Dec 2, 2020 Supporting the Latino Community During the Pandemic

At the height of the pandemic, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset staff members provided education and protective equipment to Latino residents.

In early April, as the pandemic intensified, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases among members of the Latino community.

At one time, as high as 70 percent of the COVID-19-positive patients who were admitted to the hospital were Spanish speaking. For many members of this community, working from home was not an option, multigenerational families were living together, and people were afraid to come to the hospital because they didn’t have health insurance. They also lacked masks.

“We felt there was a need for education,” says Serena Collado, Director of Community Health at RWJUH Somerset.

On April 14, the Community Health department, along with other bilingual hospital staff members, began making phone calls to our database of Latino patients. Team members educated the Latino community on how to practice social distancing, wash their hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds or more, wear a mask in public places, and stay home if they were sick.

The team also provided information about food pantries, local COVID-19 testing sites, health clinics, and mental health and domestic violence hotlines.

Between April 14 and May 7, the Community Health department made 4,153 educational calls to the Hispanic population. The team also mailed educational materials and additional resources, such as masks, to more than 3,000 people who had used RWJUH Somerset’s services in the past.

Spreading the Word About Prevention

To reach even more members of the Latino community, the Community Health department partnered with the Diversity & Inclusion department and its SALUD Business Resource Group (a group of RWJUH Somerset employees who are Spanish-speaking or Latino) to distribute educational materials, masks, hand sanitizer, soap and hygiene kits. Many of the masks were handmade by donors and community members.

The team traveled to Bound Brook, North Plainfield, Franklin, Manville, and Somerville to hand out health information and masks.

In total, more than 13,000 masks were distributed at nearly 20 events.

The Community Health team also distributed $50 ShopRite gift cards to 420 people in Bound Brook and South Bound Brook.

“At the peak of the surge, people lost their jobs or couldn’t get food,” says Collado. “Public transportation was shut down.”

Somerset Health Care Foundation, the hospital’s fundraising arm, provided funding for the gift cards through a Culture of Health grant.

One of the reasons the initiative was so successful was that the RWJUH Somerset SALUD Business Resource Group was able to bridge the communication and cultural gap with the Latino community. SALUD stands for “Service and Advocacy for Latinos United for Development.”

“It makes a difference when you can speak to people in their native language and understand their culture,” says Paula A. Gutierrez, MHA, CPTC, Director of Diversity & Inclusion.

Interestingly, after launching the education and outreach initiatives, RWJUH Somerset experienced a decline in COVID-19 cases among the Latino community.

“We think the educational outreach helped to reduce the number of cases,” says Collado. In August, the RWJUH Community Health and Diversity & Inclusion teams began reaching out to the African American community through the hospital’s Black Professionals Network (BPN).

This community and many communities of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Collaborating With Local Leaders

RWJUH Somerset is continuing to support the Latino community through outreach events to help people prepare for flu season.

As a result of the need to continue education, the hospital formed a Latino Advisory Council. The Council includes two councilmen, a freeholder, the president of the Somerset County Democratic Hispanic Caucus, and a clergy leader.

“We wanted to collaborate with community leaders to share information and develop programs to keep people healthy,” says Gutierrez. The group meets monthly and plans webinars for community members.

On July 14, RWJUH Somerset held a webinar on how to stay healthy during COVID-19. In August, the group had a second webinar on how to keep kids safe when they return to school. The Council was also planning an event for Hispanic Heritage Month. Members are developing a comprehensive resource guide, which includes information about food and housing for the Latino community.

The goals are to keep the Latino community healthy and “build relationships with them so that when they need help, they will seek us out,” says Collado.

Paying It Forward

In July, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset launched the “Pay it Forward” campaign, in which hospital employees were encouraged to support local restaurants that supported the hospital with donated meals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They presented “Heroes Eat Here” thank-you cards at restaurants for takeout or outdoor dining. In addition, during “Pay It Forward” Fridays, employees ordered takeout meals from designated restaurants. The hospital presented each restaurant with a “Heroes Eat Here” certificate.

Since March, RWJUH Somerset has received nearly $400,000 in food donations.

“The support from our community has been simply extraordinary,” says Anthony Cava, President and Chief Executive Officer of RWJUH Somerset. “It lifted our spirits and helped carry us through a very challenging time. Through the ‘Pay It Forward’ campaign, we can show our appreciation for all that our community has done for us.”

Our Partners

The following organizations made the COVID-19 outreach possible:

  • Salvation Army, Bound Brook
  • Borough of Bound Brook
  • Arc of Somerset County, Manville
  • St. Joseph Catholic Church, North Plainfield
  • Franklin Food Bank, Franklin
  • Feeding Hands, Manville
  • Zarephath Church, Somerset
  • North Plainfield Middle School, North Plainfield
  • Alexander Batcho Intermediate School
  • South Bound Brook
  • Franklin School District, Franklin
  • Bound Brook High School, Bound Brook
  • Feeding Hands, Somerville
  • JFK Elementary School, Raritan
  • First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens
  • Hillsborough Township Health Department

For more information about community outreach and resources, visit Latino Health Resources. 
For more on COVID-19, visit RWJBarnabas Health's COVID-19 Health Resources page.