FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — In an Arkansas Legislative Council meeting weeks ago, legislators approved $7 million for contact tracing and targeted responses in Marshallese and Latinx communities. The Vice Chancellor for UAMS Northwest said implementation isn’t going as quickly as she and others would like, but she’s still impressed by the speed in which a team’s being put together.
Eldon Alik is Arkansas’ Consul General for the Marshall Islands, and he first came to the United States in 1981.
“[I was] 17 years old, had never been off an island,” Alik said. “[I came] to a big country and new culture, new people, new everything.”
After going back to the Marshall Islands for a spell, he returned to America, where he worked at various jobs across the country before winding up in Arkansas and starting his current role.
“When this thing first started, it spread like wildfire,” Alik said. “If I knew COVID was going to start here, man, I honestly wouldn’t have come.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the Marshallese community in Northwest Arkansas. Alik said the number of deaths started running together.
“I remember one week we had 10 in one week,” Alik said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Alik spent much of the early pandemic translating the information sent by the Dept. of Health, which was sent in English. So, he said the $7m targeted response that passed in a special session was necessary to curb the spread in Latinx and Marshallese communities.
“I said, ‘it’s about time,'” Alik said.
Dr. Pearl McElfish is the Vice Chancellor for UAMS Northwest, and she said a few contracts need to be signed before the program gets going.
“I know everyone including us want it to be done even quicker, but I am fully confident all of the players have done everything that’s needed,” McElfish said.
McElfish said a team’s already coming together before the contracts have been signed, so the group can be ready to work in the next couple days or early next week at the latest.
“We have currently hired 25 bilingual staff who are either contact tracers or navigators,” McElfish said. “We’re looking to add about 40 more.”
McElfish said UAMS is working with community groups, including the Marshallese Educational Initiative, to address the problems seen in these minority communities.
“We have helped advertise various positions covered by the plan,” said April Brown, the Initiative’s president. “Because of the increase in workload for our staff who have been responding to COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and given the increased responsibilities that will come as a result of our collaborative efforts, we were given access to up to $50,000 to help pay for staff time and provide services over the next five months.”
Alik said the sooner the work can start, the better. He said he’s ready to see more smiles and fewer funerals.
“We all can still learn,” Alik said. “We all can see what COVID is teaching us, pick it up and be an improved community.”