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NPR Health

Lack Of Spanish-Speaking Contact Tracers Complicates Pandemic Response In Nashville

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Latino and immigrant communities across the country have suffered an outsized burden of coronavirus cases. This has certainly been true in Nashville, Tenn. While other cities took steps months ago to provide critical services to these often vulnerable populations, Nashville is still catching up. Alexis Marshall of member station WPLN reports.

ALEXIS MARSHALL, BYLINE: Construction sites have been one of the most common places to catch the coronavirus in Nashville. That's where Lenin Tenorio was working in mid-April when he got sick.

LENIN TENORIO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARSHALL: By the 21st, he was hospitalized and tested positive for COVID-19.

TENORIO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARSHALL: A week later, his mother and father also had to be hospitalized. Even as more of his family members caught COVID-19, Tenorio says he never heard from the Metro Health Department.

(Speaking Spanish).

TENORIO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARSHALL: Nashville has boasted that it has plenty of contact tracers. The problem is, of the 120 brought on early in the pandemic, none of them spoke Spanish. That's even though language barriers emerged in April, according to the Nashville health department's own records. Dr. Consuelo Wilkins, who oversees health equity at Vanderbilt University, warned city officials then that many COVID patients didn't speak much English.

CONSUELO WILKINS: We saw Arabic-speaking people and then this really big cluster of Nepali-speaking people. And then all of a sudden that stopped, and we saw this huge surge of Spanish-speaking people.

MARSHALL: It took nearly three more months for Nashville's health department to recruit native Spanish-speaking tracers. The first four started last month. In the meantime, tracers have been dialing in an interpreter. The problem is they usually don't know whether they'll need one until somebody picks up the phone. When nobody answers, they often have to leave a message in English. If that gets lost in translation, it can throw off the entire search for who else might be exposed. And contact tracing hasn't been the only issue. There have been a series of other delays in implementing additional services that could have slowed the spread of the coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

MARSHALL: These PSAs and a Spanish-language hotline launched just last month - five months into the pandemic. And the city still hasn't followed through on a plan that would help immigrant families isolate during their quarantine periods. Cities like New York, Miami and Chicago have provided hotel rooms so that patients who live in tighter quarters can isolate while recovering. Nashville was encouraged to do the same back in April and a program was announced in June, but so far, not a single family has been served.

The health department's deputy director acknowledges the city's response to outbreaks in immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities has been slow but says it's become a top priority. However, immigrant advocates still sense a lack of urgency from the city's top leaders. Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus is the executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

LISA SHERMAN-NIKOLAUS: There's really no excuse for not having a response that's proportionate to the crisis in the immigrant and refugee community.

MARSHALL: She says it can be a matter of life and death. Coronavirus patient Lenin Tenorio and his father recovered, but his mother never came home from the hospital. She died in June.

TENORIO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARSHALL: I lost my mom because of this, he says. I never thought this would happen.

For NPR News, I'm Alexis Marshall in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.