BISMARCK — North Dakota's Department of Health has created a new community outreach position as part its effort to close health care disparities between the state's residents and immigrants, especially now in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic when inequities are growing.

The department is searching for someone to fill its new COVID special populations coordinator position to act as a liaison between underrepresented communities and the state government.

"We want to make sure that the department is understanding what is culturally appropriate and is able to... be that bridge," said Krissie Guerard, the Department of Health's health equity director. "But we want to make sure that equity is addressed in all of the policies and programs and things that we are doing with COVID-19."

The state's health equity division is quite small in comparison to other states, and currently has three employees working out of the office, Guerard said. Through this new position, the department will be able to hear about the needs of a community better and ask questions to ensure various communities are getting what they need.

Monica Soto moved to Dickinson about 12 years ago. As an immigrant from Mexico, she said she has helped fellow immigrants find their way around the state's health care system. One of the biggest issues she said she has come across is the language barrier.

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Soto said one of the largest concerns she has heard from those in her community is the lack of Spanish-speaking counselors available to provide mental health resources. It can be very difficult to get the kind of treatment required when the therapy is not in one's native language.

Soto is part of the organization Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza, which helps people build leadership skills to help change structures and policies that are oppressive to non-citizens.

In an effort to come together in support of one another and to showcase their Mexican heritage, Soto helped create the dance group Danza Sol De Mexico, where she said many come together to help one another navigate everyday life in the U.S., including health care.

Last month, the Department of Health launched its New American / Foreign Born / Immigrant Advisory Board to elevate concerns from underrepresented communities. The person selected for the new COVID special populations position will work closely with that board, Guerard said.

Kouadjo Bini immigrated to North Dakota from Ivory Coast in 2013 to attend Minot State University. He now works at American State Bank and Trust in Williston. He said if he had someone to walk him through how health care worked in the country and in the state, the process of obtaining coverage would not have been so stressful.

"This system was very confusing, and there was no one available to break down information," Bini said, adding that obtaining health care coverage was the hardest thing he had to do as a new American citizen.

Overall, Soto said the people she knows in her Hispanic community in Dickinson want to be upstanding North Dakotans and obtain the same freedoms and access to resources that every other resident has.

"Every family that I've met, they just love living here (and) they have good jobs," Soto said. "They've just come here to live their life."