Fear, Language Barriers Hinder Immigrant Contact-Tracing

(Aug. 19, 2020) Only a handful of contact tracers working to slow COVID-19 in 125 communities near Chicago speak Spanish, despite significant Hispanic populations. Churches and advocacy groups in the Houston area are trying to convince immigrants to cooperate when health officials call. And in California, immigrants are being trained as contact tracers to ease mistrust. 

The crucial job of reaching people who test positive for the coronavirus and those they’ve come in contact with is proving especially difficult in immigrant communities because of language barriers, confusion and fear of the government. 

The failure of health departments across the U.S. to adequately investigate coronavirus outbreaks among non-English speakers is all the more fraught given the soaring and disproportionate case counts among Latinos in many states. Four of the hardest-hit states — Florida, Texas, Arizona and California — have major Spanish-speaking populations. 

In the ZIP code with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Maryland, 56% of adults speak Spanish. But only 60 of Maryland’s 1,350 contact tracers speak Spanish. 

And the language barriers go beyond Spanish: Minneapolis needs tracers who also speak Somali, Oromo and Hmong, Chicago needs Polish speakers and Houston’s Harris County is grappling with a population that includes Vietnamese, Chinese and Hindi speakers. 

But even when health officials overcome language barriers, they still must dispel the deep suspicions raised among immigrants when someone with the government calls to ask about their movements in an era of hardline immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump. 

“It should come as no surprise that people may be afraid to answer the phone,” said Dr. Kiran Joshi, senior medical officer at the Cook County Department of Public Health, which serves 2.4 million people in communities just outside Chicago.  

Exacerbating the challenges even further is the lag in getting COVID test results around the U.S., with waits routinely exceeding a week. The nation also is averaging more than 60,000 new cases a day, which has overwhelmed many laboratories.  

All that can significantly affect tracers’ ability to reach 75 percent of a patient’s contacts within 24 hours of a positive test, a threshold that experts say is necessary to control outbreaks. 

Officials say it’s especially difficult to meet that threshold in immigrant communities.

Contact tracers take pains to reassure patients that nothing will be passed along to immigration officials, that they don’t have to provide Social Security or insurance information, and that their contacts won’t know who shared their names and phone numbers. 

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Associated Press