Too many Californians have learned first-hand that one of the most frightening things about COVID-19 is how it robs you of your ability to breathe — let alone speak.

In a medical emergency, every second counts and every bit of information matters. But what happens when we can’t communicate because we’re unconscious and gasping for breath — or don’t speak English?

As the CEO of ConsejoSano, which seeks to make health care work for everyone by removing cultural barriers, I know communication barriers can mean the difference between life and death.

Doctors, nurses and other health care providers must know if you have serious allergies, underlying conditions and other critical details from your health history to provide proper life-saving care. But this vital information is often locked away when it’s needed most, greatly increasing the risk of fatal errors.

Consider this – while Latinos make up 37 percent of the California population, they account for over half of the more than 24,000 Californians lost to COVID-19, and it’s the result of decades of disparities in housing, education and health care. With only 7,000 Latino physicians serving our state’s nearly 15 million Latinos, language is a barrier to life or death information.

Thousands of Californians are hurt every year by medical errors, and it is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

While technology is making it easier to safely share critical medical information, that doesn’t mean it always happens in a consistent, ubiquitous manner.

Even as health records are being digitized, they are still siloed by each health system, pharmacy, lab and health plan, making delivery of care at best inefficient, or at worst fatal. Patients are left scrambling to collect and share their records and communicate key facts in an emergency. And hospitals and doctor offices still rely on fax machines to send and receive medical records – a technology most industries haven’t used since the 90s.

And it’s also why even as parts of California remain ground-zero for the pandemic, crucial and seemingly simple steps — like making sure primary care providers know when a patient’s COVID-19 test results are available — don’t always happen.

It’s time to change that.

To ensure health care providers can quickly access a patient’s health history, policymakers across the U.S. have established and partnered with statewide health information exchanges including in Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina and Arizona – but not California.

More than saving individual lives, these partnerships can also vastly improve public health and help fight the pandemic – particularly in vulnerable communities.

By aggregating data in real-time across multiple health care settings — from emergency rooms to pharmacies and public health departments to laboratories — statewide health information exchange can provide health officials with valuable information on who is accessing care and where, allowing them to shift critical resources like ventilators, identify available ICU beds and anticipate future hot spots.

With the complex distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine underway, health information exchanges can also help identify vulnerable individuals and help providers and public health departments quickly reach out to them using reliable contact information in their preferred language.

These systems can help identify post-vaccine side effects and inform providers when their patients are due for a second vaccination dose, so healthcare systems already stretched thin can focus on saving lives.

Earlier this month Gov. Newsom unveiled a budget proposal that would allow California to finally connect health information systems statewide. Joining him in this encouraging step, Assembly Health Committee Chairman Jim Wood announced his intentions to author legislation to realize the potential of this type of system. This is long overdue momentum that, I’m hopeful, can finally break down the silos holding back patient care and strengthen our public health system.

As COVID-19 rages on, it’s time we stop relying on fax machines and start speaking each other's languages.

Abner Mason is founder and CEO at ConsejoSano in Los Angeles and a board member of California’s health data network, Manifest MedEx. ConsejoSano is a patient engagement and care navigation solution designed to help clients activate their multicultural patient and member populations to better engage with the health care system.