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Lost In Translation: Bilingual Contact Tracers Confront A Failure In Public Health Messaging

Pictured above is the Nevada Public Health Center's COVID-19 crew. The crew works to address misinformation by connecting with the Latino community culturally and emotionally.
Courtesy of the Nevada Public Health Training Center's COVID-19 Crew
Pictured above is the Nevada Public Health Center's COVID-19 crew. The crew works to address misinformation by connecting with the Latino community culturally and emotionally.

Dulce Leyva is a bilingual contact tracer who lives in Reno, Nevada. Her job is to reach out to people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and make sure they're self-isolating. And she tries to help them remember who they've been around and could have been exposed to the virus.

“People who are working directly with those who have COVID-19 really have a commitment to the community and they really care,” Leyva told the Mountain West News Bureau, speaking in Spanish. “It's something that you're experiencing with each person you talk to, and unfortunately, there are people who don't survive the virus. It is difficult work, and we're working long hours.”

Levya moved to Reno from Sinaloa, Mexico, 19 years ago and lives here with her husband and two kids. She says several of her family members back in Mexico have met the virus face to face. Sadly, her uncle didn't survive.

“When you experience COVID-19 close-up, when you have loved ones going through everything the virus can do, it's difficult,” she said.

The heartache, she says, inspired her to use her bilingualism to be a contact tracer and help reach non English-speaking Latinos in her community.

Data shows Latinos, like other racial minorities, are more vulnerable to the disease. Leyva says most of the people she talks to were exposed to the virus at work.

“They are aware of the danger, aware that the virus exists, but many times they do not have the option to stay home or work from home,” she said.

Still, Leyva tells them about available resources, such as food and rent assistance. She goes over COVID-19 basics for their families – mask wearing, washing hands and social distancing. She believes Latinos are more receptive when the information is conveyed word-of-mouth rather than from public health announcements.

“If your mom tells you, if your aunt tells you, if you see a family member suffering, that's when you say, ‘Wow, this is not just about ordering me to wear a mask, or telling me what to do with my life or telling me who I can and can't invite to my house,’” she said. “It's not about controlling people, it's about coming together as a community to make a difference.”

Diana Sande agrees that public health announcements too often fail to resonate in Latino communities.

“It's hard and it's sad,” said Sande, the Nevada Public Health Training Center's communications manager.

She says the community's distrust in public health messaging is tied to information being translated from English to Spanish.

“If our target demographic is the Latinx population, then I want [this public service announcement] to be written in Spanish,” she said. “It's more than creating, right? It's like messaging. It's not about translating, necessarily. And a lot of websites, organizations will just do the Google Translate and it's not accurate – and worse you're just not providing the community the information in a way that they understand it.”

Sande says it's not just about getting information out in Spanish, it's about creating messaging that will bring people together and drive behavioral change.

Liliana Wilbert is an epidemiologist in Nevada. She echoes Sande in saying bilingual contact tracers play a dual role in having to establish a connection with distrustful individuals by speaking the same language – literally and figuratively .

“So these investigations do definitely take longer than usual but it definitely does serve a purpose,” she said.

But now, as cases continue to rise in Nevada, contact tracers can't keep up. Health officials are asking them to scale back on their investigative process. Questions that yield important data, like if the person attended a gathering and the names of close contacts, are now just a recommendation. Their priority is to make sure the positive case is self-isolating.

And Sande says the role of bilingual contact tracers becomes even more critical over the next several months, considering that many Latinos are wary of getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Stephanie Serrano
Stephanie Serrano is a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno and a Latina born and raised in Reno, Nevada. She joins KUNR as our bilingual news intern for the spring of 2017. It's a special position supported by the Pack Internship Grant Program, KUNR, and Noticiero Movil, a bilingual multimedia news source that's part of the Reynolds School of Journalism.
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