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Helping Get Vital COVID-19 Information to Colombia’s Underserved Populations

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Nurse in indegenous community in Mitú, Vuapés
A member of the Vuapés Department rapid response team speaks with an indigenous woman in Mitú, Colombia. (Photo: USAID LHSS Project-Colombia)

March 4, 2021

Rapid response teams in Colombia are traversing roads, mountain paths, and rivers to help health officials contain the spread of COVID-19. Using approaches and messages tailored to the unique needs of each community, the teams are enabling the government’s local health units to deliver life-saving information to some of the country’s most isolated and marginalized people.

“The most beautiful thing about the work is that we have been able to reach communities in a way that they’re able to understand,” said Dr. Francisco Javier Cardona, a physician with the Guaviare Health Secretariat rapid response team, about his work with indigenous communities. “They’re adopting practices especially in hand washing and using face coverings, where before they were reluctant.”

The pandemic has presented an urgent challenge to Colombia’s already overburdened, understaffed health system. Since September 2020, the LHSS Project has supported the Colombia Ministry of Health and Social Protection’s efforts to create 34 rapid response teams to work within government health secretariats in nearly every department in the country.

Each four-person team includes an epidemiologist, nurse, doctor, and nursing assistant. They serve the health secretariats in many ways. Working alongside secretariat epidemiologists, they help improve COVID-19 surveillance and data collection. They collaborate with health facility staff to carry out the government’s testing, contact tracing, and selective isolation program. And they work with community leaders to share messages on how to curb the spread of the virus.

River with small hut on the shore    Nurse talking to group of Columbians     Nurse looking over man in chair

From left: The Guainía Health Secretariat rapid response team traveled by boat to reach a remote area. A nurse with the team discusses social distancing with community members. In Mitú, a member of the Vuapés Health Secretariat rapid response team checks on a man at an elder care home. (Photos: USAID LHSS Project-Colombia)

In October 2020, Lidia Mosquera, a nurse with the Guainía Health Secretariat rapid response team, traveled three days by chalupa (canoe) along the Inírida River to reach several indigenous communities near the border of Venezuela and Brazil. Together with community leaders and indigenous translators, she helped screen for COVID-19 symptoms and trained communities in COVID-19 prevention measures including hand washing, social distancing, and wearing face coverings.

“We used illustrations, drawings, and figures to show what social distancing and hand washing should look like. We taught them that if they couldn’t get masks, how they could make them out of cloth and wash them,” said Ms. Mosquera.

While Colombia’s COVID-19 outbreak is affecting the entire country, migrants are particularly vulnerable. In October 2020, Yina Fandiño, a nursing assistant with the Barranquilla Health Secretariat rapid response team, helped provide COVID-19 information, testing, and contact tracing to migrant communities.

"We approached them one by one near the traffic lights where they work, and they were very receptive because they had no information about COVID-19. They don't go to health centers because they believe they won't be served, so we explained their rights," said Ms. Fandiño.

The rapid response teams are strengthening the capacity of Colombia's health secretariats to address the pandemic. Their work is also deepening the understanding of the barriers migrants face in accessing the health system, and helping raise awareness within Colombia of the importance of addressing their health needs. LHSS will use lessons learned from this experience to support its ongoing work with the Government of Colombia to integrate Venezuelan migrants into the health system.