Virus cases spike among Latino population in Richmond area
CDC team assisting local officials in communication, testing efforts
The Richmond region has seen a dramatic increase in the number of COVID-19 cases among Latinos because of workplace spread, health officials reported Friday.
Although Hispanics make up only 6.5% of the population in the city of Richmond, they represent 30% of all virus cases and 30% of hospitalized patients there, said Richmond and Henrico County’s health director, Dr. Danny Avula. The numbers are slightly better in Henrico, he added, but they’re still proportionately high. In Chesterfield, close to 20% of all cases are among Latinos, and statewide, 18,580 out of 54,886 total cases, or 33.8%, are among Latinos.
Avula said that it’s also clear that many Latinos are not going to the hospital until they are very sick, potentially out of fear.
According to regional hospitals, many Latino patients are so sick they need to be intubated, although so far, only three Latino people have died, out of 28 total COVID-19 deaths in Richmond, Avula said. Statewide, 1,886 Latino people have been hospitalized, and 156 have died.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sent a team of six investigators — its first all-Latino, Spanish-speaking team in the nation — to Richmond, where they have been working for the past week with local health departments, businesses that are owned by or employ significant numbers of Latinos, and community organizations.
Many cases are related to work and crowded living quarters, where it’s difficult to isolate from others. Another issue is distrust of the government, including recent immigration crackdowns, Avula added.
“They’re out there filling the jobs at the ground level during the pandemic,” said Michel Zajur, CEO and founder of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber, who joined Avula, Chesterfield County Health Director Dr. Alexander Samuel and Karla Almendarez-Ramos, manager of the city’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. “It’s really important that we communicate to the employers that they communicate with employees.”
Among the industries most affected are food processing, repair work, maintenance, cleaning and food service, Zajur said.
The CDC team, as well as local organizations and health department personnel, is working to connect with employers to help them get Paycheck Protection Program funds from the federal government — which, in turn, would allow more employers to give Latino employees paid sick leave if they’ve been exposed to the virus. Meanwhile, the health departments are holding about three community testing opportunities a week, testing about 200 people at each.
Statewide, Zajur’s group has communicated with Goya Foods, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, which all are major food production employers in the region, as well as smaller, Latino-owned businesses, emphasizing the importance of telling sick employees to stay home.
Zajur said that undocumented workers in the region don’t have access to unemployment funds, and most don’t have paid sick leave, so even if they’re under the weather, “they may go to work.” PPP and other funding can help ease the financial burden, he added.
Almendarez-Ramos said that her office is making sure that the community knows that there is “no information shared with ICE or anyone else,” when a person is tested for COVID-19.
“We all need to work together, no matter what their documentation is,” Zajur said.
Avula said about 20 to 30 people in the Richmond health department speak Spanish, but that there is a major need for more contact tracers who speak Spanish. The Virginia Department of Health is working to hire about 1,300 contact tracers by the end of June.
The CDC team will be in the region at least another week, Avula said, and depending on need, they may stay longer or return to the area later on for follow-up.