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Guest opinion: Community health workers are essential to Utah’s path forward in fighting the pandemic

In this Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, photo, community health worker Ruby Ibarra, left, speaks with Pedro Madera, center, and his wife, Felicia Iterian, about Madera’s health in the couple’s basement apartment in Portland, Ore. As COVID-19 continues to spread in Utah, the need for community health workers is continuing to grow.
Associated Press

Community health workers, or promotores in Spanish, are at the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just this last week, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn mentioned adopting the community health worker model to appropriately address and serve all Utah communities.

Globally, community health workers are an important part of the public health workforce. With deep roots in the Latinx community, they have been around Utah since the late 1990s. As trusted leaders from within the communities they serve, these public health ambassadors help bridge the gaps between the health care system and marginalized individuals.

Upon publicizing demographic data on the Utah coronavirus website (coronavirus.utah.gov), it’s clear that some communities are facing a greater burden of disease than others. While there are a myriad of factors that influence health disparities, right now these inequities are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking at data from April 21, we see that while Latinos represent 13% of the state’s total population, they represent over 30% of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases. Among all laboratory confirmed cases, Native Americans are three times as likely and Pacific Islanders are two times as likely to be hospitalized as compared with their white counterparts. In addition to the underlying causes of these health disparities, not everyone is obtaining the information they need regarding the best methods of prevention, detection, treatment and economic resources.

It’s a crucial moment to ensure that all Utahns receive accurate and reliable information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. How do we do this when there is mistrust in institutions? How can we support those working to ensure this information is shared appropriately in their own communities?

Community health workers can be found helping with resource navigation, like enrollment into CHIP, Medicaid and SNAP; interpreting information from health care providers; and delivering medications or groceries for community members in need. Additionally, community health workers have proven methods of outreach and can adequately deliver messages such as proper hand-washing techniques, when and how to safely wear masks and how to get tested.

For those who test positive, individuals are being asked to self-isolate to recover safely. As so many cases are reported among our essential workers, we need to think creatively about how to address these outbreaks. How can one self-isolate and also remain financially secure, obtain the medication and food they need, and have their symptom severity monitored?

Community health workers are key as they operate as resource navigators, promotores (or health promoters) and health system traffic controllers. Long-term, we should all push for broad policy reform to address the underlying causes of health disparities; however, our state can step forward today by funding their roles and programs.

A well-known African proverb says, “if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” The only way we will get safely through this pandemic is to have collective action and collective trust. Community health workers, as advocates of public health and social connectedness, will help us get farther. Their work serves as a reminder to all of us that we are all in this together.

Ciriac Alvarez Valle and Stephanie Burdick are local health policy advocates.