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Multicultural Subcommittee looks to knock down COVID-19 language barrier

FILE - In this May 14, 2020, file photo, Jerry A Mann, center, is held by his grandmother, Sylvia Rubio, as he is tested for COVID-19 by the San Antonio Fire Department (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The coronavirus pandemic has, thus far, disproportionately impacted Utahns of color. In particular, the Hispanic community continues to be hit hard. Their number of cases has already surpassed white residents, although Hispanics make up less than 15-percent of the state population. That’s why the state’s Multicultural Subcommittee, a part of the Utah COVID-19 task force, is looking for a way to break down language barriers and provide information to those affected.

Diving into the numbers

Specifically, the state is about 14-percent Hispanic, while Utah’s population is approximately 78-percent white. The cases of Hispanic Utahns surpassed those of white residents in late May and now the gap has grown to over 1,000 cases.

In direct reaction to these developing numbers, the state created a Multicultural Subcommittee as part of their COVID-19 Task Force. The subcommittee, made up of a diverse group of 23 individuals with varying backgrounds, launched in late April.

While it seems like a progressive and forward-thinking initiative to tackle a unique problem, it does raise the question of whether the state actually waited too long to create such a group.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck represented Salt Lake City’s District 24 in the Utah House of Representatives from 2008-18. Now, she’s one of the members on the Multicultural Subcommittee.

“What I would say is we’ve been playing a lot of catch-up,” she explains. “Trying to find ways to best communicate.”

Subcommittee tackles challenges 

Chavez-Houck notes that communication is central to staying safe in this worldwide pandemic. A government warning can only do so much if you aren’t able to understand the language.

“Language access was a challenge,” says the former representative. “Initially, a lot of the information, early, early on, was only being put out in English.”

Because of that, in the short-term, the group’s top priority has been increasing language accessibility.

That means translating online information or meeting with communities to help interpret. Most recently, it includes relying on trusted minority members in the community to relay the latest information in an easily understood fashion. These often times are religious leaders or elected officials at the local level. The only problem is the latest information seems to be constantly changing.

According to Chavez-Houck, the state changing “risk levels” so often may be making it more difficult for minority groups to properly follow safety guidelines.

“I believe, to me anyways, you just get yourself up to speed and you start communicating the restrictions and the recommendations for one level… and then it changes again,” she explains.

The group is also calling on local businesses and employers to support employees of color through the pandemic. Officials say there’s a number of ways to do this. For example, expanding time-off or work-from-home capabilities for high-risk individuals. Chavez-Houck says basic PPE is also a major help.

“It is still hard for some to afford to buy their own masks and gloves,” she explains. “Especially if they need disposable items, when they are just barely making ends meet trying to provide housing, food and basic needs for themselves and their families.”

The “Mask for Every Utahn” program is still accepting orders from those who don’t have a face mask and aren’t able to get one from someone else.