Social Work students trained as bilingual, bicultural contact tracers to serve Latino community

Student wearing mask


While Oregon continues to battle rising COVID-19 cases, Roberto Orellana has been tracking some unsettling, yet familiar, statistics. Despite only making up 13% of the state’s population, late in the summer, Latinos represented 39% of all coronavirus cases. 

Orellana, a professor with Portland State University’s School of Social Work, found Latinos in Oregon were more than 5 times as likely to get COVID-19 than the white population. 

The burden of COVID-19 carried by Latinos in Oregon inspired Orellana to design a program where bicultural and bilingual students are trained to serve as contact tracers and respond to the Latino community.

Roberto Orellana
Roberto Orellana

“Throughout the pandemic, Latinos have been one of the most impacted populations by COVID-19,” Orellana said. “There's been a great disparity, and so they have carried a great burden of COVID-19 in Oregon. Some of the reasons are due to the nature of the jobs that many of them have as essential workers working in stores and farms and food processing plants.”

Further, Orellana said COVID-19 is poised to impact the Latino population, as well as other communities of color, more than others because of Oregon’s longstanding social structures.

“The history of receiving poor medical care is now affecting the community when people feel sick. People are less likely to seek care because in the past it didn't work so well, so why do it now?” he said.

With funding from Oregon Latino Leadership Network (OLLN) — via the Oregon Health Authority and federal dollars from the CARES Act — Orellana was able to design a training program for PSU students to better respond to the Latino community. Sixty-five students in the School of Social Work received contact tracing training from Johns Hopkins University, supplemented with culturally-tailored, bilingual training from PSU. Nearly all the students are Latino and bilingual — vital to the support they offer to the struggling community because students can use their lived experience to better inform their responses allowing for culturally tailored contact tracing. These students can also provide community education and work on COVID-19 prevention strategies, including COVID-19 vaccine dissemination.

“Bilingual/bicultural contract tracers bring with them their communication expertise and cultural competency when doing this work,” said Anthony Veliz, founder of the Oregon Latinx Leadership Network. “Having contract tracers that the Latinx community can trust and rely on is the first step in making our communities safe, educated and informed.”  

Leslie Garcia, OLLN Core Leader and Co-Chair of Health Sub-Committee said developing trust and displaying empathy is key when speaking to vulnerable Latino and Mesoamerican Indigenous community members. 

“Long-standing health care disparities, job insecurities, immigration status, language barriers and the distrust of government, all complicate the situation,” Garcia said. “Therefore, having Latino contract tracers are key to help build rapport, trust, and provide accurate information and resources to slow down the spread of COVID 19.”

Albie Lemos
Albie Lemos

As of Jan. 1, the students are certified contact tracers and Orellana said he’s hopeful the state and local agencies where students are already working or completing internships will utilize their new skills to reduce the disparate impact on the Latino community.

Albie Lemos, a master’s student in the School of Social Work (SSW), said the program aligns with their commitment to responding to their community’s COVID-19 response. Lemos is bicultural, as a member of the Chumash Nation of California and with family who immigrated to California from Mexico. Lemos will take their newly-gained contact tracing skills to assist the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest with its ongoing pandemic response.

Before taking the training, Leslie Salaza Gudiel, also a SSW master’s student, said she didn’t have much information about the coronavirus other than what she could learn from the news.

“During the training, I learned so much about COVID-19 and why it's important to everyone's needs to stay home and safe,” Salaza Guidel said. “Now I'm able to help not only my family but also others during this pandemic. I feel capable to help people to understand how they can protect themself and protect others.” 

Leslie Salaza Gudiel
Leslie Salaza Gudiel

Orellana said the highly-educated cohort is available to work and he’s hopeful the state will take advantage of the opportunity the cohort presents.

“Not many other states have this,” he said.

The cohort will also be key in developing a strategy for uptake of the coronavirus vaccine in the Latino community, Orellana said.

“Because of existing hesitancy with vaccines among the population in general, and also communities of color, a large group of community health workers who are from their own communities, disseminating and promoting vaccine uptake is also going to be key,” he said.

Orellana is talking with Multnomah County and other county health agencies to ensure they know PSU has 65 Latino bilingual and bicultural contact tracers ready to work with them and begin helping the community. 

“Oregon will be ahead of the game with these students,” he said.