shows a woman in a white coat, holding up a paper surgical mask used to prevent COVID-19 transmission in front of her face
Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, a family physician from Duke University, shows off mask wearing technique during a press conference at the emergency operations center in Raleigh. Martinez-Bianchi gave her presentation in Spanish and in English. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV

By Anne Blythe

Hispanic communities are essential to NC. So is protecting their health.

Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, a family medicine physician at Duke Health whose interests focus on health disparities and access to care, had a powerful message for Hispanic North Carolina residents who are feeling the devastating brunt of COVID-19 disproportionately.

The doctor spoke in English and Spanish at a briefing with the media Friday in which Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, announced that five organizations with close ties to Latino communities across the state would receive $100,000 grants to help fight the coronavirus.

Though Hispanic and Latin residents comprise about 10 percent of the population, they represent about 44 percent of the lab-confirmed cases for which race and ethnicity are known.

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“My dear Hispanic community, I am here as a Latina, as an immigrant, as a doctor, and on behalf of health workers to let you know that we see you, that we hear you and that we are concerned about your anxieties and your fears, determined to look after you,” Martinez-Bianchi said Friday afternoon during a briefing with reporters broadcast on UNC-TV. “We’re your doctors, your clinicians and nurses and we are concerned about what is happening today with the health of the Latino community in North Carolina.”

Martinez-Bianchi and Duke pediatrician Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti founded LATIN-19 (Latinx Advocacy Team and Interdisciplinary Network for COVID-19) in March to advocate for and bring attention to the needs of the community and workers who make up a large part of the state’s essential workforce.

“Why so many cases,” Martinez-Bianchi said. “Latinx workers, you’re essential to the economy of North Carolina. While others are able to isolate at home, you have to go out to work.

“You work in meat processing plants, in cleaning, in construction, in supermarkets, hospitals and kitchens, in many cases without access to personal protective equipment such as these masks, which are so necessary to prevent the transmission of the virus from person to person.”

On a day when statewide face mask requirements take effect in an executive order announced by Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday, Martinez-Bianchi held up hers to stress the importance of a tool shown the world over to slow the spread of the virus.

“The transmission of coronavirus happened while working shoulder to shoulder all day in your jobs, in the break rooms and in the cars in which you traveled together to work without wearing a mask,” Martinez-Bianchi said. “From there to your homes and your friends, at times, whole families contracting the virus. So we are now in a very serious situation in which every person in the Latinx community has to take their health, their responsibility and fight this dangerous virus.

“The authorities can implement the measures but if we are not aware of the importance of wearing the mask, keeping our distance, and washing our hands, the measures of the authorities will be useless.”

Martinez-Bianchi and other speakers at the afternoon briefing with Cohen, Juvencio Rocha-Peralta, executive director of the  Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, and Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano, acknowledged challenges facing residents whose immigration status sometimes pushes them to toil in the shadows of an economy fueled by much of their work.

Many members of the Latino community do not have health insurance and worry about the health care costs that might be thrust on families already worried about paying rent and other bills.

Others worry about being separated from their families at a time when those networks of support and love are so important.

“For those who are afraid of the virus, you have to take care of yourself,” Martinez-Bianchi pleaded. “Get tested if you feel fever or flu symptoms or if a contact of yours has the coronavirus. You need to go to urgent or emergency care when you start to have chest pain, shortness of breath, paleness and bluish lip color. Do not wait on this. Do not let fear overcome you because we are going to take care of you and help you heal.”

For much of the past month, Cohen and her public health team have stressed the importance of doing a better job to bring testing and contact tracing to Black and Latin communities.

As of Wednesday, when DHHS most recently updated its dashboard with the number of contact tracers, 87, or 24 percent, of those newly hired through the Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative were Hispanic or Latino. Of the 370 total tracers, 170, or 46 percent, were bi-lingual.

Setting up trusted testing sites for communities of color also has been an area where public health leaders would like to do better.

The Farmworker Advocacy Network sent a letter to the governor and Cohen on June 16 calling for a stronger state action plan to stave off COVID-19 spread on farms where migrants, many of them brought in for seasonal work on temporary visas called H-2As, live and work.

One of the suggestions was to have testing at labor camps and other locations that were more accessible to the laborers than health care clinics, hospitals or drive-through places because of transportation challenges.

Cohen pointed out that Cooper’s recent order requires face masks in agricultural settings and meat processing plants, as well as other job settings. Businesses that defy such public health protocols can be cited by local law enforcement.

Another issue that vexes the essential workers who often are among the lower-wage earners is feeling pressure to work even when they are sick.

Rocha-Goldberg of El Centro Hispano said her organization has been collaborating with other organizations, foundations and private donors to provide aid to those in need.

The organization has delivered food and face coverings created by local artists. They have helped 300 families with rent and utility bills. With media outlets focused primarily on the Latin and Hispanic communities, El Centro has created an education campaign designed to bring a unified message to households and workers being hard hit by the virus.

Other organizations that will receive the $100,000 grants announced by DHHS on Friday include:

“We have been working hard, but we still have a lot to do to support the LatinX community,” Rocha-Goldberg said.

Martinez-Bianchi reminded those for whom the Friday briefing was sharply geared toward of the resilience that they and their families have shown to come to North Carolina. She urged them to draw from that well of strength and commitment to battle the extremely contagious virus sickening so many.

“We are immigrants and children of immigrants,” Martinez-Bianchi said. “We are resilient. We cross borders and cultures for our family and dream to have a better life. We are an essential part of the economy of this state. We must overcome fear and beat the coronavirus with the confidence and power of an organized community. Let’s work together for better health. Yes, we can.”

Sí, se puede.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Friday afternoon:

  • 1,297 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 58,818 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 892 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 29,219 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious.
  • More than 736,000 tests have been completed thus far, though not all labs report their negative results to the state, so the actual number of completed COVID-19 tests is likely higher.
  • Most of the cases (45 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 13 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 80 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 203 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,342 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 874 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

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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.