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story.lead_photo.caption The Arkansas Department of Health logo is shown in this Jan. 28, 2019 file photo.

The Arkansas Department of Health is working to put together a group that will focus on outreach in minority-group communities statewide to help stop the spread of covid-19, the department's director of immunizations said.

This comes after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report this month that included recommendations on how to prevent further spread of the virus in the Marshallese and Hispanic communities in Northwest Arkansas.

A team of scientists from the centers arrived in Northwest Arkansas in mid-June and spent three weeks analyzing data and speaking with community leaders.

The report outlines five recommendations: improve targeted testing; improve case investigation and contact tracing; tailor prevention communication and education for Hispanic and Marshallese communities; improve coordination of efforts related to covid-19 control; and improve data collection, analysis and reporting.

"We would like to implement as many of the recommendations as possible," said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, medical director of immunizations at the Arkansas Department of Health.

The new outreach group would be based in Little Rock. How many people the group would consist of and exactly what it would do is still up in the air, but the idea is for the group to coordinate what can be done in the local county health units, such as hiring bilingual personnel.

The intention is for the group to continue to exist beyond the pandemic to address health disparities in minority-group communities in Arkansas, Dillaha said.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The Health Department has a team of about 10 people based in Springdale that focuses on contact tracing for the Marshallese. The department is looking to add more people to that team to do more contact tracing, help with off-site testing events and provide Marshallese translation, Dillaha said.

The department is also looking to establish a similar team that will focus on the Hispanic community in Northwest Arkansas but also serve the community in other parts of the state.

Marshallese especially have been dying from the virus at a disproportionate rate. At least 110 Benton and Washington county residents had died of covid-19 as of Thursday, according to information from the county coroners.

Marshallese account for 43, or about 40%, of the deaths, despite making up about 3% of the counties' population. White and non-white Hispanics account for 21, or about 19%, of the deaths.

The department is also working with a Northwest Arkansas-based task force focusing on covid-19 in the Marshallese community.

A similar task force focusing on the Hispanic community also exists.

"We have learned from this report that members of the community don't know how covid-19 is spread, and they don't know their part in preventing the spread," Dillaha said.

Most of the department's communication concerning covid-19 has been through written information on its website, Dillaha said. Much of it is available in Spanish, but little, if any, is in Marshallese.

The department learned through the centers' report that many people in Marshallese and Hispanic communities are more likely to see and pay attention to radio or video messaging on social media, Dillaha said.

The department has created some videos for its social media, most in English and a couple in Spanish, and plans to work with organizations, including the task forces, to see how it can reach more people.

The Health Department has put about $160,000 toward advertising in Spanish-speaking media, said Meg Mirivel, spokeswoman at the department.

The department has also bought digital ads to target the Hispanic community. The money includes what has already been spent and what has been committed, Mirivel said.

Another $28,000 has gone toward advertisements in a Marshallese newspaper and Marshallese radio station. The department also paid to print yard signs urging precautions such as wearing masks and washing hands in Marshallese, Mirivel said.

The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday declined to suspend its rules to consider the Health Department's request for $7 million more in spending authority to provide federal coronavirus relief money to the Northwest Arkansas Council's Health Care Transformation Division. The council wants the money for covid-19 contact tracing, testing and case coordination for Hispanic and Marshallese populations.

"It's not a good message at all," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday during his daily news briefing. "The fact is the Centers for Disease Control recommended a special investment and increased testing, contact tracing and emphasis on the Latinx and the Marshallese populations there in Northwest Arkansas, and the CARES Act Steering Committee expanded that to include other parts of the state that had high minority populations that were impacted. Funds are there and there's urgency in this action, and I'm anxious for the Legislative Council to approve that because it is needed."

The state Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act Steering Committee approved the request Monday.

The Marshallese Education Initiative, a Springdale nonprofit organization, has helped with the Marshallese task force's efforts, doing such things as donating masks and cleaning supplies to the community, said April Brown with the initiative.

Brown said Marshallese look to authority figures for guidance and have gotten mixed messages.

"Wear a mask, but you don't have to wear a mask. Social distance, but we're not going to tell you not to go to church," she said.

Most English speakers are inundated with information about precautions to prevent the virus or symptoms of the virus, Brown said. Most signs on businesses saying that masks are required or listing symptoms of covid-19 are in English.

"If you don't speak English, you're not getting those same messages," she said.

The initiative teaches classes on Marshallese history and culture but hasn't received much interest from the health care community. Health care organizations could benefit from learning more about why some Marshallese distrust health care systems and how covid-19 can easily spread in Marshallese households.

The Marshallese tend to live in multigenerational households, making it difficult to quarantine or socially distance, she said. Taking care of family, including extended family and friends, is also extremely important in Marshallese culture.

Also, Hispanics and Marshallese tend to be essential workers in food processing.

The CDC team didn't go into the region's poultry plants. Brown said the report focused instead "on cultural tendencies and barriers."

Arkansas had 383 active cases of covid-19 among people who work in poultry businesses as of July 20, according to the state Health Department. A least 55% of those cases were Hispanic, and the ethnicities or race of about 18% of the cases is unknown.

Alex Golden can be reached by email at agolden@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWAalexgolden. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Michael Wickline contributed to this story.

Print Headline: Covid-19 outreach program in works

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