Almost immediately after COVID-19 hit, Sacramento’s Black and Brown community leaders raised the alarm about the toll they expected the virus to take.

Higher rates of chronic disease, less

access to health care and more people in essential work put residents of Sacramento’s most diverse neighborhoods at unique risk of contracting and dying from the disease. Hispanic residents make up 33% of Sacramento County’s COVID-19 cases, but just 23% of the county’s population. Statewide, both Black and Latinx Californians are dying from the virus at disproportionate rates.

In response, Sacramento County has been working with nonprofit groups in the most affected neighborhoods to find community-driven approaches to slowing the spread. Earlier this month they announced a new approach in conjunction with the Sierra Health Foundation, a private philanthropy focused on addressing health inequities.

The collaboration involves the following strategies:

  • 10 testing sites at trusted community locations
  • 55 community members cross-trained to be case investigators, contact tracers and resource coordinators who work with community members who’ve tested positive for COVID-19
  • $7.3 million in Sacramento County CARES Act funding to support individuals and families for rent assistance, utilities and other essential supplies and hot meal delivery.
  • 23 business navigators who provide education and support business owners’ understanding of health and safety precautions.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, director of health services for Sacramento County, says officials worked closely with community organizations to roll out the plan and make sure funding gets spent where it’s most needed.

He says some of the federal coronavirus funding will go to day workers and agricultural workers who test positive for COVID-19 but would be otherwise unable to stay home from work because they need to feed their families.

“We wanted to make sure that we served them,” he said. “They are at greater risk by providing essential services.”

The county is also providing funding to community-based organizations so they can hire contact tracers and business navigators.

Derrell Roberts of the Roberts Family Development Center in North Sacramento says leaders in the African American community had to be persistent with local officials about the need for more testing sites in walking distance, and other resources to combat COVID-19.

“It took a lot of community pressure to get the county in that position,” he said. “I don’t think the county recognized the severity of the issue, I don’t think they recognized the approach that was necessary in our communities.”

He says there’s a need for broad education about COVID-19 in communities of color, and that some people are getting mixed messaging from their neighbors and their faith groups.

“We also have culturally within our own communities leaders and people who may not believe that it matters,” he said. “Religious leaders who mistakenly say ‘I’m covered by the blood’ — that means my belief and my faith will get me through this. The reality is your belief and your faith should be part of your protection, but along with masks and distancing and handwashing.”

Roberts says restaurants and other businesses in the neighborhood have been struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. He says the navigator program the county is launching may not be well received by businesses on the brink of closure.

“For those who listen, it’ll help.” he said. “For those who are frustrated and think ‘this won’t help me keep my doors open,’ they’re not gonna listen.”

Mike Gipson, a North Sacramento resident, is one of the 23 navigators who’ve been hired to work with local businesses as part of the new program.

“I see being a business navigator as an opportunity to protect the health, safety and livelihood of the community I grew up in,” he said.

He says owners are more likely to make changes when asked by a neighbor than if they were approached by the county.

“We want to stress that we’re not the authority to shut anybody down — just the opposite,” he said. “We want to keep you open.”

Beilenson says business navigators are tasked only with educating business owners about safety protocols, not with enforcement. He says if businesses aren’t responding to education, county officials will show up. He says the most severe consequence would be license suspension, but that hasn’t happened yet.

“I’ve made multiple visits to businesses, everything from gyms and fitness studios and yoga studios to tattoo parlors to grocery stores,” he said. “In every single instance after we’ve talked with them and followed up, usually with an unannounced visit, they’re usually following the guidelines. So we’re finding the education is making a big difference.”

Bobby Dalton Roy, who works with Asian and Pacific Islander communities in South Sacramento, says they’ve been in contact with the county about language barriers they’re facing when trying to communicate about COVID-19.

“The collaborative has been integral in getting materials printed and translated into languages including Chinese, Farsi, Hmong, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese,” he wrote in an email. “Also, the business navigator portion speaks specifically to different ethnic communities. Asian, Black, and Latino-owned businesses are concentrated in accommodation and food services and healthcare and social services, all of which have been limited by COVID-19.”

Santa Clara county launched a similar business navigator program this fall.

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