COVID-19 exacerbating challenges for Latino patients


Compounding of traumas

For many Latino patients, the adverse impacts of the pandemic comes on top of multiple prior traumas, such as violence exposures, discrimination, and economic issues, said Lisa Fortuna, MD, MPH, MDiv, chief of psychiatry and vice chair at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. A 2017 analysis found that nearly four in five Latino youth face at least one traumatic childhood experience, like poverty or abuse, and that about 29% of Latino youth experience four or more of these traumas.

Dr. Lisa Fortuna, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center

Dr. Lisa Fortuna

Immigrants in particular, may have faced trauma in their home country and/or immigration trauma, Dr. Fortuna added. A 2013 study on immigrant Latino adolescents for example, found that 29% of foreign-born adolescents and 34% of foreign-born parents experienced trauma during the migration process (Int Migr Rev. 2013 Dec;47(4):10).

“All of these things are cumulative,” Dr. Fortuna said. “Then when you’re hit with a pandemic, all of the disparities that you already have and all the stress that you already have are compounded. This is for the kids, too, who have been exposed to a lot of stressors and now maybe have family members that have been ill or have died. All of these things definitely put people at risk for increased depression [and] the worsening of any preexisting posttraumatic stress disorder. We’ve seen this in previous disasters, and I expect that’s what we’re going to see more of with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At the same time, a central cultural value of many Latinos is family unity, Dr. Montano said, a foundation that is now being strained by social distancing and severed connections.

“This has separated many families,” she said. “There has been a lot of loneliness and grief.”

Mistrust and fear toward the government, public agencies, and even the health system itself act as further hurdles for some Latinos in the face of COVID-19. In areas with large immigrant populations such as San Francisco, Dr. Fortuna noted, it’s not uncommon for undocumented patients to avoid accessing medical care and social services, or visiting emergency departments for needed care for fear of drawing attention to themselves or possible detainment.

“The fact that so many people showed up at our hospital so ill and ended up in the ICU – that could be a combination of factors. Because the population has high rates of diabetes and hypertension, that might have put people at increased risk for severe illness,” she said. “But some people may have been holding out for care because they wanted to avoid being in places out of fear of immigration scrutiny.”

Overcoming language barriers

Compounding the challenging pandemic landscape for Latino patients is the fact that many state resources about COVID-19 have not been translated to Spanish, Dr. Colón-Rivera said. He was troubled recently when he went to several state websites and found limited to no information in Spanish about the coronavirus. Some data about COVID-19 from the federal government were not translated to Spanish until officials received pushback, he added. Even now, press releases and other information disseminated by the federal government about the virus appear to be translated by an automated service – and lack sense and context.

The state agencies in Pennsylvania have been alerted to the absence of Spanish information, but change has been slow, he noted.

“In Philadelphia, 23% speaks a language other than English,” he said. “So we missed a lot of critical information that could have helped to avoid spreading the illness and access support.”

Dr. Fortuna said that California has done better with providing COVID-19–related information in Spanish, compared with some other states, but misinformation about the virus and lingering myths have still been a problem among the Latino community. The University of California, San Francisco, recently launched a Latino Task Force resource website for the Latino community that includes information in English, Spanish, and Yucatec Maya about COVID-19, health and wellness tips, and resources for various assistance needs.

The concerning lack of COVID-19 information translated to Spanish led Dr. Montano to start a Facebook page in Spanish about mental health tips and guidance for managing COVID-19–related issues. She and her team of clinicians share information, videos, relaxation exercises, and community resources on the page, among other posts. “There is also general info and recommendations about COVID-19 that I think can be useful for the community,” she said. “The idea is that patients, the general community, and providers can have share information, hope messages, and ask questions in Spanish.”

Feeling ‘helpless’

A central part of caring for Latino patients during the COVID-19 crisis has been referring them to outside agencies and social services, psychiatrists say. But finding the right resources amid a pandemic and ensuring that patients connect with the correct aid has been an uphill battle.

“We sometimes feel like our hands are tied,” Dr. Colón-Rivera said. “Sometimes, we need to call a place to bring food. Some of the state agencies and nonprofits don’t have delivery systems, so the patient has to go pick up for food or medication. Some of our patients don’t want to go outside. Some do not have cars.”

As a clinician, it can be easy to feel helpless when trying to navigate new challenges posed by the pandemic in addition to other longstanding barriers, Dr. Posada said.

“Already, mental health disorders are so influenced by social situations like poverty, job insecurity, or family issues, and now it just seems those obstacles are even more insurmountable,” she said. “At the end of the day, I can feel like: ‘Did I make a difference?’ That’s a big struggle.”

Dr. Montano’s team, which includes psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, have come to rely on virtual debriefings to vent, express frustrations, and support one another, she said. She also recently joined a virtual mind-body skills group as a participant.

“I recognize the importance of getting additional support and ways to alleviate burnout,” she said. “We need to take care of ourselves or we won’t be able to help others.”

Focusing on resilience during the current crisis can be beneficial for both patients and providers in coping and drawing strength, Dr. Posada said.

“When it comes to fostering resilience during times of hardship, I think it’s most helpful to reflect on what skills or attributes have helped during past crises and apply those now – whether it’s turning to comfort from close relationships, looking to religion and spirituality, practicing self-care like rest or exercise, or really tapping into one’s purpose and reason for practicing psychiatry and being a physician,” she said. “The same advice goes for clinicians: We’ve all been through hard times in the past, it’s part of the human condition and we’ve also witnessed a lot of suffering in our patients, so now is the time to practice those skills that have gotten us through hard times in the past.”

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