When Virginia first released race and ethnicity data, it confirmed what many were already suspecting: Black and Latino Virginians were the most vulnerable to a virus that runs rampant in close quarters and would heavily impact low-wage workers without paid sick leave and enough workplace protections.
Nearly 275,000 Black and Hispanic Virginians bolster essential industries, many of which don’t allow working from home, making quarantine while living paycheck to paycheck all but impossible.
Latinos turned to Spanish radio to debunk misinformation shared among the community, highlighting the lack of language accessibility in COVID-19 information that advocates said would be detrimental for non-English speakers in a pandemic.
Compounded with a lack of trust in the health care system, health officials and advocates warned it would be fatal.
Nearly six months after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, the battle to limit spread among Black and Latino populations is ongoing.
The impact has become painfully apparent in Richmond, where more than 80% of coronavirus cases are Black or Latino, and Latinos have nearly three times the number of cases than white Richmonders despite being only 7% of the city’s population. Black Richmonders account for more than 60% of the city’s deaths.
In Virginia, Black and Latino residents are 6 in 10 of the state’s cases despite being less than a third of the population.
“I heard someone say this is the great equalizer and I agree with them that, yes, it’s the same storm,” said Oscar Contreras, Spanish radio host for Radio Poder and a trusted source among the city’s Latino community. “But we’re all in different boats.”
And the impact is happening everywhere, sprawling through suburban and rural counties and such places as New York, Milwaukee and Los Angeles County, where Latinos are twice as likely to contract the virus than white residents.
Across the country, Hispanic people have made up the highest percentage in coronavirus hot spots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with approximately 3.5 million Latinos living in locations with identified disparities.
While many point toward health inequities in Black and Latino populations, such as heart disease and diabetes, as a root cause for the spike in cases, Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, said lack of workplace protections helped spiral the impact, forcing Black and Latino communities to make a choice: stay home and risk being fired, or go to work and potentially get sick.
“Just the availability of paid sick leave, like that policy measure would have had a significant change in the way [low-income residents] responded to isolation or quarantine recommendations,” Avula said. “They wouldn’t have had to choose between money to support my family and minimizing exposure.”
Without policy in place, health officials and advocates pushed for widened testing; expanding language accessibility; and hiring more bilingual contact tracers — the few factors they had control over.
The city applied for and received a $250,000 grant to support rent relief for groups excluded from federal benefits, such as immigrant and mixed-status families. It’s helped 105 families, according to city spokesperson Sam Schwartzkopf.
Richmond also used CARES Act money to pay for isolated stays at hotels for families who couldn’t quarantine inside their homes, worked to translate materials to Spanish and distributed masks and hand sanitizer to the most affected ZIP codes.
But the efforts are far from complete.
Since July, Avula said an increased percentage of Black residents continue to test positive as the Latino percentage decreases. It’s unclear why, he said.
And even as testing widens — and Richmond continues its two to three coronavirus testing events per week — a new set of problems has arisen. Contreras notes that the calls he receives have veered away from correcting misinformation about the virus and turned into more distrust of government.
Some said results from the VDH testing sites have taken weeks to arrive, and staying quarantined without work is a luxury many don’t have, Contreras added.
Another person said the note his employer required for him to return to work was only in English. When he was given the Spanish version, the written test result was different than the one he received in English.
Officials encouraged people to report workplace complaints regarding COVID-19 to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When Contreras recommended that to a Hispanic woman who tested positive for the virus and complained about workplace conditions, she was fired, according to Contreras.
Weeks later, a federal law protecting workers during the pandemic was put into effect. By then, it was too late.
“This person called me and said, ‘You know what? I should’ve just kept quiet, because now I lost my job,’” Contreras said. “Then I feel like, should I keep telling people to do the right thing when they do it and they get these results?”
Mitigating the limited access to health care has resulted in the uniting of clinics and nonprofits with local and state health departments to go beyond their usual parameters, providing a week’s worth of groceries as patients quarantine, rent relief assistance and informing about school reopening guidelines and their legal workplace rights.
Daily Planet, a community health center whose patient base is predominantly people of color, has tested 2,700 people and diagnosed almost 400 positive cases since the start of the pandemic, the majority of whom identified as Hispanic or a person of color.
“We were acutely aware of the problems with crowded housing, lack of access to health care, lack of treatment of chronic diseases every day,” said Dr. Patricia Cook, Daily Planet’s chief medical officer. “We knew that when a pandemic hit, it was going to impact this community more than others.”
Health Brigade followed in Daily Planet’s footsteps when it came to testing with weekly Saturday events for the area’s Latino community.
Dr. Wendy Klein, Health Brigade’s former medical director who was instrumental in establishing testing efforts, said the racial disparities that have reared their head in a pandemic “simply reflect the racial disparities in everything we do.”
CrossOver Healthcare Ministry, a clinic whose patient population is 50% Latino and 100% low-income, has provided 482 COVID-19 tests as of July 29. About one in three Latino patients tested positive.
In response, CrossOver implemented telehealth appointments and called more than 1,300 of its high-risk patients with chronic health conditions, offering information on reducing spread, educational videos in multiple languages and 250 home health care kits for patients to monitor vitals.
But combating the jarring disproportionate impact means breaking down structural inequities that the pandemic laid bare, said CrossOver’s medical director, Dr. Mike Murchie.
As the disparities become clearer, so does the stigma, said Contreras, especially toward low-wage Latino workers in construction, poultry plants, restaurants or housekeeping.
“Because of the stories, [people are] blaming us. That we’re the ones being careless, doing this and doing that,” Contreras said. “If you don’t want any more construction, stop the construction. Stop buying the chickens. Stop buying all this stuff so we can go home. But they don’t.”
Instead, vitriol is geared toward employees, not employers, who barely have a choice, Contreras said, and they’re the ones who can’t afford not to work.