Sussex Co. Haitians hit hard by COVID-19

Nurse Practitioner Emanie Dorival takes the temperature of patient Sarafina Gilles at the Ephphatha Medical Care Services in Seaford. Ms. Dorival’s clinic is focused in part on the Haitian Creole-speaking community. (Special to the State News/Ariane Mueller)

The Haitian American population in Sussex County, which is growing rapidly, has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 epidemic in Delaware.

“We lost so many Haitians,” said Nadya Julien, a Haitian-born nurse practitioner who owns Tabitha Medical Care in Laurel. “It was sad.”

Ms. Julien, who came to the United States 21 years ago and now works closely with Sussex County’s Haitian Creole-speaking population, said that five people she cared for at her practice have died from the virus.

“We probably lost more than 15 to 20 Haitians” at the facility overall, she said. “A lot of them were critically ill, on the ventilators.”

Pastor Elveus Solvens of the Milford Haitian Church of the Nazarene said six people in his congregation had contracted the virus, but luckily, they all survived.

“Most or all Haitians work in the chicken plants,” he said of the community in Sussex County. “During COVID-19, the chicken plants couldn’t close. … I think this is one reason they were affected.”

Ms. Julien estimated that 60% of working-age Haitian community members are employed in the poultry industry.

Emanie Dorival, another Haitian-born nurse practitioner who came to the U.S. in 1990, said many in the community were infected at work. Ms. Dorival’s clinic, Ephphatha Medical Care Services in Seaford, which opened in 2018, is focused in part on the Haitian Creole-speaking community.

“I would say a good 70% of the Haitians who were working in the chicken plants were affected by COVID because they tested positive,” she said.

But it’s hard to know how many Haitians in Sussex County have contracted or died from the virus. In fact, it’s hard to know how many people of Haitian descent there are in Sussex County in the first place.

“While (the Delaware Division of Public Health) tracks race/ethnicity, I don’t believe we track case data by country of descent,” said Jen Brestel, the DPH’s media relations coordinator.

This means that there is no data on how Haitian Americans in Delaware have been impacted by COVID-19, as they get lumped into the broader “non-Hispanic Black” category.

“When they test, they cannot differentiate African American and Haitian because there’s no other question there,” Ms. Julien said.

She said community leaders have been lobbying the government to count the Haitian community more effectively in the census.

“If we’re lumped together with the African Americans or other Blacks, you’re not truly going to know how many Haitians are here,” Ms. Julien said. “That’s why we cannot really give an estimate on how many are here. We just know there’s an increase.”

Pastor Solvens said the traditional Haitian attitude toward health care is very different from the American one, leading many to not seek treatment initially.

“We had a lot of people who got sick, but in our culture, when people get sick like that, they don’t want to go immediately to the hospital,” he said. “Sometimes, they want to stay home to see what they can do naturally.”

The language barrier also discourages many Haitian Creole speakers from seeking out treatment, as health professionals who speak that language are few and far between in many places.

“At one point, I can say at (TidalHealth) Nanticoke, you could see the whole range of the COVID floor was Haitian,” Ms. Julien said. “It was because of the language barrier.”

Pastor Solvens said his church has done a lot of work to educate the Haitian community in Milford.

“I have had several online conferences, just to inform them about COVID-19, to make sure they take care of themselves (and) they take all the precautions,” he said. “We try to give them the information.”

But he said there’s always more work to do.

“We do our best to translate things, like to make sure the information is available in Creole for them, but it’s never enough,” he said.

Haitian Creole-speaking medical professionals, like Ms. Julien and Ms. Dorival, have also taken on an important role in educating the community about the virus.

“As the leaders of the community, we’ve continued to inform them. We don’t want them to become complacent about it,” Ms. Dorival said.

“Once COVID started to really hit, I was affected,” Ms. Julien said. “I got it from one of my patients. I was very sick in the hospital.”

Once she healed, she began a “campaign of education.”

“I do presentations via Facebook Live and also through the churches on Zoom and educate them as far as prevention,” Ms. Julien said.

Nurse Practitioner Emanie Dorival examines retired veteran Roland Allen Malcolm at Ephphatha Medical Care Services in Seaford. The facility is a family clinic in Seaford that provides services of acute or chronic diseases, including medical care for veterans and the Haitian American community. (Special to the State News/Ariane Mueller)

The nurse practitioners had nothing but praise for Delaware’s response to COVID-19, particularly as it related to the poultry plants and the Haitian community.

“I personally feel very proud of the way the government in Delaware has funded and also maintained testing throughout the state,” Ms. Dorival said. “That’s had a major impact.”

The DPH agreed that its approach with immigrant communities working in the poultry plants has been effective.

“When the Division of Public Health identified a hot spot in Sussex County in the earlier months of the pandemic, the agency worked closely with the poultry industry to test those who speak Haitian Creole, as well as those who speak Spanish,” Ms. Brestel said.

In addition to the testing the state has provided, both Ms. Julien and Ms. Dorival have been able to provide COVID-19 testing at their clinics.

“Not only do they provide testing, (but) they also provide food and shelter for people who don’t have a way of isolating themselves,” Ms. Dorival said.

Ms. Brestel said that all the DPH’s written outreach materials are translated into Haitian Creole. But this may not be enough to reach the entirety of the Haitian American community in southern Delaware.

“I have to say, some of them are not able to read or write, even if it’s written in Haitian Creole,” Ms. Dorival said.

This is more common among the community’s older generations, who may not have had the opportunity to go to school, she added.

“That’s where the verbal component is so critical,” Ms. Dorival said.

“DPH has staff that specifically speak Haitian Creole and engage with community members, utilizing oral communication versus just the written communication,” Ms. Brestel said. “Additionally, DPH has staff members who speak Haitian Creole and have been and continue to be a part of our contact-tracing team.”

But when a bilingual representative can’t be there, Ms. Julien and Ms. Dorival said video can help reinforce the need to take precautions.

“In some places, I believe they had videos, and myself, with Nadya, that’s one of the things we do,” Ms. Dorival said. “We put videos where they can listen to a message in Creole, reminding them what to do.”

She said that the state has done an excellent job with handling the COVID-19 crisis.

“I’m really pleased with the effort they put out in tackling different communities, reaching out to community leaders … and also the medical professionals,” Ms. Dorival said.

On the other hand, close cooperation with Haitian-oriented medical providers has been a big contributor to the DPH’s work.

“One success we would like to highlight was hiring bilingual staff for contact tracing, as well as partnering with trusted provider networks in western Sussex County that have a large Haitian Creole-speaking patient population,” Ms. Brestel said.

“Those partnerships have really allowed us to meet people where they are (and) provide grassroots outreach and needed resources to individuals in the Haitian community in Sussex County,” she said.


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.