As a community board member Wynfred Russell of Brooklyn Park, pictured here, will help guide the agenda for the National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants, and Migrants. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

In the coming weeks and months, a project at the University of Minnesota will direct a nationwide effort to create and distribute COVID-19 messaging for immigrant and refugee communities.

Established last month, the university’s National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants, and Migrants draws from $5 million worth of grants from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the International Organization for Migration. Although the center is housed at the university and led by two doctors from its medical school, its team will comprise people from immigrant and refugee communities across the country. 

Shailey Prasad, co-leader of the project and professor of family medicine and community health at the medical school, said the project’s main goal is to effectively spread COVID-19 resources to immigrants and refugees while training health professionals to do the same. 

“We’re not planning on recreating the wheel,” said Prasad, who also directs the university’s Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility. “We’re trying to figure out best practices to disseminate information to communities.”

The grant became available after the federal health agency Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as the CDC, recognized the need for COVID-19 resources in immigrant communities, whose populations are suffering disproportionately from the virus, Prasad said. The federal agency chose the university to house the project based on its previous refugee health work through the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility, he added. 

The initiative launched in the middle of November and ultimately should last at least a year. Right now, both Prasad and co-leader William Stauffer, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at the medical school, are putting together a staff that will probably number around 15 people.

The staff will be guided by a community leadership board made up of experts from the communities the center intends to serve. 

At least two of these board members come from Minnesota: Saw Htoo Wah, a former refugee who is Karen and works as a COVID-19 contact tracer; and Wynfred Russell, executive director of African Career, Education and Resource (ACER), who also serves on the Brooklyn Park City Council.

While the center’s work is currently in the early stages, Prasad said its existing staffers are beginning to interview the project’s target audience as well as professionals who work with immigrants and refugees across the country. 

Prasad envisions the center’s messaging will include topics like the community health benefits of contact tracing, which he said can raise issues about individual liberties.

“With refugees, we want to make sure trust is built for communicating why this needs to happen,” he said. 

He also expects the project will work on overcoming vaccine hesitancy in immigrant communities as COVID-19 vaccines become available. 

Drawing lessons from health outreach in Liberia, Nigeria 

It’s an issue that’s already familiar to leadership board members like Russell. In the last decade, Russell led a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program to combat the ebola epidemic in Liberia, his country of origin. He then directed a polio vaccination program in northern Nigeria that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

In his work distributing polio vaccines in Nigeria, Russell cited two major practices that he found effective in successfully delivering the vaccine to three million people, including more than two million children under the age of five. The first involved working on vaccine messaging with local imams, who were trusted in the Muslim-majority region where he served. The second provided incentives for people to get vaccinated. Usually this would include distributing free over-the-counter medicine, such as ointment for children’s rashes.

Both efforts were important, Russell said, because local populations tended to be skeptical of outsiders, funded by billionaires like Bill Gates, coming into their communities and telling them to get shots. 

“There were all of these conspiracies,” he said. “Like, ‘Bill Gates wants to collect blood, or all of these white folks are coming here to trying to control the population in the Muslim north of Nigeria and not the Christian south,’” Russell said. 

This skepticism, he added, is rooted in colonialism across Africa. He expects the U.S. history of slavery and racism in medicine, like the Tuskegee experiment, may fuel similar vaccine skepticism in marginalized communities here.

As part of his work on the center’s board, Russell plans to advocate for both using community leaders for messaging and incentivizing vaccines. He expects the latter idea to meet some resistance. 

“Some folks in my group are very opposed to that,” he said. “I can understand why. But I think it was one of the reasons why we were so successful in Nigeria.” 

In the coming weeks, Prasad said he expects the center to launch a resource page on its website with tools, training materials, and best-practice guidelines. The project will also work to overcome the barriers of distributing information to the public in the era of social distancing, partly by relying on community organizations to help spread its messaging. An example of this may include the center spreading its messaging through a nongovernmental organization that already has trust in refugee communities, Prasad said. 

The Minnesota Department of Health, International Rescue Committee, Migrants Clinician Network, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will also participate in the project. 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...