Summit County, volunteers bolster outreach to Spanish speakers during pandemic
FRISCO — In Summit County, a lack of Spanish speakers or qualified interpreters in local government has long been an issue in efforts to connect to the Latino community, who are among the most critical members of the county’s workforce.
Now, with the novel coronavirus epidemic, efforts are being made by the county and volunteers to reach out to the county’s Spanish-speaking population, as their cooperation in slowing the spread of the virus is key to protecting Summit’s public health and restarting its economy.
The effort comes as new information is constantly released about COVID-19 and experience other nations have had dealing with the virus for weeks or months before the outbreak in the U.S.
One big lesson on responding to the virus has been the need to better inform and care for immigrant workers in communities where they are often marginalized or underserved. Such was the case for the tiny city-state of Singapore, which was initially seen as a model for other nations to follow due to a low infection and death rate.
Singapore initially responded to the new virus by providing a wealth of resources, such as health communications from the government and personal protective equipment, to its citizens and wealthy tourists when the pandemic was in its infancy. However, the government appeared to largely ignore foreign-born workers, who make up about a third of Singapore’s workforce. These workers, many of whom came from South Asia, already struggled to deal with cultural and linguistic barriers in Singapore.
Aside from providing little in the way of resources, Singapore made the health problem for foreign workers worse by requiring them to self-quarantine in their densely-packed dormitory housing complexes, where the virus spread unmitigated for weeks. That led to a huge spike in infections, peaking on April 20 when 1,426 new cases were recorded.
Summit County, with its tourism-based economy, is no less reliant on immigrant workers. who are already shut out from several forms of federal aid and can be more vulnerable to the damaging health and financial impacts of the pandemic.
Seeing the need to rapidly increase outreach to the Spanish-speaking community to prevent infection spikes in the future, the county has launched a messaging campaign, collaborating with Spanish-speaking volunteers to get the word out and relay timely public health information to the community.
During the Summit County Board of Health meeting on April 23, Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland raised the efforts the county is taking in collaboration with a group of volunteers to spread the word.
On the county’s end, Summit County Communications Director Julie Sutor has overseen an effort to translate public health and other government communications in Spanish and have the translations available on signs, notices and information disseminated to the public alongside the messaging in English. A mobile COVID-19 testing site facilitated by Vail Health was set up at the Dillon Valley West clubhouse, where many Latino workers reside, with notices posted on residents’ doors in both English and Spanish.
The county has also recruited Spanish speakers among its workforce for a “Latinx Response Task Force” to help translate and push the messaging out to the Latino community.
Leading the volunteer effort is the Care Program Coordinator for the Summit County Community and Senior Center, Jenniffer Gonzalez, who started work for the county in March. Soon after starting work there, the pandemic hit Frisco. Almost immediately after that government officials sought Spanish speakers to help get public health messaging out into the Latino community.
“I know for years it’s been very challenging for the county to communicate with the Latino community,” said Gonzalez, who has lived in Summit County since 2004. “Now all of this information is coming out, about legal services and financial assistance but much of it is being posted only in English.”
Gonzales said that aside from her, there are other volunteers from the county government, the Family & Intercultural Resource Center and members of the community who have banded together to create a Facebook group called “Latinos Summit.” The group is private and membership must be approved by the group’s administrators.
Within a week of starting the group, 869 members had already joined it. The group now serves as a central information distribution hub where volunteers translate and push out important messaging from the county, health officials and non-profits as well as other information not readily available in Spanish.
Gonzalez said the group has been instrumental in disseminating information about the county’s emergency response, community food drives, food delivery, child care, transportation for critical needs and even encouragement to complete the census. The group’s administrators also respond to individual queries for assistance and help guide members to the resources they need.
Gonzalez said that while most people complied with the orders, initially for some members of the Latino community were slow to receive the message and respond. So they continued to gather in clusters, get together to play basketball and otherwise seem oblivious to the pandemic.
However, in the past few weeks she has seen a marked improvement in compliance with public health guidelines in the community as messaging spreads by word of mouth. The group is regularly reminding members about social distancing as well as putting out new information, including the recent moratorium on evictions handed down by the governor.
Gonzalez said that members of the group are also having weekly virtual meetings to discuss messaging and coordinating their efforts to get community members on the same page.
“I think the message is getting out,” Gonzalez said. “The county and towns have been doing an amazing job, putting out paid ads and reaching out to a Spanish radio station to get the word out there.”
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