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Bilingual COVID-19 contact tracer shares challenges in fight against virus

As soon as the pandemic hit, Multnomah County called on David Cuevas to contact trace and to help tear down the language barrier for the most impacted communities.

PORTLAND, Oregon — To slow the spread of COVID-19, it's critical to track down everyone who's come in contact with an infected person.

But language barriers can make that process especially challenging, which is why bilingual contact tracers are key to saving lives in Oregon and around the country.

David Cuevas is one of those bilingual contact tracers in Multnomah County. 

He got his medical degree in Mexico. After moving to Portland years ago, he dove into serving the underserved in public health.

“I've been always very passionate about working with my community,” Cuevas said. "As a minority I feel like in a lot of situations we encounter health care disparities, and I wanted to make a difference and change that. I'm a disease intervention specialist for Multnomah County Health Department. I work with communicable diseases and I'm doing contact tracing.”

As soon as the pandemic hit, Multnomah County called on Cuevas to contact trace and tear down the language barrier. He reaches out to people who tested positive, tracks down anyone they came in contact with and asks them to quarantine.

“Most of the time I end up speaking Spanish all day at work because a lot of the cases, it's affecting the Latinx community,” Cuevas added.

RELATED: What happens on a contact tracing call?

COVID-19 is affecting the Latinx community at disproportionate rates for a multitude of reasons, namely since many work essential jobs, don't have access to unemployment benefits or time off due to their immigration status, and they support their households, which are typically made up of multiple generations.

To slow the spread of coronavirus, public health officials knew they needed bilingual experts like Cuevas.

“It's been very difficult for the Latinx community because a lot of information has been spreading around," Cuevas told KGW. "As you know it's always constantly changing, all the recommendations and all the opening of the businesses. So it's a little bit challenging for somebody that speak a different language."

Mira la entrevista completa en español con David Cuevas:

The number of people infected with the novel coronavirus is much higher than official numbers indicate, because not everyone has gotten tested. In particular, the numbers are likely higher in the Latinx community, which is why contact tracing is critical to reaching and protecting that population.

"It's very important and we need to really focus on reaching out to these individuals and trying to be clear with information, and try to provide them with resources,” Cuevas added. "Explain it very well, what wearing a mask is, and trying very hard to let them know we're here for them and to support them."

RELATED: How many contact tracers are in your county? Oregon releases updated numbers

Fear pervades the Latinx and migrant community, so when they see a call from the county or a government agency, they don't always feel inclined to answer. Cuevas says Multnomah County understands that complicated reality so they set out to create partnerships with multi-cultural community organizations.

Those organizations help calm people's fears and explain the need to pick up the phone.

"You don't have to have symptoms to have the virus and you can be spreading it even though you feel fine,” said Kasi Woidyla, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center spokesperson. "That's our biggest challenge right now."

In Washington and Yamhill counties, Virginia Garcia works to spread that message to patients to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

“We have started to move toward understanding what contact tracing is and why it's important,” Woidyla added. "And why when you get that call you need to be as forthcoming and as open as possible in order to make sure we can track down every single person that has been affected by COVID.

To continue saving lives and preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, Cuevas asks that people be sure to answer calls from the county health department.

“Please take the phone call and answer our questions. We're here to help. Most of the time we're here to soothe your fears,” Cuevas added.

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