The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately impact historically marginalized populations in Wisconsin and the need for accurate, culturally appropriate and relevant information is more important than ever.

Now, a team of community influencers, including representatives from Wisconsin’s African American and Latinx communities and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, are collaborating with researchers at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health to meet this important health and communications need.

Maria Mora Pinzon
Maria Mora Pinzón

“We know that people are looking for information they can trust – that is accurate and vetted - and from people they trust,” says Maria Mora Pinzón, MD, MS, one of the project’s leads. To ensure this flow of accurate and timely information, and ultimately to reduce the spread and risks of COVID-19, the project team has developed a partnership with local community influencers, including

Sacheen Lawrence
Sacheen Lawrence

Sacheen Lawrence, Venus Washington and the Latino Health Council of Dane County, to provide accurate information and support to their respective communities. The community influencers are recognized members of the community who are active on social media, and who, like social influencers, serve as trusted sources of information.

“It is critical for the Latinx community to have accurate, culturally relevant and linguistically appropriate information,” says Fernando Cano Ospina, a member of the executive committee of the Latino Health Council of Dane County.

Fernando Cano Ospina
Fernando Cano Ospina

Since the pandemic started, the Latino Health Council of Dane County was sharing information to address the needs of the community. When the opportunity to partner for this project came up, rather than appoint a single influencer, the Council’s leadership, including Cano Ospina, and co-chairs Patricia Téllez-Girón, MD, and Shiva Bidar-Sielaff decided to use their resources and established network of volunteers to expand their efforts to address the gaps in COVID-19 health information and communication. The Council is ensuring that its community, which includes many essential workers, who are at greater risk for the virus, has information and materials available in Spanish. The group is using several platforms to reach community members, including social media, La Movida radio station, YouTube videos and brochures.

Venus Washington
Venus Washington

Venus Washington is leading the project’s efforts within the African American community. Washington, a health coach and personal trainer, who has a well-established group of followers on social media, also hopes to expand her reach by connecting with other local African American organizations. In addition to providing essential information about COVID-19, Washington notes that people are seeking more support for their mental health and well-being.

“I see how people’s concerns and questions are changing over time," Washington says. "From masks to social distancing, to coping with schooling kids from home, my goal is to provide people with information essential for their well-being that they can begin applying now to their daily lives.”

Sacheen Lawrence, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, is using her social media presence and community connections to help amplify accurate and timely information for her tribal community that is also in alignment with the Nation’s COVID-19 Response team. Previously Lawrence worked with the Oneida Elder Services Community Advisory Board.

“We hear a lot of misinformation about masks and about the seriousness of the virus. I want to make sure people not only receive accurate information, but also make sure this topic remains top-of-mind so we can continue to keep our community safe,” Lawrence says.

The influencers all agree that in addition to providing valid and vetted medical information, they want to support their communities as they cope with the stress of isolation, changes in jobs and schooling, and the many other challenges the pandemic presents. What is unique and significant about this project, is that the partners are taking a bi-directional approach to messaging in order to ensure that the voices and needs of communities are represented in what and how information is disseminated. The influencers bring their suggestions and needs to the group, and they work to develop and modify the information, so it is appropriate for each community’s needs.

“We know that working with community members and organizations is essential if we are to reach our diverse communities in a meaningful way,” says Mora Pinzón.

But COVID-19 also brings the unique challenge in that people are unable to gather. Informational meetings, breakfasts or other gatherings where information could usually be shared, aren’t possible right now. Community influencers like Lawrence, Washington and the Latino Health Council of Dane County are helping to fill this void, and in doing so, hope to expand their reach to more people and more organizations in order to help slow the spread and protect their communities from COVID-19.

The project, "Leveraging Social Networks and Trusted Influencers to Disseminate an Accurate and Up-To-Date Understanding of COVID-19 in Black, Latinx and American Indian Communities," is led by Dr. Maria Mora Pinzón, assistant scientist in the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute; Melissa Metoxen, community and academic support coordinator for the Native American Center for Health Professions; and Dr. Carey Gleason, associate professor in the UW Department of Medicine; with support from communications and media strategist George Levy. It is funded by a COVID-19 Response Grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.