Language barrier more challenging in pandemic

Ilvia Valasquez waves as she and her six-year-old daughter Iliana Valasquez head home after shopping at El Merado Market in Georgetown. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

In any language, COVID-19 can spell concern, uncertainty and fear.

For non-English-speaking residents, the global pandemic can be more challenging, especially when state of emergency mandates change frequently.

Communication is the name of the game.

“We have been on Facebook 24/7, translating updates that are coming from the state,” said Jennifer Fuqua, executive director of La Esperanza, a multiservice nonprofit focused on building family empowerment among the Latino community. “We’ve been calling all of our clients to see how they are doing and if they need anything. We’ve been putting out calls for people to let us know if they know of anyone living in rural areas who have difficult times with transportation and getting water and food, but also with translated school practices and other information.”

Ephphatha Medical Care Services in western Sussex County is banking on its founding principles: To heal, to care and to educate no matter what language you speak.

Based in Seaford, Ephphatha serves several communities, including Hispanic and a large Haitian-Creole population.

“We are trying our very best to keep them informed and also educate them, reminding them to take the precautions and protect themselves,” said Emanie Dorival, family nurse practitioner at Ephphatha.

As the month of March neared, Ms. Dorival said there appeared to be “a lot of fear. Even ourselves, we were quite apprehensive, especially when I called the health department and they did not have a testing site in Sussex County. The only testing site I was told was in Dover. So, there is a lot of fear, in both communities — Haitian and Hispanic, a lot of fear.”

Reaching the masses is a difficult challenge, Ms. Fuqua said.

“Well, you know, it is what it is,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there that we’ve been trying to get the word out to, and I don’t know if we are reaching everybody because it is really a question of who has technology. Most people who we work with are pretty savvy on their phones. We’re doing telephone services. We’re doing Face Time. We’re doing WhatsApp. We’re trying everything that we can use; whatever it is that people are using so that we can communicate.”

A pivotal player whose printed and oral words can bridge the communication gap in the Latino community is Jose Somalo, publisher and founder of HOY en Delaware, a monthly Spanish newspaper that covers all of Delaware.

Part of the problem he and HOY have encountered are myth and rumor.

He said someone last called HOY and asked if it was true that only two people could be in a car or else face a $200 fine. “We told them we have not heard that,” said Mr. Somalo.

Another rumor within the Latino community was that people were not allowed out after 8 p.m.

“One is telling another one, or someone about something that is not true. It seems like there is a lot of rumor and gossip going around and people are calling us to ask … to verify those things,” said Mr. Somalo. “That is the way we have been helping and providing information.”

Mr. Somalo’s best advice to people, particularly the Latino community, is stay in touch with updates from the state — which are available in several languages — and stay at home whenever possibly under the governor’s state of emergency order. Only venture out in an emergency for food and essentials.

Ephphatha Medical Care Services in Seaford s providing medical care and comfort as well as important information to the Haitian Creole and Latino populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state’s official coronavirus site,, offers information in multiple languages, including English, Spanish, Haitian Creole and Mandarin.

Another bit of advice: “When you go to buy groceries, try to go with one person from the family,” said Mr. Somalo. “We have seen that — large families going to the store altogether.”

While Mr. Somalo reaches the Latino community in print and via Facebook, Kevin Andrade and his The Voice Radio Network connects with waves of listeners via his Spanish-language radio stations based in Georgetown.

Georgetown Police Det. Joey Melvin said, “Kevin has offered a method of communication if we have something that we need to push out. Kevin is reassuring us that if we needed to get anything out that he was working diligently to make sure that the messages were getting pushed out to that community, specifically. We haven’t had to, but if we need him, they are there.”

As Georgetown is home to a large Hispanic population, the town’s police department is well-armed with bilingual employees. It includes several police officers, its victim services specialist and front desk administrative assistant.

“We have our social media outlets which we utilize. We have multiple officers here that speak Spanish, which is a great asset to our agency,” Det. Melvin said. “We have the tools in place if it gets to the point that we need to utilize them, that stand ready for us. And that would be our officers that are here, the radio station, the newspaper and then our community organizations, like La Esperanza.
“Communication is key and very important to us. But as of now, us personally from a police department’s perspective, we really haven’t had to communicate directly, as of yet.”

Det. Melvin, who doubles as school resource officer for several schools in Georgetown, said there doesn’t appear to be any major miscommunication, at this point into Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency stay-at-home order, which became effective March 24.

“The parameters haven’t gotten so restrictive that we have had to really push out a lot of communication yet,” said Det. Melvin. “Just from our end it seems like communication is very comprehensive at this point.”

Ms. Dorival said many people’s concerns and questions are about work.

“I would say 80 percent of them work in the chicken plants,” said Ms. Dorival. “Their concern was how come they still have to go to work where there are a lot of people, like the students do not. They compared themselves with the kids who have to stay home. I had to explain that we still need to eat. It is necessary that they continue to work, and take all the precautions necessary, so that they are not infected, and they are not exposed to the virus.”

La Esperanza, a staple in Sussex County since 1996, has partnered with First State Community Action Agency in efforts to make sure people have access to food and water.

“So far, we have found a few people and we are partnering with First State, because they are a Food Bank site to get whatever they need out to them. We are continuing to do our food distribution, which we do on Wednesday morning. It’s kind of small but we’re going to try to get in the vans and get out there and go to people’s houses and just drop off things at the door,” said Ms. Fuqua. “I had heard that for some people who are living in rural areas, they may not have a great water hookup that is drinkable water. We are concerned about that, because water is just flying off the shelves in the supermarkets and Walmart …”

Mr. Somalo, who has ties to Madrid and Spain where the coronavirus is taking a toll with nearly 5,000 deaths, said “a few weeks ago we were told we were very dramatic.”

“But we have to take the same precautions — and stay home,” said Mr. Somalo. “We have been telling them, ‘This is serious,’ for probably the last two weeks.”

A main priority is making sure non-English speakers have updated, accurate information and understand the magnitude of the situation.
“We cover all the way to Wilmington,” said Mr. Somalo. “We are not the only one (Spanish paper), but we are the largest of being able to provide that information in Spanish to our community.”

Ms. Fuqua urges anyone with concerns about Latino individuals or families to call La Esperanza’s main line at (302) 854-9262. “Tell people to give us a call, if they know of anybody who has a question, needs something explained to them or wants to sign up,” she said. “We’re routing calls.”

On Saturday, March 21, Ms. Dorival and Ephphatha held a seminar that due to the ban on large gatherings replaced the usual church service.

“As a church we did not meet, but we had a conference line where everybody could listen to the message and after that I did a seminar on COVID-19,” Ms. Dorival said. “We had the conference; it started at 1 p.m. and ended at 3:30 p.m. I spent over two hours explaining … like how to differentiate between regular cold, more allergy symptoms versus coronavirus symptoms.”

Listeners, predominantly Haitian, had an opportunity to ask questions.

“They had so many questions. I was able to kind to appease their fears. I was able to do that. I had questions, like “What about if my husband starts coughing, do I sleep in the same bed? There was a lot of confusion. I had to explain there is a huge difference between prevention and treatment,” said Ms. Dorival. “The plan is to continue to have this conference every Saturday trying answer their questions and their concerns about the virus. It is quite a complex situation — very complex.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.