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County tries new strategy to cut number of Latinos getting COVID-19

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Latinos in Sonoma County have been infected by COVID-19 at a rate more than three times that of other residents, an entrenched problem rooted in longstanding inequities that has endured more than eight months into the pandemic.

County leaders have been unable to significantly lessen the blow of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact, though the socioeconomic injustices behind it — such as fewer job protections and crowded living conditions — are no mystery.

More than half of the 11,316 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 identified themselves as Latino. The actual number could be higher because more than 2,000 people with the disease declined to provide information about their race or ethnicity.

Some leaders within local Latino communities say the county’s focus on business reopening has distracted from the most significant factors preventing case rates from going down.

“The No. 1 thing we can do as a county is to change our value system, which is to go from having our goal being reopening to having our goal being creating a safety net for the most vulnerable — for the ones who are ending up with the highest rates of infection,” said Ana Lugo, a local diversity and equity consultant who is part of the county's Latinx working group.

Public health officials and county leaders hope that a new outreach initiative may help break down some of the barriers preventing people from protecting themselves against exposure to the virus, such as fear of losing their job if they stay home sick.

Called the CURA Project — short for COVID-19 Urgent Response and Aid — the program aims to provide culturally appropriate services to Latino and Indigenous people. It includes help connecting with local health clinics, financial assistance to replace lost wages or access to one of the county-funded hotel rooms available to people who need to isolate and cannot do so at home.

A main part of the work involves going to testing sites and workplaces to offer information about local services to anyone who might need help as a result of the health or economic impacts of the pandemic.

The county awarded a $1.4 million contact Sept. 30 to a Napa-based nonprofit, On the Move, that is overseeing the initiative, which is run by the organization’s Santa Rosa project La Plaza.

La Plaza has so far given out $600,000 in emergency financial assistance to 399 families through the CURA Project. The average amount distributed is $1,700, and demand has been high in the first 4½ weeks of the program.

Alegría De La Cruz, the first director of the county’s new Office of Equity, said the money is a small step toward reversing decades of disinvestment in programs that help communities thrive, such as housing and social services.

“It is critical to stabilize families who are at risk in every way — at risk for hunger, at risk for mental health destabilization, wage loss, losing their housing,” De La Cruz said. “We have to stabilize folks in order to get them to be able to turn on the radio and hear what we’re saying. You can’t do that when you’re in such a state of trauma.”

Soon after the first Sonoma County residents became ill with COVID-19 at the beginning of March after contracting the disease on passenger cruises, county leaders acted swiftly to shut down many aspects of public life, closing schools and many businesses.

But “essential workers” were exempted from the stay-home orders. Most were low-wage workers who couldn’t work remotely from home, placing them at higher risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Latino residents represent a large portion of working class individuals and families. Low-wage workers are more likely to lose pay or their jobs if they stay home sick. They are more likely to live in multigenerational households or crowded roommate situations because of the county’s housing shortage and pricey market — and are therefore less able to isolate away if they are exposed.

And they may have language barriers or experiences that make it harder to trust government.

Javi Rivera-Rosales, project director for La Plaza, said he knew the pandemic would strike more deeply at the county’s Latino community as the first cases of the virus emerged in the United States.

“The reality is, I already had in my heart and my mind that disasters prior, fires and floods, disproportionately impacted folks from our community,” Rivera-Rosales said. “I just knew an invisible pandemic would do the same thing.”

Latino residents now represent about 72% of the cases for which race and ethnicity information is available, a disproportionate figure given that they represent only 27% of the county’s population of 500,000.

The county didn’t begin tracking data on the race or ethnicity of people testing positive for COVID-19 until May, after the governor’s office demanded counties begin reporting that information. County staff compiled the data including retroactive information on people who had already tested positive in the weeks prior.

In Sonoma County, the percentage of local coronavirus cases from the Latino community hit a peak in June when 91% of people with COVID-19 who provided race or ethnicity information described themselves as Latino.

Latino residents also account for nearly half of all people hospitalized with serious illness from COVID-19.

Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase credited the drop from the June peak to the county’s targeted testing program, which was launched in May to ensure easier access to testing for people in Sonoma County’s Latino communities and the alternate care sites offered to help people isolate.

The targeted testing program began with a weekend pop-up testing site in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood and over the past six months has increased significantly. During the week of Nov. 10 alone, the county has tested 1,663 people in census tracts identified as having the greatest concentration of COVID-19 cases, according to county spokesman Paul Gullixson.

Last week alone, testing staff gave away nearly 1,200 gift cards worth $30 to people at these sites. The cards are both incentives to come get tested and also a small form of recognition of the financial hardships, Gullixson said.

Mase acknowledged the percentage of Latino residents testing positive for COVID-19 is “stuck in the 70s” and attributed that, in part, to the county’s focus on testing people in Latino and working class neighborhoods.

Compared to the overall test positively rate of 4.3%, that rate is between 8% and 10% for testing in these neighborhoods where they believe residents are experiencing greater exposure to the virus, whether at home, work or in the community, according to Mase.

“We’re finding a lot of cases among Latinx (people),” Mase said. ”But over time as we continue this testing strategy, and the outreach and the financial packages and working with business communities, all of our strategies for communication, that disparity should start to close again.“

La Plaza was created in the aftermath of the 2017 fires out of a groundswell of understanding that working-class families and individuals in the Latino and Indigenous communities were in large part not accessing government services in the aftermath of disasters.

The CURA initiative is a collaborative one, bringing in 15 other grassroots organizations to help people who have the greatest need for services during the pandemic.

Cura representatives have been appearing at COVID-19 testing sites, offering information to people and trying to connect them with other resources, like eviction defense through legal aid organizations.

A core part of the Cura program that just began last week are “charlas,” a Spanish word that roughly translates to chats, at work sites.

Cura representatives meet with groups of about 20 employees at their work sites to discuss their concerns and needs when it comes to health and economic impacts of the pandemic. The idea is to create a place where people can inform service workers about what they need and to help promote a work culture where people can openly discuss health and safety.

“The concept behind that is to be able to have an open dialogue and a talk about COVID but not a rigid presentation about ’this is what it is and that’s what you need to do,’ “ he said.

Supervisor James Gore said he believes the county is wise to invest in grassroots organizations that have the credibility, cultural competence and connections to get at the root of these problems.

“We’re putting money on the table because the people who are really doing the most — it’s not county government,” Gore said. “It’s the community organizers. I have to acknowledge, as a representative of government, the government isn’t the most accessible or trusted source.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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