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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.

Vulnerable exploited

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.

'The people that are most affected by the lack of action on housing continues to be people of color,' Lugo said.

In the pandemic, the virus has seized on Latinos' culture of sharing, as demonstrated by the common Spanish-language saying, 'donde come uno, comen dos,' or where one person eats, two people can eat.

'We just add more water to the soup,' Lugo said. 'We'll make it work. These are collectivist cultures. You have people who will take in a family member or friend rather than let them live on the street.'

Infecting 40 of extended family

Edwin Ruano, a 31-year-old construction worker who lives in Petaluma, tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-May. Ruano lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his pregnant wife, daughter, his wife's uncle and others of his family — seven people in all. They all have tested positive for the virus, but only Ruano and one other family member suffered severe symptoms, though they did not require hospitalization.

'I had body aches, fever, I lost the taste of food,' he said, speaking in Spanish. 'The fever, headaches and body aches were the worst symptoms. I thought I was going to die.'

Ruano said he has extended family in Richmond, where several relatives also became infected. In total, he said, nearly 40 of his family members between the two locations contracted the virus.

Originally from Guatemala, Ruano was retested on May 20 and his result came back negative. Among the extended family members, they have tried to figure out whether the virus originated in Sonoma County or Contra Costa County, a detail he said is now less important to him.

'I tell them it doesn't matter if it came from here or there. The important thing is that we're all OK and no one died, thank God,' he said.

Ruano has not returned to work since he caught the virus last month. His family receives a weekly box of food through a coronavirus nutrition program from Food for Thought, a Forestville nonprofit that provides food and other nutritional items to people living with serious illnesses like COVID-19 or HIV.

Ron Karp, executive director of the nonprofit, said the organization quickly launched the new food program to serve people exposed to the pathogen and so in quarantine or isolation, and their families. Karp said the program added another 100 people to the organization's pre-pandemic roster of 850 clients.

Public health officials have referred 27 people and their family members for a total of about 100 residents to the nonprofit, Karp said. That averages four to five people per family needing food, he said, and '95% of our referrals so far have been Latino,' he said. The new program is funded through private donations and $30,000 in emergency money from the county. 'We're burning through that money,' Karp said.

Helping the lonely, ill

The ethnic disparities of the area's COVID-19 outbreak and the need to bridge cultural and socioeconomic divides was the main reason Dr. Panna Lossy, a Santa Rosa family physician, created IsoCare. It's an all-volunteer organization helping people who have the contagion, or are awaiting coronavirus test results, and have been asked to isolate at home.

Lossy said a significant number of low-income residents, many of them Latinos, have difficulty abiding by strict stay-at-home rules — that were in effect from March 18 until late May to suppress transmission of the virus in the county — because they don't have the luxury of isolating or quarantining alone in a bedroom, or having the sole use of a bathroom.

IsoCare only takes referrals from local community health centers, she said, 'so we don't get a lot of people (living in houses) with five bedrooms. We don't have a lot of really privileged people that get referred to us.' Of the 900 people that have been referred to IsoCare, about 390 are Spanish-speaking residents, according to results from the organization's questionnaire.

Despite a state effort to provide $125 million in public health emergency aid for undocumented workers who have been devastated financially by the pandemic, local immigration and labor advocates say the need remains unprecedented.

Renee Saucedo, program director for ALMAS, which organizes domestic workers for the Graton Day Labor Center, said some of the women in her group have been forced to turn to agricultural work. The ag industry has experienced a number of infections among its workers. County public health data shows more than 20% of total confirmed cases of COVID-19 are Latinos who work in agriculture, which includes working in fields, collecting and processing foods.

Having no options but high-risk work

Anabel Garcia, a house cleaner who lives in Santa Rosa, has not contracted the virus, but she's fearful that if someone in her house gets it everyone else will, too. Garcia, her husband, two teenage children, her 32-year-old brother and 60-year-old father-in-law live in a three-bedroom apartment off Bicentennial Way in Santa Rosa.

With no more housecleaning work, three weeks ago Garcia returned to vineyard work. She said she's enduring nine hours a day out in the hot sun. Garcia does the work because she is undocumented, and said with no immigration 'papers' she's unable to draw unemployment and so must work to help pay her family's bills and put food on the table.

'You're afraid of contracting the virus, of your family getting the virus,' she said. 'But you're also afraid of losing your transportation, of not having enough to feed your children.'

Meanwhile, Israel, the vineyard worker who lives in Cloverdale and recovered from his mild case of COVID-19, said the hardest thing for him, aside from watching his father's near-death struggle with the infectious disease, has been the ongoing isolation of the pandemic.

'The family that we do have can't come visit because the borders are shut,' he said. 'But even if they could, I'd be afraid of infecting them. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what help I could get.'

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized diversity and equity consultant Ana Lugo's viewpoint on how Latino culture has been taken advantage of by the coronavirus.

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