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Latinx coronavirus disparity improves in Sonoma County, but ICE arrests threaten public health progress

Sonoma County has made strong progress in reducing the portion of coronavirus cases in the Latinx community, but there’s concern recent federal immigration arrests could hurt ongoing work to battle transmission of the infectious disease.

Today, Latinx residents represent 51% of the county’s virus infections, still the majority of about 4,500 cases. But the disparity is much improved from two months ago when this group comprised 77% of COVID-19 case countywide. That alarming figure prompted public health officials to aggressively test people for the virus in Latinx neighborhoods and conduct education and outreach efforts.

Immigration rights groups say the progress remains insufficient for a Latinx community that only makes up 26% of the county’s population, and that recent arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are having a chilling effect among immigrants that could hinder the campaign against the virus.

“People are going to be more fearful of accessing vital information and (health) services,” said Renee Saucedo, program director for ALMAS, which organizes domestic workers for the Graton Day Labor Center.

ALMAS, along with the North Bay Organizing Project and other groups, has organized a sidewalk demonstration Wednesday evening in southwest Santa Rosa to protest the recent ICE arrests.

Susan Shaw, executive director of the North Bay Organizing Project, said her organization was recently alerted to three arrests in Sonoma County and one in Napa County by ICE agents. The arrests were logged by the North Bay Organizing Project’s rapid response network, a 24-hour hotline that dispatches legal observers to local ICE operations.

Such operations have the potential of instilling fear and fomenting distrust with government, including local public health workers, Shaw said.

“It scares everyone so they don’t want to have any interaction with any public officials,” she said. “People wonder, can I be honest about who I’ve been in contact with?”

County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase called the ICE arrests a “sad state of affairs” and assured immigrant residents information collected by public health workers is not shared with federal agencies. She said public health workers do not ask about immigration status.

“We have to put the message out to the Latinx community that we’re certainly not going to care if they are (legal) residents or citizens,” Mase said.

The county’s health officer said her staff for months has been making inroads in the local Latinx community, in an attempt to address the disparity in COVID-19 cases.

Mase said Tuesday these ongoing efforts include on-site testing in Latinx neighborhoods, Spanish-language public service messages and partnerships with local organizations with strong ties to the Latinx community.

Saucedo, the ALMAS program director, challenged county public health officials to do more to further reduce the COVID-19 racial disparity. Six months into the pandemic and Latinx residents continue to bear the brunt of pandemic infections, she said.

Public health officials “may have made some progress through recent outreach efforts, but it's still insufficient,” she said, urging the county to implement broader strategies that address the roots of the virus disparity, such as addressing overcrowded housing due to costly home rents.

Health officials have identified crowded housing of extended Latinx families as one of the main reasons for the disparity in virus infections across the county.

Demonstrators gathered Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at 2019 Sebastopol Road near Stony Point Plaza will be calling on local officials to vigorously oppose ICE operations in Sonoma County. They’re also going to ask local and state elected officials to create a financial safety net for immigrants when they get sick or lose jobs as a result of the pandemic.

Paul Gullixson, a county spokesman, reiterated Mase’s assurance that Latinx residents can trust local public health workers.

“We want people to know we are not working with ICE and their information is safe,” Gullixson said.

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

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