Matt Schorr
July 2, 2020

NASHVILLE, Tenn. The Latino community is affected disproportionately by COVID-19. News outlets report leaders and lawmakers calling its impact “catastrophic.” In the state of Tennessee, one-third of residents who test positive for the coronavirus are Hispanic, even though only 5.6 percent of the population is Hispanic.

Christian Rosas Salazar, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Monroe Carell, Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, attributed this to – among other things – living in a multi-generational household and limited access to health services-- as he addressed healthcare providers and faith leaders during an online discussion.

“There is no treatment or vaccine,” Dr. Rosas Salazar said. “There is a lot of fake news. Listen to health professionals. Don’t follow what’s on social media. Read from accurate sources like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC).”


‘They’re challenging God’

The Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance (MVA), Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), the Faith and Health Collaborative of the Nashville Health Disparities Coalition (NHDC) and Better Options TN spearheaded the webinar in response to the stark COVID-19 health disparities in the Latino community. Dr. Rosas Salazar was one of three speakers featured in the discussion, alongside Mid-South Nazarene Churches Coordinator Pastor Eduardo Lelli and Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) Director of Community Affairs Leticia Alvarez.

“A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge,” Pastor Lelli said, quoting Proverbs 22:3, “but the simple keep going and suffer for it.”

Too many, he believed, venture out into the community despite the risk. They ignore doctors’ recommendations to limit the virus’s spread, and have little or no consideration whether or not others do the same. He made a sobering comment: “They’re challenging God.”

Lelli urged everyone watching, particularly faith leaders, to work together throughout the faith community and inform everyone about the pandemic, its effects and how to slow it’s spread.

“I would like to invite you to become more active in informing our congregations,” he said.


Employees at high risk

Alvarez said the TIRRC is focusing its efforts on informing and advocating for employees in food processing, agriculture and domestic care. Those groups, she noted, are at especially high risk during this pandemic.

“Their exposure to the virus is high,” she explained, “because they go from place to place, and the working conditions and proximity of employees.”

According to Alvarez, workers in all three sectors aren’t receiving the occupational health equipment they need – like masks, gloves and social distance -- to lower risk of infection.

“We have an urgency to reach all the people in the community, including the high-risk groups, and educate and inform elected officials about the needs of employees in these sectors,” she said.

“TIRRC’s work, and that of other community partners, underscores that we have to look at multiple strategies to address the impacts of COVID in populations impacted by inequities,” said Elisa Friedman, Director of Community Engagement at MVA. "We need to consider issues such as worker's rights, housing that allows for safe quarantine, targeted testing and increasing access to health care."



In conclusion

The best prevention for COVID-19, Salazar said, is staying home. If someone must venture out, they should maintain a six-foot distance from anyone outside their immediate household, wear masks in public and wash their hands frequently and thoroughly.

“Everyone has risk factors for this disease,” he said.

Lelli agreed: “It’s better to error on the side of caution than to suffer the consequences.”

“It’s our responsibility to request answers and action from local officials,” Alvarez added.

“It’s concerning to see the disconnection between the education available in Spanish about COVID-19 and the people in our community. It is important that we all come together to make this a health priority and to continue educating our community,” Claudia Barajas of VICC said.

“We had almost 70 people participate in the webinar.  Since the webinar, the recording we did with the pastors has had more than 5200 views.  There is clearly a need for information delivered this way, by a trusted audience that includes faith leaders in the Latino community,” added Barajas.

The speakers fielded question from those in attendance before closing, where they touched on protection and care for at-risk patients, additional advocacy for workers and safe measures for reopening faith centers.  Dr. Cynthia Jackson, Chair of the NHDC, also attended the webinar and, during the Q&A session, raised the important question of increasing access to testing in the Latino community.


About the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance

Founded in 1999, the Alliance bridges the institutions of Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Its mission is to enrich learning and advance clinical research in three primary areas -- community engagement, interprofessional education and research -- by developing and supporting mutually beneficial partnerships between Meharry Medical College, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the communities they serve. Through community engagement, the Alliance serves a large community of stakeholders including surrounding universities and colleges, community organizations, faith-based outlets and community health centers. Its interprofessional education enhances students' interdisciplinary understanding and improves patient outcomes through integrated care. The research conducted provides access to experienced grant writers and materials supporting the grant application process and facilitates grant-writing workshops.