How DOH is partnering with immigrant and refugee communities on COVID-19 education

During a pandemic, or any widespread crisis, it’s important to have a source for trusted information. There are many unknowns that can cause fear, panic, and a perceived loss of safety. These reactions are common across all communities but can be especially heightened in immigrant and refugee groups with language barriers, historical mistrust, and a lack of resources.

There are many cultural outreach programs within DOH to address these challenges. One example is the COVID-19 Vaccine Outreach in Former Soviet Union Communities project. It’s coordinated by Vadim Kogan, an Immunization Health Educator for DOH and Ekaterina Teterina, a Health Services Consultant in the Refugee Health Program at DOH.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Outreach in Former Soviet Union Communities project actually started before the pandemic. It was intended to help share vaccination information with Slavic communities and increase access to trustworthy health resources. Once the pandemic hit, the project pivoted to address COVID-19 concerns, including information about the virus and COVID-19 vaccine education.

This project shows how outreach programs can help immigrant and refugee communities before, during, and after a pandemic. And, it highlights some of the challenges they still face.

What does this program address?

“Our work is aimed at getting people the right information so they can make an informed decision around vaccinations,” said Kogan.

The project also works to address broader COVID-19 concerns in the Slavic community. It works with Slavic churches, synagogues, and other faith-based establishments with large Slavic populations to create and distribute relevant public health information within the community.

Why is the messenger so important in reaching immigrant communities?

People typically seek health information from sources they trust. In Slavic communities, faith leaders are important sources of information and can be great partners for outreach.

Teterina reminds us that it’s important to be aware of how certain communities want to receive information — from language and messaging, to the specific types of information.

“The community is coming from former Soviet Union countries where there’s quite a bit of government distrust. So, we’re working to build a better relationship with the community by partnering with community leaders to create culturally relevant resources that address people’s vaccine concerns,” said Teterina.

What are the main challenges in getting information to these communities?

It takes time to build relationships and find community partners interested in public health related outreach. It’s also important to be aware of the religious and cultural context of the communities, especially regarding health issues and public health agencies.

“It’s difficult for us to even get messaging to these communities because they don’t yet see us as a trusted messenger,” said Kogan. “A lot of misinformation is spreading on the community’s closed social channels. That’s why so much of our work has been with community leaders to get accurate messaging to people in a more face-to-face way.”

It’s tough to become a trusted partner without interacting with people in person, which has been a major roadblock during COVID-19. Language barriers are also challenging, so making sure information is carefully and correctly translated is vital.

“There is a perception from the communities that once the crisis has ended support and resources will go away. So, finding a way to continue being a trusted partner is an important step in building rapport,” said Kogan.

What steps are being taken to further outreach efforts?

DOH is currently working on building a health board including trusted health, business, and faith leaders. We are also working on expanding our outreach to larger religious coalitions with congregations across many communities and states.

DOH also plans to host more question-and-answer sessions between the community, public health agencies, and local health providers.

“I want to emphasize the importance of prioritizing the community’s needs,” added Teterina. “Instead of coming in as a government agency and telling people the information we think they need, it’s important to take a step back and ask the community what they want and what they would like us to provide.”

Do you have advice for others who are working on immigrant and refugee outreach?

DOH can be a great starting point for information and support if you’re working on community outreach or are part of an immigrant or refugee community. Kogan and Teterina encourage people to:

  • Be patient and persistent in your outreach. Partnerships take time, especially when building rapport and trust with immigrant and refugee communities.
  • Bring resources the community wants (even if they’re different than your specific outreach resources).
  • Have a community-oriented perspective. Involve the community and ask about their needs.
  • Put together action items after your conversations and follow through on them, even if they’re not directly related to your project.
  • Consider how to frame your outreach messaging. Be careful to avoid demeaning or culturally insensitive language. Listen carefully and discuss positive solutions to issues they are facing.
  • Be present, open, and willing to have difficult or uncomfortable conversations.

More information

This blog is accurate as of the date of posting. Information changes rapidly, so check the state’s COVID-19 website for the most up-to-date info at coronavirus.wa.gov. You can also sign up to be notified whenever we post new articles.

The COVID-19 vaccine is now available to everyone 12 and older. For more information about the vaccine, visit CovidVaccineWA.org and use the vaccine locator tool to find an appointment. The COVID-19 vaccine is provided at no cost to you.

WA Notify can alert you if you’ve been near another user who tested positive for COVID-19. Add WA Notify to your phone today: WANotify.org

Answers to your questions or concerns about COVID-19 in Washington State may be found at our website. You can also contact the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press # from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday — Sunday and observed state holidays. Language assistance is available.

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Washington State Department of Health

Washington State Department of Health

Protecting and improving the health of people in Washington State.