San Diego County employee Esma Al Sabag is doing contact tracing in English and Arabic. Photo courtesy County News Center

San Diego activists are calling on county health officials to hire more “culturally competent” contact tracers to slow the coronavirus pandemic in communities of color.

“These tracers have not been culturally trained,” said Shane Harris, president of the People’s Alliance for Justice. “When they get hired, they should understand what communities they’re going into and how these communities are effected.”

Harris called a press conference Thursday to react to news that while Latinos suffer disproportionately from coronarius, they are under-represented in the county’s growing contact tracing effort.

Latinos make 35% of the county’s population, but account for 61% of those hospitalized with the virus and 45% of the deaths. Yet only 25% of the people hired as contact tracers are Latino.

Once a person is confirmed to have COVID-19, contact tracers reach out to the person’s recent contacts to inform them of possible infection and ask them to self-quarantine. The county has 232 contract tracers working, and another 165 hired and in training.

Former Assemblymember Lori Saldaña said it’s difficult for contact tracers to do an effective job if they can’t speak Spanish and aren’t trusted by the community because of cultural misunderstandings.

“You need trust, and right now the Latino community is under attack on immigrant issues,” Saldaña said at the press conference.

On Wednesday, Nancy Maldonado, CEO of the the Chicano Federation, criticized the lack of more Latino contact tracers as “irresponsible” and a “failure” by the county.

“For months, we have asked the county to take a more responsible and comprehensive approach in addressing the rate of COVID-19 infection and death among Latinos,” she said in a statement.

Harris said an additional issue is people living in “compacted neighborhoods” at high density, with “five people living in a two-bedroom  apartment.” He said the county needs to specifically address the spread of coronavirus in these areas.

Supervisor Greg Cox said at a press briefing Wednesday that the county is rapidly attempting to recruit more Spanish-speaking contact tracers and case investigators and increase testing in the South Bay, where communities are reporting the highest rates of COVID-19 in the county

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