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Efforts To Hire Spanish-Speaking Contact Tracers Continue

Contact tracer at work
Agnes Alamo-Ramos, a contact tracer originally from Puerto Rico, helps assess who might be at risk from someone who tested positive for COVID-19. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

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On June 5, Chesterfield-County resident Karen Chacón started to experience some symptoms of COVID-19, like what felt like a mosquito in her throat. “Physically, I felt tired,” Chacón said. “I felt sleepy, like my battery wasn’t full.”

About a week later, she decided to get tested. The next day, she noticed her sense of smell was gone. “I called my husband and I started crying and I told him ‘That’s it. Definitely. It’s the virus,’” she said.

“When you tell people you were sick, they get away from you.”

- Karen Chacón

Chacón did in fact have COVID-19. But she says a contact tracer never reached out to her. Two months later, she says she still hasn’t been contacted. That put the burden on her to contact family members and friends she’d been around. 

“When you tell people you were sick, they get away from you,” Chacón said. “I think many people have suffered this form of discrimination for having tested positive.”

Local health districts like Richmond’s have been trying to ramp up the number of bilingual contact tracers they employ, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases in the Latino community has continued to rise. About three times the number of Latinos in Richmond have contracted COVID-19 compared to white, non-Latino residents.

During a 30-day period from mid-June to mid-July, the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts hired a combined 13 Spanish-speaking contact tracers: The highest figure in the state, behind Prince Williams County’s health district with 12. Chesterfield County’s health district hired four. 

Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, says hiring has been a challenge but realized early on that just having someone who speaks Spanish isn’t enough - because someone who is bilingual isn’t necessarily bicultural.

“I think we had a handful of Spanish speakers, some of whom were native Spanish speakers, but some of them were not,” Avula said. “There is a difference and someone who has shared the culture and shared the immigrant experience in being able to identify and allay the fears and concerns of the person on the other end of that phone.”

Agnes Alamo-Ramos is one of those people on the other end of the phone, working as a contact tracer for Avula’s health district. She has a background in nursing, and is originally from Puerto Rico. 

“When they hear somebody talking in the same language as them, the barriers go a little bit. You know, they release a little bit of their barriers. They tend to speak more,” Alamo-Ramos said.

But occasionally, the fact that Alamo-Ramos can communicate in one’s native language isn’t enough to help them open up. 

“I have to tell them, sir, this is very confidential. This is only for the health department,” Alamo-Ramos said. “But when they don't believe you, they put up a wall so you cannot cross that wall with them.” 

It’s not just an issue of trust, or fear of information being shared with ICE.  Dr. Edgar Monterroso, an epidemiologist for the CDC, says many Latino residents are afraid about what a positive test might mean for their family. Many can’t afford to self-isolate for 14 days if they don’t have paid sick leave.

“What happens to household income? How do you put food on the table if the breadwinner needs to isolate?” Monterroso asked.

Monterroso’s team surveyed 67 households in Richmond’s Southwood Apartments, where the average household income is between $10,000 and $15,000. The Richmond and Henrico Health District held a COVID-19 testing event at the apartment complex, too, in an attempt to reach more people. 

The city has also secured a $250,000 grant to provide cash relief to  undocumented residents so they can put food on the table and don’t lose housing while they self quarantine. Avula hopes this will be more effective than the city’s hotel program that not many have taken advantage of so far.

“I think we'll be able to raise significantly more,” Avula said. “My hope is that we would get close to a million dollars of funding to support that.”

But Chacón, who came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 2012 and is on a work permit, pointed out another problem. While she and her husband -- who’s originally from Honduras -- were able to take time off from work when she got sick, Chacón says that’s not the case for many Latino workers.

“We [latinos] don’t matter to the companies, and they keep sending us to work,” Chacón said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, five out of six Latinos work outside the home, and many in essential jobs. 

Alan Rodriguez Espinoza contributed reporting to this story.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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