Supporting Newcomers’ Health: Addressing Respiratory Illnesses

Service providers are crucial in helping newcomers understand and navigate their new environment. This role includes providing critical health information to keep clients and their families safe. This blog post from the National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants, and Migrants (NRC-RIM) provides guidance and resources for service providers on influenza (flu), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and coronavirus disease (COVID-19)viral illnesses that are more common during colder months and that can cause significant illness. 

Risks and Symptoms of the Flu, RSV, and COVID-19

The flu, RSV, and COVID-19 are highly contagious viral illnesses. They affect a person’s respiratory system, or the parts of the body that work together to help you breathe. They can cause illnesses that range from mild to very severe and, at times, can lead to hospitalization or even death. These viruses are particularly dangerous for people over the age of 65, people with compromised immune systems or with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma, and people who are pregnant. Infants and children under five can also be at risk of serious illness from RSV and the flu, respectively. 

The flu, RSV, and COVID-19 are more likely to spread indoors, particularly in crowded spaces. Their symptoms can be similar and include fatigue, headache, fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, and runny nose. The only way to distinguish between these illnesses is through testing, which can occur at a medical office or, in the case of COVID-19, at home using an over-the-counter test. 

Empowering Clients with Trusted Information

Here are four ways service providers can equip clients with information to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses. 

1. Provide linguistically accessible information.  

  • Fact sheets can convey moderate amounts of information and include images that make them visually appealing and culturally resonant. Fact sheets also allow clients to take home information for later review and can be disseminated to friends and family. However, they may not be suitable for clients who have low literacy.  
  • Fact sheets can be placed in common spaces, included in welcome packets, posted on websites for download, distributed at events, posted on walls, or handed to clients to prompt a discussion. Facts sheets on respiratory illness are available on the NRC-RIM website in more than 18 different languages and in customizable format in English, Dari, and Pashto.
  • Audio and video messages are ideal for clients with lower literacy or who prefer auditory or visual learning. They can be easily shared via messaging apps or during in-person or remote educational sessions to make them more engaging. Audio and visual messages on respiratory illnesses, protecting others, and vaccines, along with written transcripts, are available in English, Dari, and Pashto on the NRC-RIM website. 
  • Social media posts and ready-to-use messages are short messages or visuals that can be sent directly to clients or posted on social media platforms. While they are not suitable for large amounts of information, they can help share short, focused messages or be used in a series to convey larger amounts of information. NRC-RIM has customizable social media squares on respiratory illnesses in English, Dari, and Pashto on their website. 

2. Encourage clients to protect their health with masks, vaccines, handwashing, and other safety precautions.
When appropriate, providers can prompt conversations with clients about respiratory illnesses and actions they can take to protect their health. For example, ask clients if they have had their flu, RSV, and COVID-19 vaccines, and encourage them to wear a mask in public, indoor spaces. 

Vaccination remains one of the most effective ways to combat these illnesses. NRC-RIM’s Vaccine Central offers service providers essential tools to address vaccine hesitancy among newcomers, including conversation guides, fact sheets, and special campaigns designed to address hesitancy and increase trust.

Other precautions to communicate to clients include staying home if they feel unwell so they can protect others and get the rest they need. Stress the importance of proper handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing or sneezing or when around someone who is sick. Advise them to keep spaces well-ventilated and to regularly clean surfaces, especially if a loved one is sick—isolate the person with symptoms in a separate room, wear masks, sanitize often, and ventilate the spaces by opening windows and using an air purifier. Suggest non-contact greetings during times of heightened illness to further reduce transmission risks. 

3. Help facilitate informed discussions. Service providers play an invaluable role in disseminating accurate health information to newcomers and promoting healthy choices. It’s not always easy to know what to say or how though, especially if this isn’t your area of expertise These conversation guides, developed for resettlement providers by NRC-RIM, can help facilitate these discussions. Here is an example:   

Question: Why should I worry about respiratory illnesses? 

Response: Some people can get very ill and even die from respiratory illnesses. Respiratory illnesses can also cause other health problems like pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and infections of the brain. Depending on the illness, older people, young children, babies, pregnant people, and people who already have certain health problems are more likely to become seriously ill. 

4. Help clients access health care and resources. Clients new to the U.S. may need providers’ support in accessing vaccinations, masks, and COVID-19 test kits. Providers can help clients order free test kits or find free testing sites here and free or low-cost vaccines here. 

Additional Resources from Switchboard

Switchboard, the one-stop hub for refugee service providers in the United States, offers a variety of guides, recorded webinars, and other resources for assisting clients with their health questions. These resources include: 

For more information, training, or technical support from Switchboard, submit a request

Related Content

More Posts