Nine Months Into Pandemic, Cleveland Still Doesn't Have a Single Spanish Speaking Contact Tracer


Ward 14 Councilwoman Jasmin Santana - PHOTO BY KARIN MCKENNA
  • Photo by Karin McKenna
  • Ward 14 Councilwoman Jasmin Santana

Cleveland's Interim Director of Public Health, Brian Kimball, made a shocking admission at a Monday morning City Council meeting: though there are now 70 permanent and temporary employees working on contact tracing for the city, not one of them is fluent in Spanish.

Ward 14 Councilwoman Jasmin Santana broached the subject during a Q&A after both Kimball and County Health Commissioner Terry Allan provided updates on Covid-19 to council's Health and Human Services Committee. Santana said she'd had to personally provide translation services for family members who'd been contacted by the city, and wondered how many bilingual contact tracers there were.

Kimball said there were currently none.

"We are providing training to one of our employees who is fluent in Spanish to help support," Kimball said. "It has been a challenge internally. We have identified that and are looking to correct that."

When Santana suggested that this deficiency might be leading to inaccurate data collection, Kimball said that the city had been using a translation service, and that to his knowledge, race and ethnicity data were being collected at testing sites and properly documented. 

But in a phone call with Scene this afternoon, Santana said that there's still a significant gap. Speaking anecdotally, she said that even if the city was only reaching out to individuals who have tested positive or have come into contact with those who tested positive, a number of Spanish speakers living in her ward were simply hanging up the phone. A scary medical situation was being made even scarier by an official phone call in English.

(Santana made clear that she was not critiquing the contact tracers themselves, who she said were doing a "phenomenal" job and had been very empathetic in her experiences with them.) 
One of the family members for whom Santana provided translation was her own husband, who does not speak English.

"Even with him, it's difficult for me to translate and share that information with a contact tracer because he's the one actually dealing with the symptoms, not me," she said. "Just that back and forth is difficult."

She said she gets calls "constantly" from families in her ward who have tested positive but don't fully grasp what's happening or how to proceed. 

"Latinos are the highest-growing population in this city," she said. "I just don't understand how after nine months of a pandemic, the city hasn't hired a bilingual tracer."

Santana's biggest fear, she said, was that in the wake of the November surge, Spanish-speaking families are falling through the cracks, missing out on vital information and services.

The number will continue to grow as the virus continues its explosive spike. Kimball said that on Sunday, the City of Cleveland recorded its highest number of positive cases yet, with more than 400, and that there had been enormous daily increases over the past seven days across all demographics.

County Health Commissioner Terry Allan said that the medical examiner had recently purchased additional refrigerated trucks to account for and anticipate increased fatalities in the coming weeks: 55% of all county Covid cases since the pandemic began occurred in the month of November. The summer "surge" barely even registers on graphs of the pandemic because the current spike is so much more significant, he noted.

Santana's ward, which includes the neighborhoods of Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn-Center and Stockyards on Cleveland's west side, contains the densest concentration of Latinos in the city. She said her office is doing what it can to spread information about safe practices and procedures during the pandemic, but that the city and the local hospitals all needed to make a much more concerted effort to be spreading pandemic-related messaging in Spanish.

"This is a problem across the city," she said. "Organizations just have not been able to grasp it and I don't know why, but it's frustrating. It's like a having a bad dream where you're screaming and yelling and no one's listening to you. I'm just tired of repeating myself."

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