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Grant Helps Latino and Marshallese Communities Fight COVID-19

In June 2020, Northwest Arkansas was singled out as a national “hot spot” – but not in a good way.

It was a hotbed for the spread of COVID-19. The numbers were bad. A deeper look revealed that culture could be a factor.

By August, experts noted that 45% of the area’s COVID-19 cases were in the Latino community. Another 19% were among the Marshallese (people from the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific). Northwest Arkansas is home to the largest concentration (about 15,000) of Marshallese outside their chain of islands.

“These communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, having rates of infection that are about 400% higher than the general population,” said Pearl McElfish, Ph.D., vice-chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Northwest Regional Campus.

But the Latino community makes up only about 17% of the region’s population, and the Marshallese only about 3%. So why the high COVID-19 numbers?

Speaking Their Languages

Many people in these two cultural groups don’t speak English. So critical messages about prevention and contact tracing weren’t getting through. The Northwest Arkansas Council Foundation decided to do something about it. And the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas provided a $286,000 grant to make it happen.

The funds were used to hire 10 bilingual community health navigators (six Spanish-speaking and four Marshallese-speaking) to help people in these communities access testing, medication and contact tracing and educate them about prevention tactics.

Bilingual navigators received training to help minority communities.

“COVID-19 has left no community untouched, but we’re seeing it take a dramatic toll on ethnic populations, particularly Latino and Pacific Islander populations in the northwest region of our state,” said Curtis Barnett, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield president and chief executive officer. “We are pleased to support the Northwest Arkansas Council as it implements its COVID-19 response plan. We believe having trusted health navigators from within the community who can help overcome language barriers and address critical social needs will be key to successfully control the spread of COVID-19 within these populations.”

The Northwest Arkansas Council asked UAMS Northwest to lead the effort to coordinate COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, enhanced case management and health education.

Making a Difference

The results have been positive. As early as October 8, the percentage of cases of COVID-19 in the Latino community had dropped to 39%, and in the Marshallese community, cases fell to 12%.

“In just a few months, we have significantly reduced the COVID-19 disparities in the Marshallese and Latino communities,” said McElfish. “This is an unprecedented achievement and speaks volumes about the dedication and passion of our team.”

The community health navigators have conducted contact tracing for 1,000 people (86% of all indexed cases). And 92% of these people were contacted within 24 hours of their infection being reported.

Multiple nonprofit organizations and churches have joined the effort, developing a food distribution network for quarantined families. About 4,800 people had been served as of October 10.

UAMS adapted a CDC worksite assessment to inform Latino and Marshallese workers on COVID-19 safety precautions. So far, more than 100 businesses have been served.

Additionally, educational materials developed in English, Spanish and Marshallese have been distributed to about 400,000 people.

“We have been providing educational materials to more than 100 Marshallese and Latino small businesses, churches and organizations, as well as video and audio public service announcements in Spanish and Marshallese in poultry plants and on radio, TV and social media,” said McElfish. “Our Office of Community Health and Research has deep ties in these communities from the community outreach we’ve done over the last decade, so we are confident that the message is getting out there.”

Taking Care of Families

According to Dr. McElfish, one pregnant woman was sleeping in her car because her entire family had tested positive. A navigator contacted the family, helped the young woman find a place to safely isolate and provided the family with food and other supplies. One of the members of the family commented, “I’m so glad to finally speak with somebody who speaks my language. I feel like I finally understand what I’m supposed to do.”

“Since the pandemic began, the Blue & You Foundation has worked to rapidly respond to the needs across the state resulting from COVID-19,” said Patrick O’Sullivan,  former executive director of the Blue & You Foundation. “Since April, we’ve funded more than $2.6 million to organizations fighting the spread of the virus, but the Northwest Arkansas crisis is a need unlike any challenge our state has experienced thus far. The Blue & You Foundation provided this grant to the Northwest Arkansas Council Foundation with gratitude for their planning and dedication to finding solutions in their region of the state.”

The Foundation provides grants throughout the state of Arkansas to improve health. A grant in Gould helps the community take care of basic necessities. Another helps people with disabilities appreciate art at Crystal Bridges. You can learn more about the Blue & You Foundation and the grants available to nonprofit organizations at

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