Health officials, volunteers focus efforts on Latino community disproportionately affected by COVID-19

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Despite making up just 10% of the state's population, those who identify as Hispanic or Latino account for about 46% of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina, a wide disparity also seen in other states.

"We all know that COVID-19 has magnified some known disparities in healthcare that we know exist among minorities in our communities,"said Dr. Jose Cabanas, the Wake County EMS Director. "But in essence, there are three main factors that contribute to these numbers in this data that we're seeing: number one is living conditions, work circumstances, and underlying health conditions or access to healthcare. We all know one of the beautiful things about the Latino culture is family cohesiveness. Many times you have grandparents, parents, children living under one roof. But being in close proximity to one another means it's easier to spread COVID-19 from person-to-person."

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In Wake County, about 10% of the population is Hispanic, but those who identify as Hispanic or Latino account for 40% of cases.

Dr. Cabanas took part in a virtual round table with Wake County Commissioners Greg Ford, Sig Hutchinson, and Dr. James West, as well as County Director of Human Services Regina Petteway, to address the inequities in Wake County and steps officials are taking to address them.

"Wake County is all hands-on-deck. This is a community-wide response, and every resource available to Wake County (is being used) in this emergency. Wake County is working very close with community partners to help reach populations that may be at high-risk. We're being very intentional in connecting with employers to encourage the use of masks, face coverings, and implementing very strict cleaning protocols following those health guidelines," said Dr. Cabanas, adding this is especially the case for professions where social distancing is difficult.

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The Wake County Government website has information available in ten languages besides English, and officials are working with local multicultural organizations to better connect with underserved populations.

In Durham, where a countywide mask requirement is in effect, several volunteer groups are working to get face coverings into the hands of those most at-risk.

"We so far have distributed around 6,000 (face masks) and we're going to get another 10,000 out in the next two weeks to those communities," said Isaac Henrion, the Coordinator for Cover Durham.

Henrion said they are working with city and county leaders, as well as reaching out directly to churches, construction workers, and even a recreational soccer league to hand out masks as well as educational materials about isolation protocols and testing procedures.

"We also need culturally-sensitive communication and to recognize the lives of some of these people. So many Latinx people work outdoors, such as in construction," Henrion said. "It's tough to wear a thick face covering in the North Carolina heat as the summer's coming in. So we need to get something that's effective and breathable that people can actually work in, which isn't something necessarily that you would think about if you're working indoors with A/C."

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One of the groups Cover Durham is working with is El Centro Hispano, a Latinx advocacy group.

"We've bought cloth masks from community members who are making them to make money and to survive in this crisis, but to also help the community. So we bought them from them and we're now distributing these masks when we distribute food or diapers or when we have contact with the community, with educational materials so they know why to use it and how to use it, and how to wash them properly to maintain these masks" said El Centro Hispano President and CEO Pilar Rocha-Goldberg.

Rocha-Goldberg said the Latinx community was hit especially hard by job loss and cutbacks from COVID-19-related shutdowns. It's why they're reaching out directly to businesses to support paid-time-off so workers aren't faced with a difficult decision.

"We've been having this conversation with local governments to see how can we support these businesses so they can support their employees," Rocha-Goldberg said.



Monday, state Health and Human Services Director Mandy Cohen discussed the situation many members of the Hispanic community are facing.

"Many work in essential industries that our state relies upon, like construction, childcare, and food processing. These are industries where social distancing can be challenging, health insurance is often not provided, and staying home when sick may mean not only not paying the rent, but also challenges putting food on the table for their family," said Cohen during a media briefing.

She announced the roll-out of a new technology platform, NCCare360, a public-private partnership between NC DHHS and the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation. It connects health officials and community organizations to make electronic referrals, securely share client information and track outcomes together.

"NCCARE360 is a model for the nation. It breaks down silos that create barriers to needed care and services - particularly in rural communities - and exacerbate health disparities. It was critical before COVID-19, and it is even more so now," said Georgina Dukes, Unite Us Network Director, in a news release about the announcement of the program.
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