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By Isabella Bloom, Ethnic Media Services

Richmond, Ca. — Public health officials anxious to reach linguistically isolated communities about the need to wear masks, practice social distancing and get vaccinated are applauding a technique used by Laotian seniors in Richmond, Ca. – the phone tree.

Like many South East Asian refugees who settled in California after the Vietnam War, Laotian seniors speak little English and have no direct access to the Internet. Yet they have developed a way to access information about COVID-19 and vaccinations to keep themselves and their families safe.

When someone is sick or dies in the community, their family only makes one phone call – to their elected chairperson. That sets off a phone tree. The chairperson informs two or three assistants who call community leaders who then call the 10 or 15 families in their designated group. Within a few hours, or just 30 minutes, everyone in the community knows, says Torm Normpraseurt, a leader in the Khmu community.

“We are very, very organized,” Normpraeurt notes. Of the several Laotian ethnic subgroups, including Lao, lu Mien, Khmu, Tai Dam and Hmong, each has a slightly different phone tree system, language dialect and governance system.

For the Khmu, Nompraseurt says, their community holds an election every four years to choose a chairperson. Voting is by mail-in ballot and even though most people know the candidates, they put pictures in for younger voters. Turnout, according to Nompraseurt, is regularly about 80 percent.

The elected chairperson then chooses a secretary and treasurer. Community leaders, who represent a designated number of families, are selected by consensus among those families.

This governance system creates an organizational structure that accommodates word-of-mouth dissemination like that of the phone tree.

But even then, there is an equity gap in access to information, especially when it comes to making appointments to get vaccines.

“If you don’t know how to read or write English, how can you communicate with the cellphone or with the Internet when all these systems are set up by the English languages?” asks Sary Tatpaporn, himself a senior who immigrated from Laos to California with his wife and one-and-a-half year old son in 1979.

Tatpaporn founded the first Laotian senior center in the Bay Area in 2017 to ensure his community could receive health care information that is otherwise difficult to obtain because of language barriers. But the center closed, like all other senior centers, because of the pandemic lockdown.

To get around the language barrier, Tatpaporn – a member of the Laotian Leader Network – worked with Sonia Bustamante, chief of staff of Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, to work out a vaccine plan.

Using the phone tree system, anyone in the Laotian community who is eligible for the vaccine gives their first and last name, date of birth and phone number to their community leader. Those community leaders then compile lists to send to Tatpaporn. Tatpaporn takes a single list of eligible Laotians each week and sends it to both Bustamante and to Dr. Kishore Nath at the John Muir Health mobile clinic.

The clinic was set up in early 2021 as a partnership between John Muir Health and Contra Costa Health Services to vaccinate eligible communities. Certain hours – such as between noon and 3 pm on Saturdays – are designated for the Laotian community to get vaccines.

On a recent Saturday, a group of local Laotian seniors drove up to Richmond High School, ready to get their COVID-19 vaccine shots. They’re given a simple form to fill out, then drive to a designated area in the parking lot. Volunteers, including Tatpaporn and Normpraseurt, are on hand to help with translation.

Soon enough a nurse approaches their car to administer a shot. They wait for 15 minutes to make sure there are no side effects, and then they are free to go.

Tatpaporn says so far that the clinic has vaccinated close to 100 people in the Laotian community.

The State of California urges all Californians to get vaccinated when it’s your turn. For more COVID-19 information, you can call the hotline at 1-833-422-4255, where translators are available in 250+ languages, including Lao. The state also offers translations in 12 languages on the scheduling website

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