as access to preventive care, safe employment conditions, housing circumstances and other environmental factors, cause some segments of the population to be at higher risk for illness.

Dr. Eva Galvez, a physician at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Clinic in Hillsboro, can attest to these findings. She sees the adverse effects of social determinants of health among her patients, many of whom are deemed essential workers — people working in food processing plants, construction and caregiving.

“In Oregon, Latinos make up about 13% of Oregon’s total population, but are about 40% of the total cases,” Galvez explains. More on-the-job exposure is one reason for this statistic. A lack of a coordinated strategy for distributing personal protective equipment and health and safety information to workers  have meant that these elevated levels of infection have remained high throughout the pandemic.

So what does community building have to do with public health?

The solution to racial and economic disparities in health outcomes, Galvez says, is not going to come from just the medical field or any one sector. “It’s really going to require collaboration across different sectors.”

Community builders and Latinx leaders are one example. They often have direct contact and relationships with residents, such as essential workers, in rural areas where information and protective supplies are less likely to be distributed. They have been able to use networks of trust within communities to support public health efforts and save lives.

Over the last two years, an Oregonwide team of Latinx community leaders has convened regularly to share inspiration, strategize and support one another. This tight network of colleagues and friends, called Fortaleza (Spanish for strength), proved key for the resiliency and safety of the communities they serve.

Fortaleza team members created a social media group to share real-time information from state and community-based agencies. Community members knew the information they were receiving was trustworthy.

Team members also built new capacities. Some learned how to create podcasts to reach residents. Others joined statewide councils. One maintained a connection to the Oregon Health Authority. And each one made sure their community’s voice was represented.

Communication

Oregon’s growing population of immigrants from indigenous communities in Latin America means accessible public health information needed to be translated to multiple languages — especially Mam and Quiché from Mayan areas of Guatemala.

“We have a language barrier. Unfortunately, information doesn’t usually circulate in Quiché,” explains community builder Ana Laura Piñeyro in Boardman. “We found information available online in Quiché and distributed it around the community by hanging posters.”

Quiche Poster

A COVID-19 prevention poster in Quiché. The indigenous language from Latin America is spoken by some of Oregon’s immigrants. Community builders in the Boardman area found the posters online and distributed them in their community.

Piñeyro’s pioneering work has meant other community builders, from the Klamath Basin to Cottage Grove, have reached out to her for materials and support. Equitable communication doesn’t help just the Quiché community. “It also helps the rest of us be more aware that there are people who speak languages other than Spanish and English,” she says. Organizations in Hermiston and Boardman are now hiring people who speak both Quiché and Spanish.

Dr. Galvez agrees. Her patients, many of whom work in essential industries and speak Latin American indigenous languages, also bring with them different cultural perspectives. As a public health professional, she has expanded her practice and understanding to best serve such patients.

Community builders’ cross-sector work with the medical community is helping to offset the racial and economic disparities in COVID-19 outcomes, and the payoff: lives saved.

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