UPDATED: ‘This pandemic is exacerbating other issues’: Coronavirus hitting Utah minorities especially hard

ST. GEORGE — When looking at those who have had the coronavirus in Utah, something within the data becomes undeniable: Latinos and Pacific Islanders have been hit especially hard during the pandemic.

Photo illustration | Photo by Sam Thomas

Updated 4:30 p.m.: Latest Southern Utah numbers added, including setting new one-day high locally with 59 new cases.

The virus itself, of course, doesn’t care about the skin color of those it infects. Nevertheless, data shows that as a percentage of the population, those ethnic communities have taken the brunt of the illness in the state. 

Maria Montes, the community engagement and advocacy coordinator for Utah Latinx advocacy group Comunidades Unidas, said the coronavirus has brought about a perfect storm among Latinos and other ethnic communities. 

“This pandemic is exacerbating other issues that have existed and magnified it through this lens of COVID-19,” Montes told St. George News.

According to Montes, that perfect storm consists of three factors: Ethnic minorities make up a majority of essential workers, many did not qualify for stimulus checks under the coronavirus relief act and many don’t have the same access to health resources.

This is especially true for the Latino community. 

Graphic showing the percentage of ethnicity in the state compared to the percentage of that ethnicity in the demographics of COVID-19 cases in the state as of June 25, 2020. Click to enlarge.| Photos by iStock/Getty Images Plus; Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News

According to the Utah Department of Health, while Latinos make up 14.2% of Utah’s population, as of Thursday, they made up 43.2% of the coronavirus cases in the state. In addition, 39.1% (504 of 1,290) of those hospitalized with the virus in Utah have been Latino.

“A lot of these communities are burdened by inevitability to telework or social distance, so it’s ripe for COVID-19 spread,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. 

The other group seeing a disproportionate amount of its community getting coronavirus infections are Pacific Islanders. While making up 1.6% of the state’s population, Pacific Islanders account for 3.9% of coronavirus cases in Utah.

Not all minority groups are seeing a larger number of cases, however. Black people account for 2.1% of the state’s population. In May, they accounted for 3.2% of all COVID-19 cases but have now dropped to a more proportional 2.9% of cases. 

Essential workers on the front line

Even at the beginning of the pandemic when many were “staying safe by staying home,” essential workers were still out there working the front lines in jobs such as food services, agriculture and farming, and supermarkets. In turn, those workers were also at the front of the line when it came to getting the virus, according to data from the Utah Department of Health. 

Byron Russell, co-chair of the Utah Multicultural Commission, speaks during a press conference May 20 at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

And, according to Byron Russell, co-chair of Utah’s Multicultural Commission, essential workers don’t always have the luxury of social distancing, facing much more of the public, and, in turn, are exposed to more asymptomatic carriers than others.

“A lot of these folks have two or three jobs and don’t have the luxury of staying home,” Russell said. “With three jobs, the risk becomes even higher.”

People of color, especially Latinos, make up a substantial portion of essential workers. Many of those essential workers are also at high risk for getting and/or having complications from the virus but can’t afford to miss work, according to Montes. Places like meat-packing plants and warehouses have been hot spots for the virus. 

“These are the people working the farms,” Montes said. “These are people processing the meat.” 

On top of that, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, many essential workers do not qualify for the emergency paid sick leave passed by Congress. 

Immigrants left out

While many received a $1,200 stimulus check from the government from the coronavirus relief act, many Latino families were ineligible because of a stipulation designed to exclude undocumented immigrants. However, nearly half of those who didn’t get checks were legal citizens, according to the study. 

Photo by Brunomartinsimagens, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Under the act, those who filed taxes jointly with an undocumented worker were deemed ineligible for a stimulus check. Thus even spouses and children who are U.S. citizens or have green cards didn’t get checks because another family member was undocumented.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, that left around 47,000 Utahns who are legal citizens, without stimulus checks. 

“Mixed immigration families were left out of the stimulus. Those families did not receive cash assistance and gave a higher burden on those who had to work,” Montes said. 

On top of that, Montes said the undocumented or the loved ones of an undocumented worker have avoided medical care or testing for fear of being discovered or tagged by the government. 

“The government has been going against immigrants,” Montes said. “It’s hard to tell an immigrant ‘don’t worry about your status’ when they’ve had a target on their back.”

Montes said Communitas Unitas works with undocumented immigrants to still get them the care and testing they need, including in Southern Utah. However, many of their mobile operations in Southern Utah have had to be suspended because of the virus.

Lack of resources

Another barrier for ethnic minorities has been limited access to health resources. Montes said factors in the Latino community range from a language barrier that prevents knowledge of resources available to a lack of health insurance for many front-line essential workers. 

Maria Montes, community engagement and advocacy coordinator for Comunidades Unidas. | Photo courtesy Comunidades Unidas, St. George News

“Latinos have limited access to health resources,” said Montes, who added immigration status is again coming into play. “The state limits who can access Medicaid to those who have a certain immigration status. We’re seeing this reality among those working essential jobs.”

Another factor is cultural, especially among Latinos and Pacific Islanders. Culturally, many of them live in households with large family units. Utah Department of Health data shows 60.3% of coronavirus transmissions have been within households.

“Pacific Islanders are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to have fewer financial resources and to live in large multi-generational households,” Dr. Ray Samoa, an epidemiologist with the City of Hope hospital in Duarte, California, testified on May 27  before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee.

Challenges for Pacific Islanders

Oreta Tupola, a community health worker coordinator with the Utah Public Health Association, said there is another cultural challenge for Pacific Islanders: Fear of testing. 

This undated file photo provided by nonprofit advocacy and legal group Equally American, shows John Fitisemanu, an American Samoan and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the United States seeking full U.S. citizenship date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Associated Press, St. George News

“There’s a lot of stigma going around about being tested and being positive. This is not the time to shame people or be shamed for getting testing,” Tupola said in a news conference staged by the Pacific Islander Center of Primary Care Excellence. “Access to testing has been an issue. The difficulty for our community is to sort through all the information.”

Samoa, who serves as the clinical lead for the Pacific Islander Center of Primary Care Excellence’s COVID-19 response team, said Pacific Islanders report experiencing discrimination in health care settings and a mistrust in seeking health care services.

Samoa said another issue for Pacific Islanders culturally is that a greater percentage of that ethnic group fall into the high-risk category for coronavirus transmission.

“PIs have extremely high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease, which increases their risk of death if they contract COVID-19,” Samoa said. “And 20% of PIs do not have medical coverage when compared to 11.4% of non-Hispanic whites, which affects their timely access to needed health care services.”

Bridging the gap

Gov. Gary Herbert has made a point of addressing the growing spread of the virus among ethnic minorities in the state, including having multicultural organization representatives on his COVID-19 task forces. On Thursday, he held a Spanish-language press conference on the coronavirus. 

The third version of the Utah Leads Together pandemic plan had a procedure laid out for dealing with the growing spread of the virus among ethnic minorities in the state. Procedures set out by the state in the plan include

  • Increase language accessible information through translation, interpretation and literacy skills considerations.
  • Assist in the coordination of disseminating information through nontraditional channels for mass access.
  • Increase service engagement in underserved communities to address essential needs like food and social services.
  • Increase efforts for economic sustainability among diverse businesses.

Montes said there’s only so much the state government can do on its own, and a key will be working with community-based groups on the grassroots level. 

“The first really big step is making sure the people in these communities are at the table. Community-based groups are the solution to bridging the gap,” Montes said. “We’re moving in the direction of reopening and forgetting about relief. This shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be part of the plan to reopen.”

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of June 27, 2020, one-day increase in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 1,361 (59 new)
  • Washington County: 1,063 (52 new)
  • Iron County: 271 (6 new)
  • Garfield County: 13 (1 new)
  • Kane County: 6
  • Beaver County: 8 

Deaths: 10

  • Washington County: 8
  • Iron County: 1
  • Garfield County: 1

Hospitalized: 20 (no change) 

Tested: 17,765 (0 new tests)

Recovered: 816 (4 new)

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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