SPRINGDALE -- The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released its findings and recommendations on the spread of covid-19 in Northwest Arkansas' Marshallese and Hispanic communities, but it's unclear what steps will be taken to implement them.
The Arkansas Department of Health hasn't decided how it will respond to the report, said Danyelle McNeill, spokeswoman for the department. Staff members from the CDC went to Northwest Arkansas at the Health Department's request.
"Currently, there is widespread community transmission of covid-19 among the Hispanic and Marshallese populations in Benton and Washington counties," according to the CDC report. "The findings suggest that occupational, particularly poultry processing facility workers, household and community interactions are likely contributing to propagating the virus."
A team of scientists from the CDC spent three weeks in Northwest Arkansas starting in mid-June.
Its report outlines five recommendations: improve targeted testing; improve case investigation and contact tracing; tailor prevention communication and education for Hispanic and Marshallese communities; improve coordination of efforts related to covid-19 control; and improve data collection, analysis and reporting.
"We appreciate the evaluation and feedback that this offered for the communities of Northwest Arkansas," said Judd Semingson, chief executive officer at Community Clinic. "We continue to work closely with community leaders in education and reduction of the viral spread.
"The report affirmed several actions that we are already performing such as media education through social media, print and television. Additionally, we will continue to work closely with the public, local business and industry to provide testing availability for the community.
"We have been working together with other local providers and the Department of Health on a coordinated effort regarding testing structure and targets. This will continue based upon the report findings," he said.
Mireya Reith, executive director of Arkansas United, an immigrant rights group based in Springdale, met with CDC staff members while they were in the area.
"Overall, it validated what we've known to be true on testing and capacity," she said Thursday.
Reith said part of the community's struggle has been the state's narrative that the virus is spreading among minority groups because of their cultures while not focusing as much on the fact that they tend to be essential workers in food processing.
Arkansas had 434 active cases of covid-19 among people who work in poultry businesses as of July 13, according to the Health Department. At least one-half of those cases were Hispanic, and the ethnicities or race of about 24% of all cases is unknown.
Reith said the team didn't go into the poultry plants and focused more on what the community in Northwest Arkansas can do to stop the spread than what the state can do. The report fell short of an action plan with teeth, she said.
Hispanics accounted for 1,554, or 45%, of all cases in Benton and Washington counties, and 37% of them work in the poultry processing facilities, according to the report. Marshallese accounted for 647, or about 19%, of all cases in the region, and 23% of them worked in the poultry processing plants.
Layza Lopez-Love, assistant director of community programs at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Northwest, is leading a new task force focusing on preventing the spread of covid-19, particularly in the Hispanic community.
She said the task force wasn't formed because the CDC scientists were in town. A similar task force at UAMS exists for the Marshallese community. A representative for the Marshallese task force didn't respond to a request for comment.
The task force focusing on the Hispanic community includes about 20 people from nonprofit groups and other organizations such as Community Clinic and the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
The CDC staff members visited Hispanic-owned businesses and recommended that the task force or other organizations follow up often with those businesses to see what they need to better control the spread of the virus, Lopez-Love said.
So far, the task force has raised money to buy disposable masks to donate to those businesses for customers who have forgotten theirs or don't have face coverings.
The Springdale City Council recently voted to spend about $41,000 on 100,000 disposable masks for the city's residents.
The state "decision to mandate masks is going to go a long way," Lopez-Love said Friday, referring to Gov. Asa Hutchinson's Thursday announcement that face coverings will be required in most indoor and outdoor settings statewide starting today.
The task force is also looking into creating social media campaigns in Spanish to encourage people to follow guidelines such as social distancing and to make sure accurate information reaches more people in the Hispanic community in Northwest Arkansas, Lopez-Love said.
The volunteer task force will brainstorm larger projects that it may not have the money to do and look to UAMS or other organizations to see how it can accomplish those goals, she said.
"We hope this becomes a grassroots effort -- community leading community," she said.
Hispanic people accounted for 1,554, or 45%, of covid-19 cases in Benton and Washington counties as of June 13. Hispanic people make up 17% of the counties’ population.
Pacific Islanders accounted for 647, or 19%, of covid-19 cases in the counties, despite making up 1.5% of the population.
Source: CDC report
Alex Golden can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAalexgolden.