/ Modified apr 3, 2020 3:34 p.m.

Health workers, aid groups step in to fill Spanish-language gap around COVID-19

More than 1 million people speak Spanish at home in Arizona, but official coronavirus bilingual communication has lagged.

There's lots of information right now about the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's not all easy to understand. And it's more complicated for the more than 1 million Arizonans who speak Spanish at home.

“I know that there’s been a lot of young people trying to really understand very complicated terms like 'social distancing' and trying to translate that to their parents on the spot,” said Reyna Montoya, CEO and founder of an aid group in Mesa called Aliento.

The group usually works to support mixed immigration status families, undocumented people and recipients of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In the wake of COVID-19, her group has become a bridge, reaching out to the Latino community when official Spanish information falls short. Aliento posts bilingual updates on social media. Community radio stations and Spanish news channels have also helped fill the gap.

Weeks after the crisis began, Arizona officials are now stepping up their Spanish messaging. But Montoya said the lag in bilingual information means many people turn to other, less reliable sources.  

“Something we have been witnessing is that the president of Mexico was blasting on Facebook and Twitter to hug each other, and that went viral,” she said. “And that’s really impacting how our parents and our community of the older population is seeing things, and how seriously they're taking things like social distancing.”

The pandemic is affecting more than people's health. Montoya said the economy, personal finances and day-to-day life also need Spanish-language messaging. 

“I’ve been ordering takeout from my best mama and papa restaurants that tend to be small Mexican restaurants, and they’re terrified because they think they’re going to have to fire all their employees and go out of business,” she said. “The Department of Commerce came out with different ways that small businesses can apply for loans, but I have not seen this [information] in Spanish.”

Reaching some communities can be difficult even during normal times. 

Dr. Cecilia Rosales is a public health expert and the interim associate dean of community engagement at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. She leads a team that conducts mobile health screenings for Spanish-speaking communities in the state.

She said they often serve low-income, mixed immigration status or uninsured families who don't think they have many health options. Her team connects them with resources.

“We have these federally qualified community health center networks across the nation,” Rosales said, “And that’s a safety net for anyone who doesn’t have insurance.”  

Prior to the pandemic, Rosales said, “we were going out on a regular basis with staff and students out into the community, literally parking our unit in a park in a neighborhood, or even on the side of the street.” Almost 14,000 people across the state were visited through this process. Now they're reaching out to those communities over the phone.

Alma Ramirez is one of the team members in Phoenix. She used to call people to follow up after visiting their communities with the mobile health units. Now she’s calling past clients to answer questions about coronavirus.

“This lady at the end [of one call] said: ‘God bless you. I'm so glad you called. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do,’” she said.

Ramirez has helped many people with pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes connect with community clinics that can provide medicine. She said many now face new challenges as clinics and doctors’ offices transition to telemedicine and away from in-person visits unless strictly necessary. Her calls provide an opportunity for people to ask questions on those matters too — in a language they understand. But she said it's still not enough. 

“This is mi gente. These are my people,” she said. “But there’s only six of us doing these calls, and we can’t reach everybody.”

Arizona and other states are in need of more public health professionals that can translate to other languages. Not just Spanish, but also Chinese, Vietnamese and others. 

But Ramirez said even though they can’t meet in person, Arizona’s Spanish-speaking communities are pulling together to help each other digitally.

“They’ll say, ‘This is what I’m looking for.’ And we’ll have 50-60 messages, responses, people saying, ‘I’ve seen milk here,’ ‘I can give you a gallon of water.’ It’s beautiful.”

The CDC, Arizona Department of Health Services and World Health Organization now have information in Spanish on their sites. City officials like Tucson Mayor Regina Romero have also started doing daily briefings in both Spanish and English.

Ramirez said her team will keep going down the list of past clients, making sure they’re being reached, answering questions when they arise, and pushing to make sure materials for Spanish speakers are keeping up.

Find more Spanish-language information on our coronavirus resources page.

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