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Utah minorities hit hard by coronavirus pandemic

University of Utah Health’s Ashley Cameron, left, and Dakota Silva work together as they test people for COVID-19 during the University of Utah’s Wellness Bus drive-thru testing event at Centennial Park in West Valley City. (PHOTO: File)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The coronavirus pandemic has forced state health officials to relay vital information, which often changes in a short period of time, to millions of residents all over the state. But just like how the pandemic has forced everyday people to drastically change their lives, it also has forced the state to rethink some of their delivery tactics. This is especially true for how information is presented to minorities in Utah.

Minorities hit hard early on

The Hispanic community accounts for just over 14% of the total population in Utah, meanwhile those who are white make up about 78% of the population. Despite such a wide disparity, by late May, the Hispanic community actually accounted for more total coronavirus cases than the white population. By the middle of June, they accounted for 1,000 more total cases than the white population.

At that time, the state started seriously looking into the various outbreaks that were causing these rising numbers in minority communities. One of the individuals tasked with doing that homework was Keegan McCaffrey, an epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health. In an interview at the time, McCaffrey was asked to explain what exactly he and others were looking for when they started researching this information.

“We investigate every case to see if they are linked to other cases that might be linked to an outbreak,” explains McCaffrey. “So, we took our first 210 outbreaks and looked to see in outbreaks that were in work sites, what types of  work sites were those in and who was being infected?”

He says the breakdown of these outbreaks was, for the most part, mirroring the state’s overall numbers.

“Most of our outbreaks were in three main sectors,” says McCaffrey. “Those were manufacturing, whole sale trade and construction. They accounted for more than half of our workplace outbreaks. Then we looked at who is most likely to be infected. We found a huge disparity in Hispanic or non-white workers. In the workforce, people that self-identify as Hispanic or non-white account for about 24% of workers. However, we found that in these outbreaks they account for 73% of our outbreak cases.”

Multicultural Subcommittee assesses the problems

In late April and into May, the state began organizing a number of leaders to serve on a Multicultural Subcommittee, which would be a part of their larger COVID-19 task force. The goal was to establish a baseline of service for minorities and identify gaps in pandemic assistance for these marginalized groups.

“We have found by data, that we have maybe more significant challenges with our minority groups,” Governor Gary Herbert said at a press conference in April. “We’re concerned in making sure they understand and get the information necessary for them to survive.”

For those on the committee, it became obvious that information wasn’t being distributed as effectively as possible to many communities that were considered “high risk.”

“What I would say is we’ve been playing a lot of catch-up,” says Rebecca Chavez-Houck, member of the state’s COVID-19 Multicultural Advisory Committee and former state representative.

[We’re] trying to find ways to best communicate to communities, says Chavez-Houck.

“Initially a lot of the information, early on, was only being put out in English,” she explains. “Resources that were available were maybe not presented in the literacy level that is best accommodating to a majority of individuals that are limited English proficient.”

Translating to fight the virus

As it turns out, Edwin Espinel and his team at the state department of health were about to embark on a serious challenge to ensure that everyone, especially at-risk minorities, would receive coronavirus material in their own language.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was placed in charge of identifying what languages we need and what languages we need to translate,” says Espinel, Spanish Public Information Officer with the Utah Department of Health. “With the Office of Health Disparities, we were able to identify over 26 different languages in this state that are prevalent.” 

Quickly, basic information about the virus, various mask requirements and community resource material was re-written and distributed in these languages.

He’s quick to add that translating information for a website or pamphlet isn’t enough, though. The coronavirus pandemic has been a new experience for everyone and naturally has raised tough questions that deserve thoughtful consideration. For that, his department sought a creative solution.

“The Office of Health Disparities started modestly with a small amount of money and funded 12 community-based organizations to hire community health workers,” he explains. “What we did was train these community health workers in what is happening, so they can do it in a culturally and linguistically appropriate way. And I’m not just talking about Hispanics; I’m talking about Tongans, Arabs, Somalis…”

Espinel says the coronavirus “problem” with minorities is far from over and they continue to work every day in hopes of making life easier for these at-risk populations. With that being said, they have enjoyed great success.

The most concerning demographic, Hispanics, has dropped from around 42% of all total cases to about 32%. Additionally, Pacific Islanders account for under 4% of all cases and American Indians are under 2%.