“We are not all tech workers with resources.”

Each Thursday, Indian American Community Services takes over the Bellevue Community Center. Toddlers stomp and sway to music in one room as part of an education class. In the Center’s makeshift library, volunteers fold sweaters for a clothing bank, one of the monthly services offered to immigrant women restarting their careers in a foreign land. 

In the largest room, dozens of retirees stretch and twist in their seats during a session of chair yoga. After lunch, a South Asian mental health counselor will lead a discussion for the group. 

Tucked in the back of the kitchen, Lalita Uppala, the director of Indian American Community Services, frets over the amount of rice. 

“There’s either too little or too much rice,” she said, filling a rice cooker with dry kernels.  

For more than three decades, the small organization, which Uppala likens to a startup, has hosted these pop-ups. Staff members fill several roles, including Uppala, who each week can also be found in the kitchen dishing out lunch and ensuring there’s enough to go around. This week there was more than enough rice to accompany the saag paneer and dal. 

When Public Health – Seattle & King County hired Uppala as a community navigator a few months into the pandemic, it gained access to the vast network she had developed as the executive director of  Indian American Community Service. 

“When we started hearing about COVID vaccinations,” Uppala said, “I remember getting at least  400-500 phone calls a day.”

She received questions about who’s getting vaccinated first and where to go. Questions from immunocompromised people. Questions from the East Asian community that likely would have never reached Public Health, much less have been answered, without Uppala as a link. 

“There was so much unknown, and then there was fear, and there was insecurity. There was a struggle to figure it out,” she said. 

While King County Public Health constantly pushed out COVID-19 information, Uppala said, the agency also needed the right messenger — a trusted ambassador who people saw regularly and who could offer a culturally nuanced approach. 

What was missing, Uppala said, was that bridge connecting the agency to the people she serves. Rather than rely on volunteer labor, the department paid navigators for their work using federal COVID funds. The contract workers spent about nine hours a week attending meetings or working on Public Health programs, and another 15 hours interacting with the public. 

“Bringing Public Health to the community and bringing community to Public Health,” she said. “I think that was a model that was never experimented before.” 

As fears surrounding autism surfaced during the vaccine rollout, some parents turned to Google, Uppala said, becoming overloaded with endless and often inaccurate information. She said she became concerned they were going to lose that demographic in the push to get out vaccines. 

Public Health officials helped Uppala quickly set up a webinar to create an avenue for parents to connect directly with medical providers, many of whom were South Asian.

Vaccination rates for boosters still remained lower for many BIPOC groups, according to King County Public Health data. As of the end of January, 68.8% of Asian Americans and 71% of Whites have received a booster dose, while Black and Hispanic/Latino populations lagged, with only 46.7% and 48.1% boosted.

Uppala and Public Health also set up free pantries outside South Asian grocery stores, knowing many would never visit a food bank. Indian staples — rice, oil, lentils — lined their shelves, along with masks and other personal protection equipment. Public Health also helped arrange and pay for car rides to transport elders to testing and vaccines sites, tapping into the out-of-work taxicab driver community. 

These programs emerged from listening to the needs of her community. The navigator program wasn’t just a one-way street to push out information to the community, Uppala said, but also a way for minority groups to let the county know what support would be most helpful.

“We are not all tech workers with resources,” Uppala said. “We are also restaurant workers, cab drivers.”


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