To respond effectively to COVID-19 and to longstanding health inequities made worse by the pandemic, it is essential to leverage community strengths and trusted community networks. The availability of accurate COVID-19 information, support, and resources that are culturally and linguistically appropriate and specific to refugee, immigrant, and migrant (RIM) communities are essential to keeping communities safe. As vaccine allocation and expanded eligibility increases across the United States, many vaccine campaigns rely on internet-based registration and utilize locations that accommodate large numbers of people for vaccine administration. This strategy can be ineffective for many RIM communities due to a variety of factors. Limited English proficiency or technology capability can prevent successful registration, while transportation barriers impact the ability to reach the location of vaccines.
Implementing the Use of Phone Trees
One strategy to address these challenges among RIM communities is to encourage COVID-19 vaccine registration and recruitment through trusted messengers through a mechanism such as phone trees. Phone trees are one strategy to disseminate important public health information during the pandemic, such as health education prevention messaging, connecting community members to resources, and facilitating vaccine registration. These phone tree messengers, often community leaders, are uniquely positioned to deliver culturally and linguistically appropriate COVID-19 vaccine information and interpret and translate relevant information for COVID-19 vaccine registration.
Using Phone Trees to Support the Laotian Community in California
This promising practice is based on an LA Times article where phone trees in California were used to share critical information about COVID-19 to older immigrants in the Laotian community who are not fluent in English and do not use the internet. A significant barrier the Laotian community faces is a lack of culturally and linguistically relevant Lao media in the United States. Elderly Laotian immigrants, a prime consumer of this type of media, cannot access up-to-date COVID-19 information, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on the phone tree concept used by other cities with large Laotian populations with established phone trees, Bay Area community members began to use this model to reach isolated people.
At the bottom or “root” of the phone tree are “chairpersons,” prominent community leaders that determine what information the linguistically isolated senior citizens need to know. This information is then passed onto “assistants,” who reach out to other local leaders to ensure the information is more widespread. The phone calls are an exchange of information for the elderly community members and reassure them that the vaccines are safe. For elderly immigrants interested in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, the community organizes volunteers who walk clients through the entire process for vaccine registration, help to arrange transportation, and ensure that an interpreter fluent in both Lao and English is present during the vaccine appointment. The phone trees have also developed into a resource for other urgent needs in the community, such as providing rides to the hospital or organizing a funeral, magnifying the reach of the community’s physical gathering places.