Providing coronavirus information for Iowa’s Latino community

Published on April 21, 2020

Portrait of Nicole Novak, postdoctoral research scholar at the Prevention Research Center in the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
Nicole Novak

Nicole Novak is an assistant research scientist in the Department of Community and Behavioral Health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. Her work examines historical, structural, and policy influences on the health of immigrants, Latinos, and rural residents.

She recently collaborated with Manny Galvez, owner and editor of El Trueque Iowa, to produce a series of videos in Spanish that provide COVID-19-related information to Iowa’s Latino community. As of this writing (4/21/20), the three videos with Novak have been viewed more than 20,000 times. They are available to the public in the “Videos” section of El Trueque’s Facebook page at

Nicole and Manny recently answered a few questions about the videos and their efforts to get timely and accurate information about COVID-19 to Iowa’s Latino community.

Q: What motivated you to create these videos?

photo of Manny Galvez
Manny Galvez

Manny: Because of the platform I have as editor of El Trueque and the trust the community has in me, people were calling and asking me questions, some of which I didn’t have the answers to. And even when I knew the answers it didn’t make sense to just answer each person one at a time.

One of the problems the Latino community has in Iowa is the lack of information in Spanish. I wanted to educate the Latino community about coronavirus and also inform them about their rights as workers, how to find potential economic supports, and how to care for their mental health during this time.

Some state agencies and other organizations were working to develop materials in Spanish, but the information wasn’t reaching enough people and there was still a lot of misinformation and fear in the community.

Many Latinos are worried about safe conditions at work, and sometimes their lack of knowledge about their rights at work is a problem. For example, someone told me that their work supervisor said to them, “What do you want? Your health or your money?” Obviously, they need both. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make. I want the Latino community to know that regardless of their immigration status, they still have rights.

Mental health is another important issue right now. Many in the Latino community don’t talk about mental health, seek out help when it’s needed, or even know who to talk to when they have problems.

Q: What types of information do you cover in the videos?

Nicole: This was definitely a homegrown community effort. We looped in several partners, including Briana Reha-Klenske from Proteus, the Federally Qualified Healthcare Center that serves migrant agricultural workers in Iowa, and Marlén Mendoza, a University of Iowa graduate who now works in social policy issues. Jollette Alvarado of the organization Latinx Immigrants of Iowa has also shared some suggested topics and has broadcast our videos on her organization’s Facebook page.

We started by building off the excellent information that my colleague Will Story and his partners at the Congolese Health Partnership assembled to educate that community about coronavirus and COVID-19. They developed a series of scripts about coronavirus, including how to protect yourself and your community, and how to seek health care. We translated the scripts to Spanish and adapted them to add information for undocumented Iowans that had been developed by the Commission of Latino Affairs in the Iowa Department of Human Rights.

We made another video with a Spanish translation of information that Sato Ashida and her Disaster Prepwise team had developed for older adults, and also incorporated some information from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

We also made a video responding to questions that viewers had submitted. People asked questions such as where they could get a COVID test, how uninsured people might be able to access health care related to COVID, and what to do if you think you were exposed to the novel coronavirus at work. We also shared some guidance for self-isolating at home if someone gets sick.

Our next goal, based on community feedback, is to host a panel discussion about mental health and coping with stress. And we’ll continue to educate people about available economic supports since many families are facing a lot of stress related to bills, rent, and food costs.

Q: Can you talk a little about the disparities you’re seeing in the Latino community regarding COVID-19?

Nicole: Last week the Iowa Department of Public Health released a dashboard that provides basic demographic information about all confirmed COVID-19 cases in Iowa. The most recent data indicates that Latinos comprise 19.6% of Iowans with confirmed COVID-19, even though Latinos only constitute 6.2% of the state population.

We should interpret these numbers with some degree of caution since COVID-19 testing in Iowa has been very uneven. However, there is good reason to believe that this is a true disparity, given that Latinos in Iowa are disproportionately employed in industries like meat processing, where workers are close together and do not always feel able to advocate for safer working conditions. We’ve already seen this in the outbreaks at meat processing plants in Columbus Junction, Tama, Waterloo, and elsewhere.

This higher risk of exposure to coronavirus in workplaces is exacerbated by other challenges rooted in poverty and social inequality here in Iowa. For example, people may live in close quarters with others, which can also make it difficult to isolate someone who is sick. And in some cases, if people have underlying conditions like diabetes or asthma, they may be more vulnerable to severe COVID.

Manny: The reasons we are seeing these disparities is the systematic exclusion and poverty that the Latino community in Iowa faces. Housing, health care, employment—those are part of it, but it is all rooted in this systematic exclusion and segregation.

Q: What can communities do to begin addressing some of these COVID-related disparity issues?

Manny: Solid, reliable information from a trusted source such as our videos are good first steps. When community members are educated on a topic and understand their rights and the services that are available to them, they can take appropriate action.

I think it’s unfortunate that formal institutions in Iowa are not making this same type of effort. For example, for the last several weeks, the state has not provided Spanish translations of the Governor’s daily press conferences, so other individuals and agencies have taken it upon themselves to do this.

Nicole: I agree with Manny that it’s important to make sure Latino communities are getting frequent, reliable information on coronavirus, delivered to them through sources that they trust. It’s important to make sure that the information is tailored to specific needs that might emerge in these communities, including those who live in close quarters with others, and those who are still going to work.

It’s also important that many people come together to hold employers accountable for providing safety precautions for their workers. This includes making sure workers know their rights and are supported in advocating for their own safety at work. CDC and OSHA have released guidance on mitigating coronavirus transmission in workplaces––there are many strategies, even for “essential” industries, to make adaptations to preserve workers’ health and safety.

Lastly, in public health and health equity we should always be working to address the deeply rooted social inequalities that produce health inequalities in the first place—this includes issues like poverty, access to education, discrimination, immigrant rights and citizenship, and other core social determinants of health.

Q: Nicole, you’re currently co-teaching a class about health equity. How are you integrating these current issues into your discussions?

Nicole: There are really two layers of bringing health equity in the classroom in this moment. The first is to understand that our graduate students are themselves facing disruptions related to the coronavirus crisis—my co-instructor Shannon Lea Watkins has been especially thoughtful about the fact that many students across the university are themselves facing changes in their personal finances, internet access, and parenting or family caregiving responsibilities.

Health equity issues are everywhere you look in the coronavirus pandemic. I really wish, for the sake of all the affected communities, that coronavirus was not so relevant to this class. We have a thread on our course website where we share resources related to health equity and COVID-19. Some of the topics include COVID-19 risks in prisons, jails and immigration detention centers; rural health issues such as hospital capacity and food security; mutual-aid type interventions to mitigate harms from COVID-19; needs of people with disabilities and chronic illness during COVID-19; and resurgence of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.

We’re currently in our third unit of the class, which focuses on interventions and action for health equity, and we’re hearing from guest speakers who work in the community to promote health equity. Several have addressed how COVID-19 affects their work with marginalized communities—this is something that pervades every aspect of life and work.