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By Anne Blythe

Many Latino North Carolinians have felt the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 because they have been essential workers during the pandemic, working at meat processing plants, on construction sites or in grocery stores and other places where it can be difficult to avoid the virus.

A nursing professor, a pediatric physician and doctor in family medicine at Duke University held a media briefing on Wednesday to discuss how the state could provide more resources and health protections for these communities.

Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, a professor of family medicine, Rosa Gonzalez-Guarda, a nursing professor, and Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti, a pediatrics professor, ticked off a list of interventions that could push down the infection rates for Latinos.

Those included such things as more targeted health education campaigns, expanding access to health insurance, making sure employers provide paid sick leave so they won’t feel the pressure to work when infected, and insisting that workplaces make it possible for them to follow social-distancing measures while on the job.

“The primary way the Latinx community is becoming infected is simply by going to work,” Gonzalez-Guarda said. “If we think about prevention, it’s important for us to do more around providing appropriate protections in the workplace.

“This means not only providing masks and social distancing measures in the workplace but putting pressure on business owners to provide paid sick leave … so people don’t have to make the decision between going to work while they’re sick and potentially infecting others, or paying rent and providing food at home.”

Testing for COVID-19 also is important, Gonzalez-Guarda said, but just as important is letting the community know who will pay for it and how to gain access to health insurance.

Confusion about testing costs

The state has created a program to ramp up testing and tracing efforts in Latino and African American communities, which have felt the brunt of the virus in large part because of long-standing health access disparities.

Data, graphics courtesy: NC DHHS

Martinez-Bianchi said it is important for all the public health departments to release ethnicity data and all demographics to better inform and prepare a pandemic response.

One interesting phenomenon has been that even though Hispanics are about 10 percent of the population, they have comprised some 42 percent of cases as of June 10 but only 7 percent of the deaths. Ethnicity data is missing for about a third of the state’s cases.

“Many of them are younger,” speculated pulmonologist Shannon Carson from UNC Hospital during an interview with NC Health News on June 5. At that point, Latinos had comprised about 40 percent of the cases treated at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill.

UNC pulmonology chief Shannon Carson talks about the many adjustments to practice required by his staff in response to COVID-19. He said that many of the patients they’ve seen in their intensive care unit have been Latino. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Many of these patients did have some comorbidities whether it be diabetes or hypertension … but otherwise being working people, active, came in with some strength and reserve, which is what it takes to endure multi-organ failure and the recovery time that’s required.”

Building trust

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, was also in on a conversation with advocates for the Latino population on Wednesday and mentioned it at a media briefing in the afternoon.

She mentioned the testing, tracing and surging work that the state plans to do, but acknowledged that additional focus would be needed.

Gonzalez-Guarda, who is doing research on COVID-19 and the Latino community, said that she has been hearing from some of her research participants their fears for reaching out for help. Some are worried their immigration status could be compromised, she said, and others are worried about the bills they could rack up getting tests or care.

“There’s so much work to do,” Cohen said. “We’re always wanting to get better as a state to make sure that we are appropriately responding, particularly as we see our historically marginalized communities more disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

Isolation at home challenging

One of the issues that has come up with workers around meat processing plants, farms and construction crews is how to prevent virus spread in a household, especially when it can be difficult to isolate someone who has been exposed.

“This is very challenging,” Maradiaga said. “Anybody who lives with any other person knows how much contact one has with each other. We are recommending a few basic things but also recognizing this can be hard. If possible, the person who is sick should be isolated in a separate room and a separate bathroom.

“Often, that’s not possible so we’re trying to say, in whatever way you can, minimize contact with that person. That person should wear a mask, and the other people in that house, including children two and up, should wear a mask. Good hand washing, not quick hand washing, good hand washing, 20 seconds or more. And being especially careful with anything that touches the mouth.”

Mike Sprayberry, director of emergency management, told reporters on Wednesday that the federal government had granted a 30-day extension for a program through which counties can tap into federal money to pay for motel rooms for people with the virus who are homeless or who otherwise cannot isolate themselves from people in their homes.

Federal resources available

Forty counties have used the program, according to Sprayberry.

Cohen said she hoped others would use it, perhaps to help in communities of color where isolating and social-distancing can be difficult.

“I’m excited to see as many as 40 taking advantage of it,” Cohen said. “I want to see even more take advantage of this federal support. It’s federal dollars that support non-congregate sheltering. I think that’s going to be really important as we continue to go forward here.”

Cohen also wants people to take advantage of the increased testing opportunities across the state to help identify and slow the spread of the virus.

“We have 400 testing sites, but it’s not like we have lines out the door or we have waits at our labs,” Cohen said. “We need to make sure folks know there is capacity. We want them to get tested, that these kinds of occupations can lend themselves to more exposure.”

Rose Hoban contributed to this report.

Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.

One reply on “Latino North Carolinians infected with COVID-19 ‘simply by going to work’”

  1. I don’t believe it is going to go down unless we go back to addressing public gatherings and social distancing-This is a concern for me as an older American-Stay in phase two!

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