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After a pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Northwest Arkansas Health Summit returned this month with a focus on the community health workers who helped the region’s diverse residents navigate the pandemic’s worst effects.

Community health workers act as connectors, translators and advocates, ensuring that all varieties of patients and care providers understand each other, several attendees said. And whether it’s during a worldwide health crisis or amid such everyday challenges as poverty and discrimination, these workers are indispensable.

“We know different people, different communities, have different needs,” Dr. Creshelle Nash, medical director for health equity and public programs at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, said during her keynote address at the Jones Center. She urged health care systems to hire community health workers and integrate them into clinics and hospitals in order to meet those needs.

“That makes a better state,” she said. “That makes a better country.”

COVID-19 served as a dire reminder of the issue, disproportionately sickening and killing Marshallese residents already burdened by poverty, the effects of nuclear tests in their home islands and other health concerns.

Community health workers worked with the region’s health systems, the Northwest Arkansas Council and other partners to hold vaccination clinics and fight disinformation.

The Council, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Walmart and the Bentonville-based Whole Health Institute partnered to present the summit. Attendees explored topics like mental health, infectious disease and Our Healthy Alliance, an ongoing Council-supported initiative to deliver health care information and support to Marshallese and Hispanic communities.

Arkansas often ranks low among states in health outcomes, noted Pearl McElfish, UAMS director of research. But she took heart from the region’s experience with collaborating to address those trends.

“We care about our neighbors, and we are willing to do anything to ensure our neighbors achieve health,” she told summit attendees. “Really harness that brilliance in the room.”

Special thanks to our major investors for their support of the Northwest Arkansas Council and our work in the region: