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Results of COVID-19 immigrant and service provider project released

Written by Kim Furlow, communications manager for the Institute for Public Health


On November 16, at the Immigrant Service Provider Network’s (ISPN) Annual Conference, researchers from the Institute for Public Health presented results from the study, “Impacts of COVID-19 on immigrant communities & service providers in St. Louis.” The study was a collaboration between ISPN and the Institute’s Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration, Center for Community Health Partnership and Research, and the Public Health Data & Training Center. The project’s aim was to increase understanding of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected immigrant communities and immigrant service providers in the broader St. Louis region.

“At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a huge research push to understand its impacts,” said Kim Thuy Seelinger, principal investigator and director of the Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration. “We wanted to ensure that local immigrants’ challenges and needs were included in the data as well, to inform policymaking and program response. We anticipated that while immigrants may share many of the same experiences as non-immigrants during the pandemic, they may also have some unique needs that need to be highlighted.”

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a huge research push to understand its impacts. We wanted to ensure that local immigrants’ challenges and needs were included in the data as well, to inform policymaking and program response. We anticipated that while immigrants may share many of the same experiences as non-immigrants during the pandemic, they may also have some unique needs that need to be highlighted.

Kim Thuy Seelinger, principal investigator and director of the
Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration at the Institute for Public Health

Participating in the ISPN Annual Conference panel, the new Director of Health for the City of St. Louis, Matifadza Hlatshwayo-Davis, expressed her excitement about the study results and her commitment to strengthen inclusion of local immigrants’ needs in her department’s work. The study focused on the following questions:

  • How have COVID-19 and accompanying public health measures affected members of the immigrant community in St. Louis?
  • What are immigrants’ experiences and main barriers related to access to healthcare and other support services/forms of assistance during this pandemic?
  • What information do members of the immigrant community need most urgently during this pandemic? What are the best methods of disseminating that information?
  • What can we learn about specific impacts, barriers and needs of vulnerable immigrants including those with limited English proficiency, those in mixed status households, and those with other protection needs?
  • According to providers, what operational and staff-level challenges have arisen as a result of the pandemic?

To answer these questions, the team conducted a mixed methods study, pairing an anonymous online survey with remote interviews of both the immigrant population and local service providers.

The study’s survey portion, driven by Anne Trolard (Institute for Public Health), Julia Lopez (School of Medicine), Christopher Prater (School of Medicine), and Irene Ryan (formerly with the Institute for Public Health), engaged 50 service providers and 276 immigrants between March and July, 2021. Community survey respondents were predominantly female (70%), Spanish-speaking (69%), and originally from Mexico, Honduras or Guatemala (65%).

Additional demographics of the survey sample:

In addition to the online survey, WashU researchers, led by Julia Uyttewaal (Institute for Public Health) and guided by Rita Chang (ISPN), Kim Thuy Seelinger (Institute/Brown School), Vetta Sanders Thompson (Institute/Brown School) and Katie Herbert Meyer (School of Law), interviewed 31 members of St. Louis’s immigrant communities. Participants had immigrated from countries as diverse as Bosnia, Cameroon, China, India, Kenya, Mexico, and Nigeria. Researchers also interviewed 23 staff members of service provider organizations working with immigrants throughout St. Louis.

Although some of the project’s findings were not surprising—such as the fact that undocumented participants were most likely to describe themselves as ineligible for benefits—some of the findings were unexpected—80% of respondents knew where to access medical care if they or someone in their family developed COVID-19. Interview data indicated that this awareness was largely thanks to effective communication and support by service providers of local immigrant communities. Further, a surprising 61% of respondents had received the COVID-19 vaccine at the time of the survey and 47% of those who were unvaccinated were likely or very likely to get vaccinated as soon as it was available to them.

Some of the other notable findings include:

  • One-third of participants reported being unemployed at the time of the survey, nearly double that number (57%) reported losing their job at some point due to the pandemic, mostly women and those who reported being Hispanic or Latinx. 
  • Fifty-five percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that immigrants were at a higher risk for getting Covid-19, while only 11% disagreed or strongly disagreed.
  • Thirty-nine percent of community respondents were usually able to shelter in place while 12% were rarely or never able to do so. For those who spoke languages other than English or Spanish, only 29% were usually able to shelter in place. Twenty-seven percent of all respondents said that they struggled to obtain enough information about COVID-19 because their preferred language was not English.

Read a summary of survey responses from immigrant community members and from service providers.

Most importantly, the IPH team and its local community partners at the Immigrant Service Providers Network developed a deep collaboration that will last beyond the immediate study. “We learned a lot about how to better partner with our community,” said Julia Uyttewaal, researcher and manager of the Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration. “It’s important to maintain mutual trust with our community partners in order to be ‘in relationship’. It became very clear early on that the process itself is as valuable as the results.”

The university research team plans to release additional information in the near future including a policy briefing with guidance from the Center for Health Economics and Policy at the Institute for Public Health, a white paper on community-engaged research process, and an academic article analyzing survey and interview data.

The study, “Impacts of COVID-19 on immigrant communities & service providers in St. Louis” was supported by the Institute for Public Health and the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, and the Immigrant Service Providers Network.