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By Anne Blythe

North Carolina’s governor, top public health officials and high-ranking leaders from the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates sent an urgent message to Latinx and Hispanic residents on Thursday.

COVID-19 is spreading swiftly and disproportionately among their communities, and the best way to fight the virus and keep their communities strong and healthy is to follow oft-issued guidance.

Wear a face mask over the nose and mouth, stay safe by keeping six-feet apart from others when masking is not possible, and routinely wash hands.

“While we are on steadier ground than most southern states who continue to see viral spread accelerate, we have not yet turned a corner here,” said Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services. “Unfortunately, we continue to see increases in cases and there has especially been a notable and concerning increase in COVID-19 cases among members of our state’s LatinX, Hispanic community.”

Hispanic residents are just under 10 percent of the state’s population, but they represent 43 percent of the lab-confirmed coronavirus cases for which race and ethnicity are reported.

“Many members of our LatinX, Hispanic communities work in essential jobs that are the backbone of the state’s economy,” Cohen said. “The nature of these jobs put people at higher risk for getting infected from COVID-19 at work and then potentially transmitting it back into their communities. In light of the trends I mentioned earlier, we need to turn up the volume on our core preventative messages.”

‘Unite to defeat this illness’

Claudia Velasco-Osorio, Consul General of Mexico in Raleigh, and Jorge Archila, Consul General of Guatemala, joined Cohen at Thursday’s media briefing to try to convey that sense of urgency.

“This is an opportunity for all of us to unite in order to defeat this disease,” Archila said.

He urged people to get tested for coronavirus if they had such symptoms as headaches, a sore throat, fever, chills, coughs, nausea, runny nose, congestion, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, fatigue, muscle pain, diarrhea or trouble breathing.

A graph from the Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 data dashboard shows how hospitalization in the 13 county area around and including Charlotte has steadily grown over the past month. This area, along with the northern Triad region have the most hospitalizations in the state.

Strategies to help

This month, the state is providing free testing in communities of color which have long had difficulties getting access to health care.

Additionally, the state has issued $100,000 grants to five community organizations with strong ties to Latinx and Hispanic communities to help provide a broader safety net for people who sometimes remain in the shadows because of their residency status.

Those grants went to:

Cohen and her public health team and task force members have spoken routinely about the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.

Often people in those communities work so-called “essential” jobs at meat processing plants, construction sites and lower-paying service industry jobs that have not been shut down during the pandemic.

Messaging campaigns

Velasco-Osorio implored Latinx and Hispanic residents to follow the social distancing, testing and other recommendations from the public health officials, “making sure that in our homes, these instructions are followed fully, and without excuse, and that we all assume responsibility in this emergency.”

The consulate leaders and Cohen said they communicate routinely with other states and consulates in search of measures working elsewhere to slow the virus spread in more vulnerable communities.

Claudia Velasco-Osorio, the Consul General of Mexico in Raleigh, spoke to the state, and particularly to the Hispanic community during a media briefing on July 23. “It is imperative to attend each one of the authorities’ recommendations, making sure that in our homes, their instructions are followed fully and without excuse, and that we all assume our responsibility in this emergency,” she told Mexicans in North Carolina. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV

“We are definitely trying to share best practices among states in a number of ways,” Cohen said. “As we thought about our testing strategy, as well, I know in San Antonio, in particular, they are doing this kind of testing work where they are surging testing sites that are free, that are paid for by the state in a number of their communities and really trying to be mobile and bring testing to where people are.”

Archila said the Guatemalan consulates have translated all the information they are getting about the pandemic, prevention measures and guidance for those who become infected not only are translated into Spanish but also into all the Mayan dialects used in the Central American country.

Gov. Roy Cooper recently announced that 900,000 face masks, along with hand sanitizer and infection-control supplies would be sent to N.C. Cooperative Extension offices in 31 counties to be distributed to agricultural workers, many of whom are Latinx migrants who live and work in close quarters and carry out critical food supply chain jobs.

The counties which received the first deliveries are Alamance, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Duplin, Durham, Edgecombe, Forsyth, Franklin, Granville, Greene, Guilford, Harnett, Henderson, Johnston, Lee, Lenoir, Lincoln, Martin, Mecklenburg, Nash, Pender, Pitt, Robeson, Sampson, Wake, Wayne and Wilson.

During the media briefing, reporters raised thorny issues that have come up before about some Latinos being turned away from health care, even when they were sick, because they lacked insurance. Some also have relayed that members of the Latinx community avoid care for fear of being asked about their residency status.

There also were questions about where people could get help with rent, food and other necessities if they lost their jobs during the pandemic.

The consulates could provide help with the insurance issue, Archila said, and Cohen reminded listeners about the organizations that received the $100,000 grants, in part to help with those issues.

Another push to expand Medicaid

Cohen reiterated the importance of focusing resources on the state’s Latinx to address the disproportionate impact of the disease.

“We’re trying to do everything from making sure we’re getting the word out and everyone knows about the three Ws to making sure that we are surging testing availability,” Cohen said. “But we also know an important part of this is making sure folks can stay home and isolate and get access to the care they need.”

Community health centers and other providers have stepped in to help people who are uninsured or underinsured. Even before the pandemic, North Carolina had the seventh-highest rate of uninsurance in the country, a rate which has no doubt increased since hundreds of thousands have lost work.

Cohen said part of the reason for that high rate is because the state did not expand Medicaid.

The people who would be eligible for the federal assistance “are folks who are working hard, most of the time two or three jobs, none of those jobs offer health insurance,” Cohen said.

“One of the ways we can really improve our ability to respond to this crisis is to expand access to insurance coverage and we can do that without investing any state dollars,” Cohen said. “We can just bring federal dollars here to help us fight COVID-19 and to help folks access the coverage that they need.

“We need to make sure that we are using every tool that is out there and we are not using one of those tools right now and that’s Medicaid expansion.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:

  • 1,726 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 106,893 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,188 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.
  • 78,707 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.
  • To date, 1,458,997 tests have been completed. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the coronavirus tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest proportion (44 percent) of those with lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus. While 12 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 78 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 243 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,190 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 875  ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

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.