By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) and healthcare workers in general have been in a state of high alert for three years. “We have such incredible public health [employees],” DOH Secretary Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, commented to the Weekly on what happened to be the Public Health Thank You Day (Nov 20). “Who else would go through a pandemic working three years nonstop, 24/7, weekends, holidays, giving up weddings…birthdays and all that? Only to come back for another emergency or another issue, rinse and repeat…oftentimes without credit.”
The case is similar for communities of color, who have already been experiencing inequities and barriers to healthcare since long ago, and now once again plunged into a state of emergency since the pandemic.
“What’s really hurtful now is when you see all these xenophobic and — including in the field of Public Health —these negative attacks,” said Shah, whose own family background is from Pakistan and India. “I’ve had [attacks] levied against me. I know other minorities have had it levied against them…it’s been a real challenge. We have to remain strong and we also have to remain connected.”
To address healthcare inequities among people of color, not just during COVID-19 but in all types of health-related scenarios, DOH initiated programs such as the Community Collaborative Group and the Community-Driven Outreach Program, or CDO.
CDO, which started in 2022 and will run until spring of 2024, has been part of DOH’s increasing efforts to reach communities of color. With CDO, DOH has gone beyond collaboration with the state-level organizations it traditionally collaborates with, switching to what they call “hyper-local” networking and dissemination of information and resources. “We wanted to make sure that we were reaching out to…organizations that are very much community rooted,’ Shah explained. “You have almost eight million almost Washingtonians. You cannot reach all eight million at once. So how do you do that? Effectively, you do it through your partners.” In the case of the Asian American population of Washington and other groups, “community-based organizations are truly the ones that are trusted by the people who are connected with them.”
To date, DOH has invested over $21 million into community-driven initiatives. At the height of COVID-19, it was through programs such as Care Connect, which Shah described as “a community hub model to assist COVID-19 patients with isolation, while also limiting the spread of the virus.” This went in tandem with DOH’s Say Yes! To COVID Test program, which provided free COVID-19 testing. “From July 2022 to September 2023, over 15,600 clients were referred to Care Connect community hubs and over 11,100 clients were enrolled,” Shah said. Once CDO comes to an end, Community Collaborative will continue the work DOH has started in this arena. “COVID showed us that you have to remember community-wide issues or problems [and these] challenges require community-wide solutions,” said Shah.
According to the DOH’s description, Community Collaborative “allows communities to share directly how DOH can better serve and partner with them.” This is accomplished through monthly listening and planning sessions with local leaders “who are working to improve the health and wellbeing of their communities.” In addition to combating COVID-19, Community Collaborative and the programs under its umbrella strive to combat other health-related concerns of the Asian American, Pacific Islander, and other underserved communities of color. With winter in swing, respiratory diseases are a concern. All year, chronic health concerns, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, disproportionately affect people of color. Mental health, behavioral health, abuse of opioids, suicide prevention, all of these are on DOH’s radar. “We want to make sure that we’re really thinking about this, from what is impacting most Washingtonians, and then what specifically may be impacting a certain community more so than others,” Shah explained. Telehealth and digital health are taken into consideration, as well as language barriers. “How do we increase the access to care?” is the question demanding answers.
“This is one of the biggest challenges in public health across the country and the globe is that we just don’t invest enough in prevention,” Shah pointed out. Once CDO ends, Shah and DOH intend to continue what they started: “When you have something that has worked, that’s respected and appreciated, that really is connected…with all sorts of community groups across our state. Why would you not do everything you can to continue to leverage that?”
As someone whose family came to the U.S. from Pakistan, and who still has relatives in both Pakistan and India, Shah relates to what Asian Americans go through from both a personal and professional standpoint. He told the Weekly about how his parents taught him and his sister about the challenges they faced as immigrants. In particular, Shah recalls that his dad had only “five dollars in his wallet” when he went for his first job interview in the U.S. He understands that, for Asian Americans, “family is so critical,” and he knows that many people are managing multiple generations of family, from their children to their elders. He acknowledges that, on top of this, many in the Asian diaspora have struggles specific to their refugee status; and that there are many subgroups within what is labeled “Asian.” “It’s really important for us to be thinking about what health issues are happening in our Asian American communities,” he said. “We have to be there and the way you do that is by connecting with the community organizations…because they know better what the health needs are in their communities.”
There are reasons to rejoice. 2023 is the first holiday season since the pandemic that DOH is not advising people to avoid crowds.
“It has been a really hard three years,” Shah remarked. This year, DOH is not “giving these really challenging recommendations” of “Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” But they are asking everyone to use common sense. If you’re sick, don’t go to a holiday gathering. Get tested. Get your vaccines, including the newest COVID-19 vaccine, the flu shot, and the vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.
“You may not think that a mask might be important, but at least have one with you,” Shah recommended, “in case someone else is coughing, you are immunocompromised, you’re caring for somebody with cancer, or you’re around seniors.” Continue to wash your hands and cover your mouth when you cough. “Think about how your health and your actions impact those around you,” Shah said. “Just be careful.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Made possible in part by the Washington State Department of Health through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This information does not necessarily reflect the official policies of the Washington State Department of Health or the Department of Health and Human Services.