Coronavirus exploiting impoverished, vulnerable Sonoma County Latinos
Israel and his father took antibiotics for their headaches, coughing and body aches for about a week in early May, but the medicines provided little relief. Israel's father began to have trouble breathing.
One by one, Israel, 31, his father, Juan, 68, and most of the other 10 vineyard workers who live with them crowded in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom in Cloverdale, got sick. Israel became deeply worried about his father's deteriorating condition.
'He's gotten sick before, but he's never been that sick where he had a cough that just wouldn't go away,' said Israel, speaking in Spanish and on the condition his full name not be used because he's not authorized to work in the United States. 'I told him he should go to the doctor. He didn't want to because he was afraid, but I convinced him.'
At a local hospital, father and son both tested positive for COVID-19, the highly contagious disease that's ravaged the Latino community in Sonoma County. Israel said his health soon would improve, but his father's worsened. Juan had to be admitted and taken to the hospital's intensive care unit, where he was connected to a ventilator to help him breathe for 21 days. Most of that time was spent in an induced coma.
Finally, a week ago Juan was again breathing on his own, and he was recovering. Israel, who spends most of the year working in Sonoma County grape vineyards before he goes home to Mexicali, Mexico, for the winter, was retested for the coronavirus on June 5. This time he got good news, a negative result.
'We had about 12 people,' get infected, he said, noting everyone is rebounding. 'I think that's the reason there are so many of us that are getting the virus because so many of us live in one place. It's the only way we can afford rent.'
Israel, Juan and their housemates are among the Latinos bearing the disproportionate effect of Sonoma County's COVID-19 outbreak. A stunning 3 of every 4 infections countywide are in the Latino population, although it makes up 27% of the roughly 500,000 people who live here.
Why the wide ethnic disparity in Sonoma County when it comes to this pathogen that has spread around the globe sickening and killing many people? Cramped housing, where multiple families and multiple generations are living in one home, has led to significant clusters of coronavirus cases, according to county public health officials. But that's only part of the dynamic that's leading to now-familiar racial and ethnic differences in where COVID-19 is striking hardest in the area.
For months, like any other infectious disease or even natural disaster, the new coronavirus has been exploiting the county's racial and socioeconomic inequalities that have given the contagion fertile ground to spread among the vulnerable Latino population. Earlier this month, Barbie Robinson, director of the county Department of Health Services, used the searing phrase 'racial pandemic' to describe the preexisting conditions that have led to 535 confirmed coronavirus cases among Latinos as of Saturday afternoon — or 77% of the 699 confirmed infections in which a person's race or ethnicity is known. To date, there are more than 830 overall cases of COVID-19 in the county.
Beyond cramped housing, the virus spreads like wildfire among those who have no choice but to work during the pandemic, the so-called essential workers like Israel who must chose between getting sick, going hungry or paying the rent. The virus thrives among those without health insurance, child care, employer-paid sick leave, language barriers — compounded by cultural traditions like having more than one generation living under one roof.
'This is not a matter of any sort of behavior,' Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer, said Wednesday, explaining why Latinos have been hit so hard by the coronavirus. 'The data points to the structural inequities across our county that communities of color experience, such as lower incomes, lack of access to health care, inadequate, crowded housing conditions, including having multiple families in one home due to the high cost of living.'
More than a month ago, Mase said, when county health officials first became aware Latinos were shouldering a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases, public health workers began targeting their community with one-time testing events and extensive efforts to trace the close contacts of those infected. The rise in cases emerging among Latinos is partly due to these efforts, she said.
Local health officials also created a Latinx working group of health care workers, community organizers and leaders to help advise them how to address the disparities. The lack of truly affordable housing plus poverty are among the most nagging issues in the coronavirus pandemic, said Ana Lugo, a local diversity and equity consultant who is part of the county's Latinx working group.