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County Making Outreach to Spanish-Speaking Residents

Updated: May 1, 2022

By Christine Sampson

The Covid-19 pandemic has been disproportionately hard on minority populations.

Suffolk County, NY: COVID-19 Cases - Department of Information Technology

When they call the New York State Covid-19 hotline, those who need information in Spanish can immediately press “2” to hear it, but that was instituted only on Monday, more than one month into the spread of the virus in New York State and counties like Suffolk. Before that, hotline access in different languages was accessible only after waiting at least 20 minutes on hold, and there was no outgoing message about that option.

Just last week, Suffolk County began offering text message updates specifically in Spanish and opened “targeted testing sites” to help those who speak languages other than English. The county also began reaching out to non-English speaking communities through nonprofit and faith-based organizations to get the word out about those testing sites, which opened in Riverhead, Huntington Station, and Brentwood — all communities with large populations of minority residents.

Many experts agree that the Covid-19 pandemic has been disproportionately hard on minority populations.

“Let’s say it was not a pandemic. Say we’re in Florida and it was a hurricane,” Maria Del Mar Piedrabuena, a bilingual journalist from Riverhead who is the co-founder of Tu Prensa Local, an East End news website entirely in Spanish, said in an interview on Tuesday. “When disaster hits, you need things to be working now, not a week from now or a month from now. That, I think, is the kind of process that was not in place here for other-language-speaking communities.”

As of yesterday morning, Brentwood had 31.4 cases of Covid-19 per 1,000 people and Huntington Station had 24.4 per 1,000 people. On the East End, home to many diverse but somewhat less dense communities, Riverhead had about 8 cases per 1,000 people and Southampton about 5.7.

“It is very important that we are identifying these places where the rate of the virus has been higher, and we’re in a position to use testing as a way to message these communities about protecting their own health and the health of their families and everyone around them,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said in a press briefing on Saturday.

Ms. Del Mar Piedrabuena and Minerva Perez, the executive director of Organizacion Latino Americana of Eastern Long Island, say the lack of immediate information in Spanish and in languages like Creole and Chinese has been devastating. The ability to stay home from work or work from home just isn’t there for many minorities, and they may not be eligible for helpful government programs because of their immigration status.

“The idea that this is hitting people of color harder, especially now, makes all kind of sense,” Ms. Perez said on Tuesday. “The bevy of essential workers are generally not the millionaires in our community. They generally have to go to work because they don’t have the luxury of staying home. . . . Why does anyone think that’s happening? Because they just got back from a whirlwind trip to another country and they picked it up in their travels? No. It’s because they live in an area where many of us find ourselves in the service industry and it comes with that challenge.”

A 2018 survey conducted by the United States Bureau of Labor found that less than 30 percent of the American work force had the ability to work from home. The survey found that only 20 percent of African-Americans and 16 percent of Latinos have jobs that allow them to work from home.

A common misconception, Ms. Del Mar Piedrabuena said, is that everyone in minority communities is an undocumented person. “It affects everyone,” she said. “It’s not a matter of having documents or not having documents, it’s that we’re human beings. There’s a threat . . . and we have to protect everyone equally.”

In the last two to three weeks, she herself has received at least 20 calls for help from readers who don’t know where else to turn — people who needed Covid-19 tests, people who needed help getting food, parents whose children don’t have computers or internet access with which to do schoolwork.

“It has been a real lifesaver for some people,” she said of Tu Prensa Local, which translates to Your Local Press. The website is getting thousands of clicks and social media engagement is through the roof, she said.

There are issues that are just not being reported in English-language publications, she said.

“For example, when we had the influx of city people coming, I had a lot of people contacting me saying, ‘What can we do? They want us to work at their homes but we don’t feel safe,’ “ Ms. Del Mar Piedrabuena said. “Or the opposite — ‘I need to keep working and they don’t want me in the house.’ You could see the impact in real time in East Hampton, in Sag Harbor, in Southampton.”

Suffolk County has not released data on the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths specifically by race, ethnicity, economic status, or comorbidity. New York State’s is still incomplete, but preliminary data show that outside of New York City, Latinos make up 12 percent of the population, but represent 14 percent of the Covid-19 fatalities. African-Americans make up 9 percent of the population, but 17 percent of the fatalities. Caucasians make up 74 percent of the population, and 60 percent of the fatalities.

Jason Richberg, a legislator whose western Suffolk County district includes hamlets and villages with large minority populations, agreed that there has been a problem with access to information and services in languages other than English.

He did not agree with Ms. Perez or Ms. Del Mar Piedrabuena that county officials didn’t make enough of an effort weeks ago to reach out to non-English speaking communities. Critical information wasn’t available to everyone in general early enough, he said.

“The information didn’t get out on how fast this thing could travel. When we knew how serious it was, we shut down the place,” said Mr. Richberg, whose heritage is black and West Indian. “We opened up the testing sites. The thought was that it was bad but it wasn’t serious, and then within 24 to 48 hours it was really serious.”

We can still do better, Mr. Richberg said. “While we are behind the eight ball because we were put on defense, I think the county, the towns, the villages, and school districts are doing the best they can with what they’ve got,” he said.

Ms. Perez acknowledged “this isn’t easy and there is no exact playbook for this.”

“The big stuff, the Centers for Disease Control stuff, on washing your hands and wearing a mask, there is some pretty good stuff in Spanish,” she said. “Whatever information you feel is important enough to say in English needs to be in Spanish as well. It’s not special treatment.”

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