Bilingual Students from Massachusetts Public Health Programs Team Up in COVID Response

Hundreds of students from multiple Massachusetts schools and programs of public health have had a unique opportunity to work together to support local boards of health (LBOH) in the response to COVID-19 and their language skills have been coming in handy.

“We have been working closely with the Massachusetts Health Officers Association to understand community needs, and then match towns or cities with teams of student volunteers, as well as some alumni,” says Eric Coles, a DrPH candidate from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Coles is a co-director of the volunteer operations of the state’s newly formed Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps.

Students hit the ground in early April, as part of the state’s “first wave” of contact tracers to bring some relief to local boards of health with case investigations and contact tracing. Michelle Baum, an MPH/MSW joint degree candidate from Boston University, has been part of a bilingual volunteer team serving the city of Lawrence. “This experience has opened my eyes to the great need for bilingual practitioners in the field as the communities we work with are increasingly diverse,” she said. “I’ve spoken with a handful of individuals who were very scared during their time of illness and thought that they could have died.” Her language skills were key to collecting important information that might have otherwise not been possible.

Other volunteers created translations for the state’s first rapid testing center for the general public in Lowell, MA. “Responding to the needs of the Lowell Board of Health, I reached out to students fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and Khmer to translate guidelines and resource materials,” says Aimee Gilbert Loinaz, Assistant Director for Internships at the UMass Amherst School of Public Health. “It was a high priority request from the state’s COVID Command Center, and through the partnerships of Massachusetts’ schools and programs of public health’s Academic Health Department, we had ready access to a rich pool of diverse volunteers who could provide a rapid response.”

While students are trained in many aspects of public health, getting experience working with local health departments is new for most. Etienne Holder, a doctoral student in epidemiology at UMass Amherst and the APH Volunteer Corps team lead for Boston, noted, “I was especially encouraged by the dedication the local board of health has shown in providing [translated] educational materials to their multilingual population.” 

Holder’s volunteer team was particularly diverse and has translated materials related to COVID-19 into 11 different languages for the Boston Public Health Commission. “Our team spans several universities and colleges across Massachusetts,” she said, “which allows me to work with a wide range of talented students and professionals in the public health field.” 

While contact tracing is prominent in the news, and Massachusetts public health students have been at the forefront of this work, there are a wide variety of other needs that the volunteers are supporting.

Health communications, particularly in languages other than English, have been an urgent need. The city of Chelsea has been a Massachusetts hotspot that UMass Amherst doctoral student and Ecuador native Alvaro Castro Rivadeneira has been paired with as a volunteer.

“As public health graduate students, we were eager to help in any way we could as soon as the scale and severity of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent,” says Castro Rivadeneira. “As a native Spanish speaker, I was asked to translate health safety documents that are critical in ensuring that the substantial population of Spanish speakers in Massachusetts correctly understand what the rapid Coronavirus tests mean, and how they are meant to quarantine if they have a positive lab result. The people who will benefit from these translations will be those who do not speak English well, fall in lower-income brackets and are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of this disease. It is both motivating and humbling that I could participate in this large scale community effort to mitigate the impact COVID-19 might have on the most vulnerable communities.”

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