Why high Latino infection rates matter to us all


As if it’s not bad enough that positive cases of COVID-19 are on a rapid rise across the U.S., a recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine put the positivity rate at three times higher for Latinos than for other U.S. minorities. The results were based on the testing of nearly 38,000 samples in the Baltimore-Washington area.

In the study, over 6,000 positive tests were recorded with Latinos factoring in at 42.6%, whereas positives for Blacks were 17.6% and whites were 8.8%. For those with symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization, far fewer Latino patients (29.1%) were admitted to hospitals than were Black (41.7%) or white (40.1%) patients. And those Latinos were younger, predominantly male, and also had fewer underlying conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or hypertension.

dickmyer-col-sigThat news is startling enough to make headlines and it is not isolated to the Baltimore-Washington corridor. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also reporting that Latinos across the U.S. have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors based on 640,000 positive test results (as of May 28) spanning nearly 1,000 counties from east to west.

What’s to blame?

Dense living conditions and financial insecurity. Several factors unique to the Latino community played major roles, including dense living conditions and financial insecurity. Latinos are more likely to live in crowded conditions with multigenerational extended families and to hold essential worker status jobs that they rely upon for basic survival.

Those jobs are typically frontline, low pay, and part time – cleaning, restaurant workers, store clerks and stockers, construction crews, but also food manufacturing/processing and agricultural industries. In the U.S., about 43% of Latino and Black workers are employed in service or production jobs that cannot be done remotely.

Many workers in these positions hold several part-time jobs, none of which offer benefits like insurance, paid time off, or sick leave. And to further complicate matters, think about how they typically get from job to job: public transportation, like buses and subways, where social distancing is nearly impossible.

Lack of health care and concerns about immigration status. These factors also played large roles. The Hopkins study noted systemic exclusion of the Latino community from basic health care services. According to local expert Dr. Kathleen R. Page, “Many of these patients tell me they delayed coming to the hospital until absolutely necessary because they were worried about medical bills, and were not sure if they could receive care because of their immigration status.”

In Latino communities across the country, those most at risk for getting sick were the same ones who were not eligible for benefits and had no health insurance but needed to keep working to support their families. Additionally, misinformation abounds regarding public charge and the implications of seeking health care.

It is time for public health officials and government leaders to publicly and clearly state that immigrants can freely be tested for COVID-19 and receive care without any public charge repercussions.

Cultural norms and limited English proficiency. As the coronavirus pandemic began to swirl around us all and blanket the U.S., nearly all information was being shared only in English.

Over time, some health agencies began to provide content in Spanish; in Maryland, we collaborated with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to provide emergency translations in Spanish, as well.

“Social distancing” was not a concept Americans were used to hearing, let alone Latino communities that thrive on being close-knit, warm and welcoming, with hugs and kisses for all. Stay 6 feet apart, wear a mask, stay at home – these are concepts that conflict with ingrained cultural norms.

Implications for non-Latinos?

Diversity and disparity have historically gone hand-in-hand. The patchwork economy long relied upon by minorities has become more unstable under the pressures of this pandemic.

Already, the lack of money and lost wages have had trickle-down effects – small businesses are closing, midsize companies are scaling back, even large companies are scrambling, and unemployed individuals are cutting all but essential spending.

How can you help?

Advocacy efforts. Take a multi-pronged approach: helping at the grassroots level and at the policy level.

Locally, take a small business owner under your wing to navigate the system and apply for available funds such as through The CARES Act and the U.S. Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program.

At the government level, advocate for language access and equity, ensuring legislators and decision-makers consider immigrants and individuals with limited English proficiency as they craft policy. For instance, are you aware that mixed households (comprised of a U.S. citizen married to an undocumented individual) are excluded from receiving the federal stimulus?

Communication, resources, awareness. Anything of importance, in print or online, needs to be in Spanish, too. Check out these resources to access multiple tools in Spanish: Fact sheets from the CDC, the World Health Organization and Salud America. Reach out to our team if you have a specific industry or technical need to be sure your message is translated properly.

Donate and support. Whether it is a gift of money or time, you can help your neighbors. Consider your local food bank, CASA’s Solidarity Fund and Maryland Nonprofits.

Amigos, juntos, together, we can do this.

Veronica Cool is founder and CEO of Cool & Associates LLC, a management consultancy in Maryland specializing in connecting organizations, small businesses and nonprofits to the Hispanic market. Sara Dickmyer is the linguistic and client manager for Cool & Associates.