Population Health

April 22, 2021

Addressing and assessing the impact of COVID-19 on Latino immigrant families

Image of woman in a yoga poseAs of February 2021, Latinos comprise 32% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in Washington State, despite accounting for only 13% of the state’s total population. These statistics allude to the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Latino communities in Washington State and beyond.

To address the pandemic’s impact on Latino communities, researchers from the University of Washington departments of Health Sciences, Global Health and Epidemiology sought to research the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Latino immigrant households in King County.

The research team included India Ornelas, associate professor at the Department of Health Sciences; Deepa Rao, professor at the Department of Global Health; and Jen Balkus, assistant professor at the Department of Epidemiology.

Before the onset of the pandemic, Ornelas was studying health disparities related to Latina women.

Her research project, “Amigas Latinas Motivando el Alma (ALMA): A Randomized Control Trial of an Intervention to Reduce Mental Health Disparities in Mexican Immigrant Women,” was awarded $3 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The project sought to develop a group-based intervention to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.

“The ALMA intervention is an eight-week program that women do together,” Ornelas said. “It focuses on building social ties among women to strengthen social support and teaching new coping strategies for dealing with immigration-related stressors. The program focuses on self-compassion and incorporates mindful movement, [such as] stretching [and] yoga.”

The coinciding of the COVID-19 pandemic with Ornela’s NIH-funded study presented a unique research opportunity.

Recognizing the critical population health challenges Latino immigrant families faced as a result of the pandemic, Ornelas and her colleagues aspired to collect additional data to better understand how COVID-19 impacted the Latino immigrant population.

Their project proposal was awarded a Population Health Initiative COVID-19 rapid response grant in April of 2020.

“We had to pause the [NIH-funded] study because it included in person activities, but we were concerned about the participants,” Ornelas said. “The rapid response grant allowed us to collect additional data from women in the trial and pilot test a way to offer the intervention to women remotely.”

Utilizing their established study participants and ALMA intervention method, the researchers aimed to assess the pandemic’s impact on Latino immigrant households. The researchers also worked to develop and pilot test an online version of their ALMA intervention method to support Latina immigrants during the pandemic.

The research project team also included Stephanie Tornberg-Belanger, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Epidemiology and research assistant in the Department of Health Services in the UW School of Public Health; and Georgina Perez, research coordinator in Health Services at the UW School of Public Health.

“As COVID cases continued to climb among Latinos in Washington state last year, there was very little information about their COVID-19 related behaviors and attitudes,” Ornelas said. “Our study helped highlight the needs of a population that was significantly impacted by COVID but was also being underserved.”

From their initial data collection, the researchers realized that many study participants were experiencing food and housing insecurity.

“Latina immigrants and their families are facing large financial burdens due to job losses and decreases in work hours due to COVID-19,” Tornberg-Belanger said. “They are frequently concerned with paying housing or food costs.”

After uncovering the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on Latino immigrant households, the researchers worked to develop and pilot test an online version of their ALMA intervention method to support Latina immigrants during the pandemic.

“Our work with ALMA during the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged us to find innovative and feasible ways to connect with Latinx immigrants using technology,” Perez said.

Despite the challenges Latino immigrant families have faced since the onset of the pandemic, the researchers have also noted proactive behaviors amongst study participants.

“Almost all [study participants] were practicing recommended preventative behaviors,” Ornelas said.

These findings are critical in better understanding how the ongoing pandemic has impacted the Latino community in the Seattle area.

“We have been able to disseminate these findings to the Seattle-King [County] Department of Public Health, our community partners, and the community itself,” Tornberg-Belanger said. “This work informs policymakers on how the pandemic is affecting this population.”

From this work, the researchers intend for their findings to assist in future prevention and recovery efforts to support historically underserved Latino communities.