Latinx residents fear the toll coronavirus is taking on their lives and community

When Veronica Briones started having trouble breathing in March, she didn’t know what to do.

She looked to her husband for help. He immediately called an ambulance — and Briones was admitted at a hospital in South Texas, where she stayed for almost a month to recover from what she came to learn was Covid-19. She described contracting the virus as the worst experience she’s ever had.

“It’s just a horrible experience to go through,” she told CNN, through tears. “I wish upon no one to go through it.”

Briones is one of thousands of people who identify as Latinx who have suffered from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Kaiser Family Foundation released new research last week that identified 33 states as hotspots of Covid-19 in the US, 23 of which were in the South and West. According to Kaiser Family Foundation, just over half (51%) of people in the US reside in these 23 states, but they are home to seven in 10 of all Hispanic individuals (71%).

“The shifting surge in outbreaks to the South and West will likely exacerbate the disparate effects of COVID-19 for people of color,” KFF wrote in its report, published Friday. “Hispanic people may be particularly hard hit as outbreaks rise in these areas.”

People who identify as Latinx are four times more likely to be hospitalized than White people, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts say the Hispanic community has been disproportionately hurt by the coronavirus pandemic due to their jobs as essential workers and multigenerational living conditions.

And as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the US, many Latinos say they are growing more concerned for their lives and their community.

Texas border communities hit hard

In Texas’ Hidalgo County — where 92.5% of the county’s 860,000 residents identify as Latinx — data shows just how hard Covid-19 has hit the Latinx community.

The county, which is on the border, reported 20 Covid-19 deaths and 1,274 new cases on Friday. That brings the total number of deaths in the county to 123 people and the number of infections to 7,334.

“Several months ago, I warned of a potential tsunami if we did not take this more seriously,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Corez said in a news release. “The tsunami is here.”

County officials have said in notifications to residents in the past few weeks that hospitals have reached capacity. Residents are strongly encouraged to stay home, as health care facilities race to add more ICU beds in anticipation for more people with complications from the virus.

The South Texas Medical System in Weslaco — which is also near the border — converted conference rooms and shelf spaces to ICU areas as it continues to see an influx of coronavirus patients. They also set up a tent to handle any overflow patients, where they can treat up to 20 additional patients on top of the other areas inside the emergency department.

“The staff here, everyone is exhausted, and the patients here are very sick,” Pablo Loredo, South Texas Health Emergency Department Nurse Director of Welasco & Alamo, told CNN’s Brianna Keilar last week.

Wesley Robinson, the assistant chief nursing officer of the South Texas Health System, told CNN the medical system “began seeing patients arrive on July 1, by July 3 they were incredibly sick — now we’re at the point where we’ve reached well over 100% capacity.”

Some experts point to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to prematurely reopen the state’s economy as a reason why the virus spread so quickly.

“And that is because at the time that the (Trump) administration insisted on opening the economy where they weren’t prepared,” Dr. Joseph B. McCormick, an epidemiologist at the Brownsville campus of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, told CNN. “We didn’t fit any of the criteria that were recommended when the economy was open.”

On June 25, Abbott announced he was pausing any further phases to reopen the state as cases surged.

McCormick said Texas was doing a “pretty good job until everybody decided it was time to reopen the economy.”

“And we were not prepared to do that because we didn’t have the wherewithal to do the contact tracing,” he added. “We didn’t have testing to be able to do this.”

McCormick emphasized how Covid-19 doesn’t just affect someone when they’ve tested positive — the virus can have longlasting effects on a person.

‘Frontline troops’ more at risk

Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told CNN he’s seen his own employees and their families suffer from Covid-19. Even some of his own family members have tested positive for the virus, he said.

The organization, one of the largest and oldest Hispanic organizations, has been working to help its members combat the effects of the virus. The latest effort included asking Abbott to mandate masks in public spaces across the state, a move he made this month.

“The Latino workforce is the essential frontline troops,” Garcia said. “They’re the ones that are picking the vegetables that we have. They’re the ones that are working at the meat packing plants to make sure that you have a stake at your table. They’re the ones that are working in the construction areas to make sure our freeways stay open and clear. They’re the ones that are the truck drivers. They’re the ones that the grocery stores.”

Because Latino workers “can’t work from home and they’re getting sick,” he said. “They’re out.”

He said he’s worried about the longterm effects this will have on the community.

“From a health perspective, we’re seeing many grandparents and parents pass away, hospitals bursting at the seams in Houston. They’ve already reached capacity,” he said. “This requires immediate federal and state intervention. It can not be done by a nonprofit organization like LULAC. It’s going to require a community wide effort.”

Frankie Miranda, president of the Hispanic Federation, a national Latino organization that supports Hispanic families and communities, said Latinos are “dying at a higher rate because we have no other choice.”

“They are essential services,” Miranda told CNN in May, “and now they are not enjoying the protections that maybe in other industries people can have.”

A lack of access to adequate health care

During a town hall in May, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said while progress has been made under the Affordable Care Act, there are “still too many Latinos who don’t have health care.”

“And that means they don’t get the health care primary checkups they need to detect illnesses, and then those illnesses, ultimately with this pandemic, can be more than a serious health challenge, they can become deadly,” he said.

According to McCormick, many Latino workers in these essential jobs are also less likely to visit a doctor for a multitude of reasons, including a lack of health insurance or lack of time. But the community also has a high percentage of people with underlying conditions, McCormick said, noting diabetes in Hispanics is especially “quite high.”

Dr. Rojelio Mejia, an infectious disease scientist at Baylor College of Medicine, said morbidities — like diabetes, smoking, obesity and high blood pressure — which are prevalent in Latinx communities, contribute to the challenges with Covid-19.

“Just looking at the population itself, there’s a higher percentage of people who have more comorbidities,” Mejia told CNN. “And then when they get, if they get exposed, they get infected, they can have a worse outcome than someone who doesn’t have these morbidities or is not a Latino person and they have relatively good health.”

For San Antonio native Beverly Barboza-Guerrero, visiting the doctor after being diagnosed with coronavirus in early June didn’t really help.

She had followed all proper protocols, but after a social-distanced trip to South Padre Island, she began feeling the symptoms. She visited the emergency room twice, but had no luck getting advice from doctors to help her feel better.

“I mean, we try to think back, like, what did we do wrong?” the 30-year-old told CNN, recalling her symptoms. She said she felt 10 times worse than when she had the flu in November.

“It just felt like I couldn’t breathe in,” she said. “It felt like if I go to sleep, like I’m not going to wake up. Like, it just felt, it felt ugly,” she said. “(One day) I woke up and I told my wife, I need to go to the hospital. There’s something not right. I need to go to the hospital. I really cannot breathe.”

The ER doctor, she said, told her to “to just take Tylenol and just make sure you’re resting, you know, make sure you’re quarantining.”

Another issue people are encountering, especially in Latinx communities, is false negatives for Covid-19.

Antibody tests used to determine if people have been infected in the past with Covid-19 might be wrong up to half the time, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in new guidance.

In response to the surge in coronavirus cases in these hotspots, including south Texas, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday the launch of new testing sites in three hotspots — Jacksonville, Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Edinburg, Texas.

The sites will offer 5,000 tests per city each day, according to HHS.

Briones said she hopes people make the effort to stay home and educate themselves about the virus.

“You need to do it, you know,” she said, “because I have a feeling it’s going to be for a long while, we’re going to be like this.”

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