Latino communities in Illinois see uptick in COVID-19 confirmed cases: ‘Physical distancing is a privilege’

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — As a wave of coronavirus infections spreads through Latino neighborhoods in Chicago, one health site in Little Village has seen people so sick with the new coronavirus that they’ve passed out while waiting to get tested.

The testing facility, a collaboration between Howard Brown Health and Project VIDA, has tested 1,175 people since April 16, and a majority — about 56% — have tested positive for COVID-19 and almost all are exhibiting multiple symptoms. By Tuesday, the clinic had gotten results for 761 tests but was still awaiting results for the rest.

“There’s a high probability that anyone in that neighborhood has been exposed,” said David Ernesto Munar, the president and CEO of Howard Brown Health who noted that it’s one of the highest positive rates it has seen among the testing facilities it is running in Chicago.

Data on cases and coronavirus-related deaths is opening a window into how hard the pandemic is hitting Latino communities. Across Illinois, Latino-majority areas have the highest number of confirmed cases, and on average, tests in those areas come back positive 41% of the time. As of Tuesday, a ZIP code in South Lawndale, which includes Little Village, had the highest number of cases in the state, 1,596.

It’s harder to count the number of Latinos who have died of the new coronavirus because the medical examiner hasn’t until recently been labeling cases with that identifier. But by Tuesday, ZIP codes that include Little Village, with 50 deaths, and Belmont Cragin, with 40, Latino majority-areas, were among the city neighborhoods with the greatest number of fatalities.

Maria Ochoa, 50, of Back of the Yards, is among those who have fallen sick with COVID-19 in recent weeks. She knew about the virus and tried to do all she could at home to keep her family safe.

But at her husband’s job at a meatpacking plant on the South Side, workers were still using a communal kitchen. Then they started to hear about people calling in sick. Finally, members of the family started to get back pain followed by body aches and fevers.

One clinic turned her away, but she was able to get tested at a second. She, her husband and her 28-year-old daughter tested positive for COVID-19, Ochoa said. Two teenage sons appeared to show some symptoms for a day or two.

“I felt like my brain was enlarging,” Ochoa said in Spanish. “I felt like I was dizzy all day. I couldn’t get up. I was in bed for four days, and I didn’t have an appetite.”

On the Northwest Side, a ZIP code in the Humboldt Park neighborhood had the sixth highest infection rate in the city with about a third of the more than 2,500 tests coming back positive for the coronavirus.

As is the case across the country, many among those living in the area who have died were nursing home residents.

On California Avenue, just east of the park, at least 19 people at Center Home for Hispanic Elderly have died of COVID-19-related complications. A staff member said by phone that workers had been instructed to not speak to the media, and other media have reported

Center Home’s website has no information about the coronavirus, but Gary Mack, a hired spokesman for the nursing home, said there had been 50 confirmed cases among residents, including those who had died, and 23 among nursing home staff..

“Across the county, a lot of nursing homes are suffering from staffing shortages themselves,” Mack said, adding that while the home cannot test in-house, they are following IDPH protocols for anyone who comes in.

Two-thirds of the patients in the COVID-19 unit at Mount Sinai Hospital, on the city’s West Side, are Latinos, said Dr. Sunita Mohapatra, the infectious disease chief at the hospital. A lack of private insurance along with the likelihood of having preexisting conditions could be factoring into the high numbers, she said.

“They’re coming into the hospital when they are already a lot more sick,” she said. “A lot of people are still working, and they are working these jobs that are putting them at risk.”

A group of 50 elected officials and medical professionals making up the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative has started to push for changes to the state’s response, given the high rate of infection in Latino communities.

The initiative points to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, including that more than 65% of Latinos who were tested turned out to have COVID-19. That may be an indication that many Latinos wait until experiencing severe symptoms before they get tested.

Munar said in Little Village they are seeing a “perfect storm” for spread. Close living quarters for many families make it difficult to self-isolate, and many residents are essential workers. About 80% who have been tested didn’t have insurance, said Christopher Avalos, the media coordinator for Project VIDA.

“Physical distancing is a privilege,” said Dr. Marina Del Rios, an emergency room physician at University of Illinois in Chicago Medical Center who is part of the initiative.

She and her colleagues at other hospitals are seeing more Latino patients coming in, often after they’ve been sick for some time — making her fearful the death toll also will start to rise, as it did earlier in the African American community.

“Now, the question is, ‘Is this the new wave, the Latino wave?’” she said.

Stephanie Willding, the CEO at CommunityHealth, a West Town clinic, said she started to get messages from the community about a month ago telling her that people were sick but were scared to seek medical help. The pandemic intensified just as the Trump administration started to implement the “public charge” rule, which could penalize immigrants who seek public benefits. The clinic, which provides health care to those without insurance, was able to start drive-thru testing last week.

The clinic is able to process 10 to 20 tests per day, and about 45% of the tests are coming back positive, Willding said.

To help fight COVID-19, Munar said Howard Brown Health has been using the same methods of contract tracing it has used for years to stem the spread of HIV. But efforts are often delayed because test results can take days to come back, Munar said.

Many said expansive testing is needed in Latino communities. Del Rios and others said testing should include federal qualified health centers or community-based organizations, which immigrants tend to trust more than a hospital.

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Illinois, is pushing for a host of actions on the federal front, while also talking to state officials to see where gaps can be filled if the federal government does not act.

“Latinos are feeling a good part of the brunt of the disproportionate impact that the pandemic is having on the country, and when you consider that for years now they’ve been under direct attack from the president, from his administration, it’s no wonder that they aren’t as likely to seek testing,” Garcia said. “And too, they were left out of the provisions of the bills that we have passed so far for treatment.”

City officials said in a statement that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has tasked the Mayor’s Office of Racial Equity Rapid Response Team, initially set up to respond to COVID-19 disparities in the African American community, with creating “a bilingual and strategic plan to aggressively and effectively support Chicago’s Latinx community.” The plan, they said, will include a new communications strategy and community outreach. The city is working with nonprofits, the media, elected officials, the Mexican Consulate and labor unions on the effort.

To get a better picture of the pandemic and lessen the spread in Latino communities, Cook County officials are setting up testing sites at county health centers. One will be at the North Riverside Health Center, which serves communities like Cicero, Berwyn and Melrose Park that have majority Latino populations. Of Chicago suburbs, the highest number of cases as of Tuesday were in Cicero, 89% Latino, which had 1,325 COVID-19 cases, followed by Des Plaines, with a 19% Latino population, with 874, according county data.

The county also is working with community groups that already serve Latinos to provide services that people may need to isolate if they are sick and quarantine if they’ve come into contact with infected people. In addition, the county is working with community groups to plan for tracing the contacts of infected people, a program Gov. J.B. Pritzker says must be expanded statewide before he lifts his stay-at-home order.

The hope is that Latinos will “have the confidence that when they get a phone call because they have a positive test, that we’re not there to get personal information because we’re reporting them to an agency,” said Dr. Rachel Rubin, senior medical officer for the county Department of Public Health. “No, we’re doing that because we’re trying to protect them and their families and their communities.”

In Brighton Park, access to food also has become a real problem, said Arturo Carrillo, director of health and violence prevention for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. Food pantries in the area have run out of food, and some people are having trouble getting groceries.

The area is filled with essential workers, but many aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits or federal stimulus funds, Carrillo said.

Outside of Cook County, Latinos have fewer resources and less information is provided in Spanish, said Erendira Rendon, who works with the Chicago-based Resurrection Project. Several of Rendon’s relatives in suburban counties have gotten sick with COVID-19, and she’s helped guide them through the process of trying to get tested. Some, like her father, were never able to get tested.

Rendon said state officials should have a coordinated plan for the Latino community that includes more Spanish-speakers during the daily briefings.

“Most people don’t live here (in Chicago), it’s too expensive now,” Rendon said. “We don’t have a Cook County health system out there. So I think that adds another layer of accessibility.”


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