Latinos shoulder a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases. Advocates wants more representation in contact tracing.

Latinos shoulder a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases. Advocates wants more representation in contact tracing.
A medical worker with Neighborhood Health, a chain of community clinics in Northern Virginia, swabs a resident for COVID-19 at a testing event in Alexandria. (Source: Neighborhood Health)

Roughly half the clients at Neighborhood Health, a chain of medical clinics across Northern Virginia, are Latino. Executive Director Dr. Basim Khan said the nonprofit is well aware of the health disparities that patients often face. Still, he added, it’s been “disturbing” to witness the disproportionate burden that COVID-19 has had on the Latino community.

“Ninety percent of our positive cases have been Hispanic, even though they’re 50 percent of our patient population,” Khan said, drawing on statistics from the organization’s community testing sites. But within the broader context of Virginia, the numbers aren’t surprising. Across the state, Latinos — less than 10 percent of the total population — make up about 45 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases with reported racial and ethnic data. The numbers are even higher in certain health districts, including Fairfax County, where Latinos make up 62 percent of COVID-19 cases and just 16 percent of the population.

As demonstrators take to the streets to protest the disproportionate impact of policing on Black and Brown communities, health inequities remain one of the biggest concerns of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Statistics from the Virginia Department of Health show that Black and Latino residents consistently shoulder higher caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths relative to their total percentage of the population. Advocates say the Latino community, which makes up more of the state’s cases than any other racial or ethnic group, is often particularly vulnerable to the disease.

“There is no biological or cultural reason for us to have more COVID,” said Dr. Max Luna, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Virginia and director of the UVA Latino Health Initiative. “It is the particular socioeconomic struggle that many are confronting that exposes them to the transmission and to continued infection.”

Perhaps nowhere have those struggles become clearer than in the state’s nascent contact tracing program. As VDH works to expand the number of workers tracking the disease, local health departments — largely responsible for carrying out the task — have been working to find solutions to barriers that can discourage full participation. Latino advocates say those concerns can run the gamut, from an inability to self-isolate to understandable reluctance in providing personal information to government agencies.   

“What it really comes down to is trust,” said Dr. Sergio Rimola, an OB-GYN in Vienna who serves as a member of the Virginia Latino Advisory Board. Contact tracing is a straightforward process of identifying positive COVID-19 cases and reaching out to others who might have been exposed. A case investigator is tasked with reaching out to positive patients and learning more about their illness, which includes compiling a list of people they might have exposed while they were sick. Contact tracers are tasked with calling those possible exposures and recommending the steps they should take to prevent further transmission.

But health experts and advocates say the process can be more loaded when it comes to Latino residents, who are more likely to work low-wage “essential” jobs without benefits or live in high-density housing that makes isolation difficult, said Walter Tejada, president of the Virginia Latino Leaders Council and former chairman of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors. When Latino residents are undocumented or live with undocumented family members, it can compound the reluctance to speak openly with health officials.

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