Washington County data consistently demonstrates that people of color, particularly Latinos, are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, in both cases and deaths.
Gaps in health access and literacy have played a significant role in this disparity, according to county officials.
Now they hope that a $4 million grant recently awarded from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will help them improve trust and health literacy within these populations.
"Health literacy intervention and practices contribute to reducing health disparities, which fosters health equity and social justice," said Washington County health equity, planning and policy program supervisor Phyusin Myint.
People's ability to read, hear and process health information all plays a part in improving health literacy, she added.
The grant comes from a $250 million two-year initiative to not only improve health literacy, but also step up COVID-19 vaccinations and other efforts to counter the virus among underserved populations.
Washington County is the only county in Oregon to receive this grant, and one of just three in the Pacific Northwest.
Myint said that the Latino community in Washington County will be the primary focus of the grant. Latinos make up about one-quarter of COVID-19 cases in Washington County, while comprising 11% of the total population, according to county data. They also account for 19% of total hospitalizations and 7% of total deaths.
"The learning collaborative we are implementing will focus heavily on community health workers in the Latinx community and might be conducted entirely in Spanish," Myint said. "Looking toward the future, the learning and infrastructure we will build through this grant will be a model for us to expand to other populations within our community and hopefully will be a model of learning for our colleagues across the nation."
There are a number of barriers to health literacy, Myint said, including technology, language and cultural differences.
"Sometimes conversations between health providers and patients make assumptions about the patient's knowledge and do not use plain language," she said. "So for the Latinx population in Washington County, particularly people who do not speak English as a first language, those with less access to technology, and people without a regular healthcare provider, there are a lot of barriers to receiving and understanding information about COVID-19."
The U.S. response to COVID-19 also demonstrated that there was a lack of adequate protective measures for many essential workers — "a population that we know from our data is disproportionately people of color," Myint added.
County officials have three main objectives on how they plan to use the grant funds.
The county will partner with Adelante Mujeres, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center and Familias en Acción to develop a plan to enhance the use of COVID-19 public health information and services by racial and ethnic minority populations.
"We have had a longstanding relationship with Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center for many years. They have been a strong partner to us due to their health care connection and their relationship with the Latinx population," Myint said. "Adelante Mujeres and Familias en Acción had recent projects with us to build capacity for community health workers in our community."
Myint said the initiative will entail earning people's trust, which is something she hopes to achieve with community partnerships.
"Trust is earned through paying attention, listening and gestures of genuine care and connection," she said. "It is our hope that this grant is the foundation to building this trust that is so critical to addressing these health disparities and healing this relationship between communities and health systems."
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