March 2, 2020

Across Multnomah County on Monday, groups of community health workers and culturally specific providers were preparing for local impacts from the novel coronavirus following news of Oregon’s third diagnosis. 

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory disease first detected in China that has since spread globally. Symptoms typically appear two to 14 days after exposure and include fever, cough and shortness of breath. As of Monday, March 2, 100 cases had been reported in the United States and 90,000 globally. 

As the number of cases continues to increase, stories have emerged detailing discrimination and stigma towards certain communities affected by the outbreak. Misinformation has also caused fear and confusion among residents. 

Communicable disease experts deliver coronavirus update to community health workers 

Dozens of experts gathered at Multnomah County’s Health Department headquarters Thursday to hear from the County’s communicable disease leaders on everything known about COVID-19 and the work being done locally to address it. 

According to Sara McCall, a communicable disease nurse, the County is prepared for COVID-19. The Communicable Disease Services unit works to limit the spread of infectious diseases through investigations, prevention and education programs, and screenings. The team  includes public health nurses, epidemiologists, community health specialists and analysts who speak a combined 14 languages.

“COVID-19 is new, but the work to contain it is not. We use the same methods as we do for other outbreaks,” McCall said. “Any death is too many. The majority of the people who get this illness will recover.” 

Monday's presentation compared COVID-19 to the flu. Of the 100 individuals infected nationally as of March 2, six had died; five of the deaths occurred in the Seattle area, where an outbreak struck an assisted living home. Last year, 35 million Americans were infected by the flu and 34,157 had died. 

Other topics included recognizing symptoms, how to treat someone infected with coronavirus, avoiding infection, special considerations for people most at risk, and the lethality of the disease. 

“It’s really important for us to reiterate that this is not a disease that has anything to do with where you’re from,” McCall said. “It doesn’t discriminate, and so we should not be either.” 

Culturally specific providers share concerns about stigma amid coronavirus outbreak

Across Portland, staff gathering at Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization’s (IRCO) Africa House were discussing how coronavirus has affected the people they serve. 

IRCO promotes health and wellness among Portland immigrants and refugees through job training, outreach to youth and families, and direct services to older adults. The agency employs numerous workers who provide culturally specific services. 

Their meeting followed reports of discrimination against immigrant and refugee communities in the midst of the outbreak. Public schools have warned parents of targeting and discrimination against students from Asian backgrounds. Fears over the virus have also taken a toll on Chinese businesses. 

IRCO staff member Kolini Fusitua speaks up during a workshop on COVID-19.

“One of the reasons why I’m asking for us to be in this space together is for us to understand the myths and the facts and dismantle the discrimination that is causing fear and hurt in our community,” said Coi Vu, Director of Asian Family Center.

Community workers shared perspectives on how the outbreak is affecting both morale and their day to day work. 

“The trauma is real. The fear is real. The xenophobia we’re feeling is very real,” said one staff member. 

“With the news, the people we serve are not sure what to believe or not to believe,” added another provider. “People in our community have a lot of questions and concerns.” 

Together, the group discussed ways to improve access to information among immigrant and refugee communities. The workers also learned more about COVID-19’s transmission, prevention strategies, and groups most at risk.

“The basic message to keep this thing from spreading is what we always say in public health,” said McCall, who also spoke at the IRCO gathering. “Wash your hands, stay home when you’re sick, cover your cough, and be prepared for any unexpected event."