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77% of new Durham County COVID-19 cases are in Latinx community

Despite making up just 14% of Durham County’s population, over three-quarters of reported COVID-19 cases in June were among Latinx residents, Department of Public Health director Rodney Jenkins said on Friday.

This disparity continues to raise concerns among county officials, community leaders and public health officials, who say they are working hard to address the disparity.

“We look at race and ethnicity distribution in cases just to ensure that we are able to articulate overrepresentation and underrepresentation,” Jenkins told the Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force in his weekly update. “Overrepresentation lets us know who’s at greater risk.” 

City officials and nonprofits have been mobilizing to better protect Latinx residents from the COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. This latest data shows a significant jump in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks among Latinx communities.

But reducing exposure among these residents, some of whom lack legal immigration status, isn’t simple, said Italo Medelius, vice-chair of the Mayor’s Hispanic/Latino Committee. Some can’t stay home and still make enough money for food or rent.  

“They’re folks that don’t have hazard pay. There’s no sick leave. There’s no ability for folks that if you’ve been infected, you can go home and not work,” said Medelius. “You know a lot of folks are either not going to tell their employers that they’re sick or their employers just don’t ask.”

Efforts to reduce the spread

When the coronavirus started spreading in Durham, committee members started pushing for more public health messaging in Spanish. 

“We ask that both the City and County publish all COVID-19 notices in both English and Spanish, including electronic, social media, public notices,” read a March 27 letter committee members sent to Mayor Steven Schewel. 

Since then, committee members have worked with translating services to help Latinx residents get information they need. Now, the Durham County Department of Public Health website has 36 COVID-19 graphic and information sheets online, with all except four in English and Spanish. 

It quickly became clear that efforts to reduce COVID-19 diagnoses among Latinx residents had to involve more than messaging, Medelius said.

Handing out masks has been an important effort. Early last month, members of the Mayor’s Hispanic/Latino Committee helped Covering the Triangle, a group of doctors and organizers, hand out free face masks in public spaces, including supermarkets.

“FREE FACE COVERINGS / MASCARILLAS GRATIS” read signs outside Compare Foods in downtown Durham and La Superior on North Roxboro Street.

As grocery shoppers stood six feet apart waiting in line to enter, volunteers handed out 2,000 handmade face masks for free. Since most people said they live in households with five to eight people, Medelius said, volunteers gave out two per person in each household.

Source: Durham County Public Health

Medelius said that mask distributors noticed many people requesting them were construction workers. Outdoors services, including construction and lawn services, were exempted from Durham’s stay-at-home orders but encouraged to practice social distancing. 

Because of the close-contact nature of construction work, volunteers gave out packets of about 50 masks for residents to distribute to coworkers at their construction site. 

On Thursday, volunteers handed out free face masks to Latinx business owners, according to Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano and member of the Recovery and Renewal Task Force. A flyer is attached to each mask with information on why it is important to wear a mask, how to wash it, and the three W’s: wash your hands, wait six-feet apart and wear a mask.

Support for communities

There are several programs in the works to support Latinx communities. El Centro Hispano and the Church World Service Durham, along with other organizations, are giving cash to local Latinx residents who are not eligible for federal stimulus checks, unemployment, paid-sick leave or are just short of money to support themselves and their families.

The CWS Durham Immigrant Solidarity Fund, started after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids increased in the Triangle area over a year ago, is now focused on the public health crisis. 

The money goes where it’s needed, said Kelly Chauvin, immigration services coordinator for the Durham chapter. Since its creation, the fund has assisted 125 local families and fundraised over $100,000 dollars, Chauvin said.

“Much of the money has been raised and distributed in the last four months to respond to requests involving housing and food security,” said Chauvin.

Both El Centro Hispano’s COVID-19 Crisis Response Fund and the CWS Immigrant Solidarity Fund are accepting donations to continue supporting the Latinx community during the pandemic. So far, El Centro’s donation website lists over 350 donations, most anonymous but some from people who leave comments. 

“I’m donating to redistribute the stimulus check I received for myself and my son to those who need it more and may not have received anything,” wrote Lillian Mindich, who donated $1,700. 

Mayor Steve Schewel donated $250. “So grateful for El Centro’s amazing work in the community,” he wrote. 

Medelius said more government funding and state-led initiatives will be needed to better help Latinx people in Durham County remain well. 

Medelius proposed a few ways he believes the state needs to support the Latinx community during this pandemic, including state-funded mobile health clinics, state-led videos and information campaigns in both English and Spanish and paid sick leave for the duration of the pandemic. 

He also said the North Carolina Department of Labor needs to set up a whistleblower program with Spanish-language options to allow workers to anonymously report any employers not following COVID-19 safety guidelines or not reporting cases.

With the new data showing the disparities in COVID-19 cases, county officials spoke of urgently addressing the problem. 

“This is a statewide issue. And we need help,” Durham County Board of Commissioners chair Wendy Jacobs said at the Friday meeting. “When Durham is only getting $5.48 million of CARES Act funding, and Wake County and Mecklenburg County are getting $194 million in CARES Act funding, we have a problem.” 

Top photo: A worker at a Durham construction site breaks for lunch. Construction work is considered an essential service during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Henry Haggart