ATLANTA — At the end of April, Gov. Brian Kemp announced a new effort to spread COVID-19 information to the Hispanic community as cases started to rise in Hall County — signaling the state may be facing another hotspot.
While Latinos make up just less than a third of the county’s population, they represent half of positive coronavirus tests at Northeast Georgia Health Systems and 44% of coronavirus positive admitted patients, said Dr. Antonio Rios, chief physician with the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.
As of 1 p.m. Monday, Hall County had reported 2,026 confirmed coronavirus cases and 29 deaths — the county has the highest case per capita rate in north Georgia.
Even now, the Northeast Georgia Medical Center is expected to reach full staffing capacity May 22, taking into account all coronavirus positive patients and 30% of patients awaiting test results.
After Georgia saw the severe impact of the hotspot in Dougherty County, state and public health officials moved quickly on the new case cluster emerging in Northeast Georgia, tasking Hispanic state officials and community leaders with reaching out to residents.
Poultry plants and other assembly line operations have been the target of strict crackdowns on sanitation and social distancing. But medical leaders say the only way to curb the outbreak in the Hispanic community is bring coronavirus information directly to their homes.
“I think most importantly, we realized that it really is not a poultry industry issue or any other particular industry,” Rios said. “It is really what happens outside of the workplace.”
Various barriers to information and care have prevented state officials from effectively spreading precautions in Hispanic communities. Advocates say lack of information in their language has made the community vulnerable.
Common multigenerational households make social distancing nearly impossible if someone gets sick, Rios said, and with many living paycheck to paycheck, missing work is not an option.
“Traditionally, these people show up to work even if they're sick,” he said. “Why would it be different now?”
Barriers to information
State officials have been making frequent visits to plants to ensure safety precautions are being met.
Insurance Commissioner John King — the first Hispanic state official in Georgia history — has been on a series of tours of Hall County poultry plants, ensuring employers are sticking to sanitation and social distancing standards, while trying to encourage workers to take home best practices with them.
“We have to maintain that industry or else America goes hungry,” he told CNHI.
The Hispanic and immigrant populations face the same dilemma of weighing their health versus economic stability as businesses begin to reopen. But lack of access to coronavirus information in a familiar language and distrust of law enforcement creates barriers to preventing the spread of the virus.
Aixa Pascual, managing director of advocacy for the Atlanta-based Latin American Association, said the organization is filling a high demand for basic information on support programs and explanations such as what lifting the state’s shelter-in-place order means for their health and safety at work.
“This immigrant population is a vulnerable population,” she said during a video conference hosted by Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “They tend to work more in service industries and industries that have been mostly affected by this COVID-19 economic crisis. We need to make sure when they go back to work, CDC guidelines are followed; they have all the protections.”
Santiago Marquez, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a member of one of the governor’s coronavirus task force subcommittees, said while the state works to ensure all safety protocols are met inside the plants, community leaders are trying to make sure workers stick to social distancing at home.
But cutting through the noise with accessible information, community leaders and advocates agree, is just the first step.
“We still have more work in order to ensure that the message gets delivered that our folks continue to understand the importance of following recommendations,” Rios said.
Delay in care
Widespread fear in the community of soldiers in uniforms keeps people from showing up at National Guard-run testing sites.
Marquez said the undocumented population in the community is scared of testing sites — limiting the ability to understand the full extent of the spread.
“I don't think we have a good handle on how many Hispanics actually are infected,” Marquez said. “As we do with the general community.”
The concern isn’t lost on King, who said the state is working on sending out testing information to “reduce tension,” with many in the immigrant community fearful because of their immigration status.
“We don't want somebody to be hesitant, not to get tested or not to get treated because they're afraid that there's somebody in a uniform at a location,” he said.
As insurance commissioner, King said he hasn’t asked insurance companies to specifically cover undocumented individuals but to “cover everyone.”
“I grew up in a farm in Mexico. This is my native language, this is my culture,” he said. “It's important for folks to realize that they're not alone and that they have somebody that understands.”
Pascual said the Hispanic community needs an “unequivocal” statement on whether or not anyone can get tested regardless of insurance coverage or immigration status. Until then, she said, people won’t get tested and cases will continue to rise.
“We’re all interconnected in this crisis,” Pascual said. “Your health is as good as the health of your neighbor.”