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Martin Rios, internal campaign rep for United Farm Workers, talks to a farmworker after giving him a cloth mask on Thursday, May 7, 2020 near Granger, Wash.

Hispanic leaders raised concerns about COVID-19’s impact on their community statewide, saying improvements are needed in communication, outreach and contact tracing.

The issue came up twice Thursday, first during a stakeholder meeting hosted by the Latino Civic Alliance and then again during the governor’s Thursday afternoon news briefing.

Statewide, 44% of COVID-19 cases are among people who are Hispanic, who are 13% of the state’s population. Hispanic people made up 30% of the state’s hospitalizations, and 13% of deaths, according to information on the state Department of Health’s website. Yakima County’s numbers by ethnicity haven’t been updated since late June.

Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer, joined the Latino Civic Alliance call on Thursday to answer questions.

“We have been very concerned about these disparities,” Loft said. “We have focused a lot of our work on Eastern Washington communities that have had very high rates of the disease.”

Those communities include Yakima, an agricultural center with a high number of essential workers who are Hispanic.

Lofy said the state Department of Health has worked closely with the Yakima Health District to ensure information about COVID-19 has been translated into both English and Spanish, and to distribute masks to communities and essential workers.

Community leaders voice concerns

Community leaders serving Hispanic populations voiced concerns Thursday that the state’s efforts haven’t been effective and misinformation has proliferated.

Karina Vega-Villa of Wenatchee said several farmworkers told her they were under the impression they would have to pay to get tested for COVID-19 and decided to stay home from work instead. Some of those workers who declined testing had died, she added.

Nina Martinez, the board chair of the Latino Civic Alliance, also pointed to misinformation and gaps in communication. She asked the state to work more closely with county health districts in areas with minorities disproportionately impacted by the virus.

“There has to be better access,” Martinez said. “There has to be better outreach.”

Lofy mentioned a federal website that could reimburse people for testing costs and said she would have the state’s testing team provide more specifics about the program.

Several community leaders on the Latino Civic Alliance call also shared concerns about the state’s contact tracing efforts.

Lofy noted there were several challenges, including that staffing needs had skyrocketed.

“We have concerns about the quality of investigations as well because people are trained in three days and then are expected to be perfect contact tracing investigators,” Lofy said.

Lofy said reported numbers of confirmed cases likely only represent one in 10 people who have by the virus.

Gov. Jay Inslee, during his news conference, noted COVID-19’s disparate impact on agricultural workers and people of color remains cause for concern.

“All folks in this community deserve protection,” he said. “Every ethnicity is subject to this disease.”

Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said state staff have translated educational materials about the virus into 30 different languages and also financially supported 41 community based organizations to help with outreach to marginalized communities.

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Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.