‘The backbone of our workforce’: Summit County’s Hispanic community disproportionately susceptible to coronavirus
Of all coronavirus cases in Summit County, 61% are among Hispanic people
KEYSTONE — Silverthorne resident Delfina Merino and her family treated this year’s Mother’s Day like any other. Merino, her mother, sisters, husband, kids, nieces and nephews gathered for quality family time.
Prior to the gathering, the entire group had been taking precautions against contracting the novel coronavirus. They had social distanced, worn face masks and disinfected their homes daily. They felt it was safe to get together for this special occasion.
Three days later, Merino woke up with a splitting headache and body aches. She knew something was wrong. That same day, May 13, she drove herself to the Summit Community Care Clinic and received a test for the virus, which later returned positive.
Merino wasn’t the only person in her family to get the virus. Her two daughters, husband and 79-year-old mother all came down with the disease.
Merino’s story is just one of many in Summit County’s Hispanic community. According to the county’s coronavirus webpage, 61% of all cases are among Hispanic people. The county’s Hispanic and Latino community makes up just 14.6% of the total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
However, the census has historically undercounted Hispanic populations, so the county uses school data to get a more accurate representation. About one-third of parents in Summit School District are Spanish-speaking, which is an indication of how many Hispanic people live in Summit, county spokesperson Julie Sutor said.
By either count, it’s clear there is a disparity in coronavirus case data.
The problem isn’t unique to Summit County. Nearly 40% of cases in Colorado are among Hispanic people, while 20% of Coloradans are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Iowa, Washington and Florida all report disproportionately high numbers of cases, as well, according to reporting by The New York Times.
There are many reasons for the large disparity and many community members trying to help, but it is clear that avoiding COVID-19 can be added to the long list of privileges that exclude Latinos in America.
‘It played with my mind’
Merino is still experiencing symptoms of the virus nearly a month after she tested positive. Nothing, however, will compare to the first two weeks, she said.
“The first two weeks were the worst ever in my life,” Merino said. “I’ve never been sick like that.”
Merino has experienced headaches, shortness of breath, extreme body aches, loss of vision and fever. However, her biggest concern is her mother, who currently resides in an ICU bed in Denver. Being isolated in her room, Merino’s only choice is to pray for her mother’s recovery.
“She is in critical condition,” Merino said. “She’s in a (ventilator). She’s using that machine to breathe, and her lungs are not responding very well. It’s so terrible. I imagine that maybe she dies of the disease. It’s so hard.”
As of Wednesday, Merino has tested negative for the virus, but her mother is still in the ICU. Merino and her family are awaiting the results from her mother’s test. If it’s negative, they will be able to visit her in the hospital, she said.
Dani Flores, who lives in Dillon, had a similar experience to Merino. On March 13, two days after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency in response to the virus, Flores developed a fever and sore throat.
“That night, I couldn’t really breathe,” she said.
After two weeks of her symptoms steadily progressing, she went to get a test, which later returned positive.
“My mom thought at first I was in depression because we couldn’t go out or anything,” she said.
Flores’ mother got sick shortly after. Much like Merino, Flores worried about her mother’s health because she has preexisting conditions. Fortunately, Flores’ mother never had to go to the hospital.
“One of the anesthesiologists I work with, he let me borrow his oxygen concentrator, and that’s what my mom was using,” she said.
Arturo Guadalupe Castillo, who lives in Breckenridge, also got sick. The U.S. Army veteran who fought in Desert Storm likened the experience of having the virus to being at war.
“It played with my mind,” he said. “I got scared. At times I got really scared.”
Castillo first came down with the virus in late April. He received his test April 20 and found out he was positive April 23. That night, his symptoms had become severe, breathing was difficult, and he grew increasingly worried, so he went to the emergency room.
“They sent me home with an oxygen machine,” he said. “From there on, it worsened and worsened. By day eight, it was full force.”
‘The backbone of our workforce’
There are a number of factors at play when it comes to a person contracting COVID-19. County health experts have a few theories that explain the case disparity among Hispanic people, but those theories are by no means extensive or cover everyone in the community.
Local experts were in wide agreement, however, that Latinos make up a large portion of the essential workers in Summit County. Merino and Flores both work in health care, and Castillo works at a grocery store. Each of their occupations fall into the essential category, which means they had to go to work in person up until they contracted the virus.
“Many of us work one job, two jobs or three jobs so we can provide for our families, whether it be here or abroad,” Castillo said. “We want the best for our families, but it also has its downfalls.”
Dr. Kathleen Cowie, chief medical officer at the Summit Community Care Clinic, said Hispanic and Latino people are often the most underappreciated part of the county’s workforce.
“Latino patients are the backbone of our workforce,” Cowie said. “These are the folks that are keeping our businesses open.”
Working from home — a product of the pandemic that has spawned hashtags, Instagram posts and tips — is not an option for many Hispanic people in the community.
“A lot of these folks have still been working throughout this pandemic and are not the essential workers that are getting all the praise and thank-you’s that those of us on the front lines like doctors and nurses are receiving,” Cowie said.
Gloria Quintero, who is on the county’s Equity Task Force, said many of these essential workers might continue to go to work because they don’t have another option. Benefits like health insurance can be hard to come by, as well, she said.
“It’s funny that we call them critical workers when they really don’t have all the benefit of being a critical worker of having all these health benefits,” Quintero said. “If they feel sick, they might want to stretch it as much as they can to be able to get paid.”
Brianne Snow, executive director of the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, agreed.
“It’s nearly impossible for them to be able to separate the health risk from the economic toll of losing income,” she said. “If they do potentially get sick, they may choose to go to work.”
Snow said there is hope, however, in the form of a bill that would create a new fee on health insurance premiums, the revenue of which would be used to fund the state’s reinsurance program. Included in the bill, which was recently passed by Colorado state senators, is the ability for anyone, regardless of immigrant status, to use the program.
“That could be a game changer for people’s access to health,” Snow said.
Castillo, Merino and Flores all stayed home from work as soon as they knew they were sick. But the financial toll didn’t go unnoticed.
“Last month, I was the only one working,” Flores said. “I have to pay for two cars, two insurances, everything.”
Flores said this issue is exasperated for people who are undocumented immigrants.
“Not everyone is legal here,” she said. “They have to work for their families. They can’t get help. They can’t get unemployment.”
Self-isolating is ‘almost impossible’
Living situations are another major contributing factor to the disparity in cases. The virus is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks within 6 feet of another person. To combat that, public health departments have required social distancing and face coverings.
However, it’s difficult to practice those measures within households. Hispanic families are often living in dense environments.
“They usually have multigenerational or multifamily households,” Quintero said. “They live with their parents, their grandparents, their brothers and sisters, with their nephews and nieces — especially here because rent is so expensive.”
It’s difficult to expect people to self-isolate or quarantine in that environment.
“A lot of our Latino patients are living in much higher-density housing situations,” Cowie echoed. “Sometimes up to eight people in a one-bedroom apartment, and that really makes self-isolating and quarantining almost impossible.”
The Summit County Public Health Department is providing housing to people who are living in dense environments at no cost to the individual, Nurse Manager Sara Lopez said. While the housing is available, the county is not forcing people to move.
While Merino was sick, her husband and son worried about her, always wanting to come into her room to see if she’s OK. She refused to let them in.
“I always say, ‘Go, go, go. I need to be alone. This is very contagious,’” she said.
For nearly a month, Castillo stayed in his bedroom. The only time he saw his family was when his wife would crack the door to give him food. The isolation was hard, but Castillo said he focused on keeping his mind in the right place and getting healthy.
“My mindset was, ‘Get well, get well and get well,” he said. “One day at a time. Baby steps. That’s all I could think. I didn’t worry too much about work because I felt that my life was more important. I needed to live. I have children. I have a family. I didn’t want them to be fatherless.”
The isolation didn’t prevent the disease from spreading to his children, however. Both Castillo’s daughter and son got the disease and have since recovered.
‘These systems have existed for years’
Lopez and the rest of Summit County Public Health Department recognized the disparity early on. Department officials have worked to educate the community by providing information in Spanish and English, offering housing assistance and working with the Equity Task Force to learn more about the Hispanic community and its challenges.
However, coronavirus isn’t the cause of the disparity, Lopez said. Rather, coronavirus is a visible crack, revealing a crumbling foundation built on systemic oppression and bias against people of color.
“People should have their opportunity to obtain their full potential, but there are systemic conditions in our culture and in our world that do not offer the same choices to all people,” Lopez said.
Jacklyn Thompson, a care coordinator with public health, said the Hispanic population is at a higher risk of exposure because of these systemic factors.
“These systems have existed for years in a way that has already impacted their access to health care and what their health care looks like,” Thompson said.
For many people in the Hispanic community, trust and fear are major issues, Quintero said. So while tests for the virus are free and some employers are required to offer paid leave, it sounds too good to be true.
“They have been hit with big bills for having the flu or having any other condition,” Quintero said. “They don’t want any more bills because they don’t have any money or opportunity to pay for it.”
To help spread awareness and education, the Equity Task Force has created a Latinx Facebook group, hosted video webinars and Quintero has been translating all of the county’s resources into Spanish. Quintero also works as a case manager for about 20 families in the community.
Castillo said people in the community need to prioritize getting tested, take the virus seriously and, most of all, “keep the faith.”
“There is no one to blame but the COVID-19 virus,” he said. “My battle with the virus was an ever-changing life experience that made me reevaluate how I live my life from now on. When it hit me, it came with a vengeance. It is mean and deadly.”
Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series about the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on the Hispanic community in Summit County.
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Testing for the novel coronavirus won’t be available on Thanksgiving day, Public Health Director Amy Wineland said at a Board of Health meeting Tuesday, Nov. 24.