A new coronavirus study explores ‘big bias’ in how information reached Utah’s hard-hit Hispanics

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Loretta Muller hands a survey to person being tested for COVID-19 at a the Wellness Bus mobile testing site in West Valley City on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

Robert Welsh walked into a Target in March and stopped when a sign caught his attention. It said the store was not a COVID-19 testing center.

He was curious.

Why were Salt Lake City customers thinking this was a place to get a coronavirus test?

Where can people find the nearest testing center?

Why wasn’t the sign also in Spanish?

He never got to the bottom of the odd Target sign, but the experience did inspire Welsh, a psychiatry professor at the University of Utah.

“Immediately, I was thinking there’s this big bias and there’s this big disparity in terms of information getting out to the minority communities,” Welsh said.

He has since launched a study. He wants to know how Spanish-speakers get their information on the pandemic and what they know about how to avoid the virus. His surveys are ongoing.

As a white man who works at a major research university, Welsh recognized his experience learning about COVID-19 was not the same as the average person. Welsh and his co-workers received multiple emails from their employer each day about the virus and they would read about it on their own.

“We’re hyper-consumers of that information, but the general population is not necessarily,” Welsh said. “And a lot of this information, in the early phase, was first being published in English and not necessarily in Spanish. And a lot of misinformation potentially out there.”

Leaders in Utah’s Hispanic community say misinformation is one major factor in why cases exploded. That includes poor translations early in the pandemic.

Hispanics make up 14.2% of the state population, while white people comprise the vast majority — 78%.

However, starting on May 27, Hispanics represented a larger number of cases in Utah than any other demographic. That gap would grow, spurred in part by workplace infections and as Hispanic Utahns passed the virus to loved ones at home.

Utah Hispanics had the highest number of cases for nearly two months. That ended July 25. There does appear to be some decline in the number of cases among Utah Hispanics, but a bigger reason for the shift is that the virus is now hitting Utah’s white population harder than it was in April and May.

That said, Utah’s Hispanic community is still wildly overrepresented in the infection data.

The state has improved its outreach to minority groups, creating a multicultural subcommittee in late April and holding two Spanish-language news briefings. At the last one, a University of Utah professor explained his research into the relationship between social distancing policies, traffic volume, air quality and prevalence of COVID-19 outcomes in urban neighborhoods.

The study’s results found that ZIP codes with a higher minority population and lower-income households had almost 10 times as many COVID-19 cases. It also found that the volume of residential traffic in poorer ZIP codes decreased by 10-15% following the “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive issued by Gov. Gary Herbert, while richer, and largely whiter, ZIP codes saw a decrease of 50%.

Welsh believes an information disparity goes in line with barriers to accessing health care.

His survey is sponsored by the University of Utah and he consulted with the Utah Department of Health. It is being distributed to Utahns through the University of Utah’s Wellness Bus, a mobile testing site for COVID-19. So far, 1,000 surveys have been handed out, included in informational packets, at the Wellness Bus.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A survey is given to those being tested for Covid-19 at a the Wellness Bus mobile testing site in West Valley City, on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

RyLee Curtis, U. Health director of community engagement, said the survey has also been included in a mailer that went out to 12,500 patients that identified Spanish as their preferred language and live in a ZIP code that has been a virus hot spot.

A research group has also started pushing the survey in a few stores in St. George, with a plan to do the same in Salt Lake City.

There are two types of surveys. One is a simple, one-time survey that asks residents about their information consuming behaviors.

“Where are you getting information about COVID-19 and how well do you trust it — that’s the general framework of it,” Welsh said.

It also includes other questions about how one is practicing social distancing, if they wear a mask, what happened at work and more.

Participants are also asked if they want to sign up for a longitudinal survey, which would require them to answer the same questions every week over a period of time to better understand how people's behavior changes during the pandemic.

“Both surveys are vital,” Welsh said. “Both surveys are in Spanish and English, making sure that we’re not introducing any type of barrier there.”

Walsh is eager to review the data as it comes in, but is waiting to make sure he gets a big enough sample.