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The Heavy Toll of COVID-19 on Local Latino Communities

Cat Modlin-Jackson

Since the Virginia Department of Health began reporting the ethnic breakdown of coronavirus cases, data have shown a consistently disproportionate hit in Latino communities, including those in Harrisonburg.  As Virginia Public Radio’s Cat Modlin-Jackson found, there’s more to the impact than what the numbers show.

At a Dairy Queen drive-through in Harrisonburg, Liz Zavala has been serving customers from behind a mask throughout the pandemic. 

Like most of her family members, she’s risked her safety working on the front lines. In spite of their precautions, 7 of Zavala’s relatives have contracted COVID-19... including her grandmother, Cecilia, who died in May.

LIZ ZAVALA: It’s just hard to accept the fact that it happened this way, when we know that we did everything we could to make it not happen. 

Zavala traces her roots from Mexico to the Shenandoah Valley, where many of her loved ones have jobs in the nearby poultry plants.

ZAVALA: There’s no social distancing for them. It’s shoulder-to-shoulder work. 

Workplace conditions are something that Harrisonburg Vice-Mayor Sal Romero hears about a lot. Many who reach out to him are undocumented residents afraid to speak out publicly. 

SAL ROMERO: You know, they share that information with me because I was once undocumented. People know that. I sort of have that understanding of what it is like to be in those shadows and to feel that if you raise your voice it’s only going to affect you negatively. 

Romero’s leveraging his community ties to spread the word about safety and resources. In addition to everyday conversations, he makes his own PSAs for Facebook, talks with faith leaders and spends a lot of time going back and forth between workers, plant managers and policymakers.

Leaders of Governor Northam’s health equity task force say they’re trying to support marginalized communities by sharing information in multiple languages, distributing PPE and ramping up testing in underserved areas... but some say they’re not reaching far enough.  

Free tests were available near Dennis Espinal’s home in Alexandria... she just wasn’t sure how to prove that her family qualified after they got sick. It took days and the help of an advocacy group before they could get into the clinic. Espinal, her husband and their son tested positive for COVID-19.

DENNIS ESPINAL: Verdad porque nosotros no tenemos otra ayuda. 

Through an interpreter, Espinal explains that neither she nor her husband have health insurance. He lost his job and they won’t be receiving unemployment or a stimulus check. Bills are stacking up, says Espinal, and she’s not sure how they’re going to get by.

Freddy Mejia is a health policy analyst at the nonpartisan Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. 

He says the rates of infection might be understated for communities of color because for about 60% of Latinx Virginians,

FREDDY MEJIA: ...when they have the chance to circle a race before being asked if they’re Latino or Hispanic, they’ll go ahead and circle white. 

Mejia says the state can present a clearer picture by reporting rates through disaggregated Hispanic and non-Hispanic racial demographics. 

Even in imperfect form, Mejia says the data reveal the result of longstanding inequities. 

MEJIA: This obviously is a very tragic circumstance, but I think that this is also a catalyst for real change.

And while there’s no one fix to enduring problems, Mejia says policymakers can start by extending emergency COVID-19 Medicaid services to undocumented residents and investing in long-term safety nets.

As the state moves forward with the process of reopening, Liz Zavala and her family are still waiting to give their matriarch a proper send off. 

ZAVALA: She didn’t want to be cremated and we had to cremate her so we can take her remains to Mexico next year when everything’s ok. 

She will remember her grandmother, Cecilia, as an enduring source of strength and love.