Crowded housing and essential jobs: Why so many Latinos are getting coronavirus
Latinos, who make up about 10 percent of the population in the District, Maryland and Virginia, make up about a third of the coronavirus cases in the region, according to an analysis of jurisdictions that track the race and ethnicity of patients with covid-19, the disease the virus causes.
The disparity is not unique to the capital area. Latinos young and old are contracting the virus at alarmingly high rates in places such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, although the fatality rate for their community is significantly lower than that of African Americans. In an ABC News-Ipsos poll released Friday, 26 percent of Latino adults in the country said they know someone who has died of the virus or from complications related to it.
Experts cite many explanations: Latinos are a dominant presence in service industry jobs, leaving them unable to ride out the pandemic from home. Many have struggled to get protective equipment, while others ignored shutdown orders to take risky jobs in exchange for much-needed cash.
Outside of work, avoiding the virus can be nearly impossible, either because Latino families are more likely to live in multigenerational homes or because many take on multiple roommates to manage the Washington region’s high housing costs.
Efforts to slow the virus’s spread are tangled with complications, public health experts say, including language barriers, economic stressors, limited resources and, in some cases, a slow response from local governments.
“There is a lot of fear,” said Yukmila Soriano, a primary care doctor at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington County, where a majority of the patients she sees with positive tests for covid-19 are Latino. “We are asking everybody to stay home, but the idea of staying home is very different depending on who you are and what your role in society is.”
In Northern Virginia, Latinos make up 16.8 percent of Fairfax County’s population but nearly 64 percent of its coronavirus cases where ethnicity is known, records show. In Prince William County, Latinos represent 24 percent of the population and nearly 77 percent of infections where ethnicity is known. In the Maryland suburbs and the District, predominantly Latino neighborhoods also have some of the highest rates of contracting the coronavirus.
As it spreads, the virus has gnawed through the region’s economic backbone, sidelining thousands of cooks, custodians, landscapers and other front-line workers. Fredys Medina, a diabetic construction worker from Arlington County, waved off his wife’s suggestion that he had the virus after he developed a cough and fever in late April, and he continued to work.
Two weeks later, he collapsed on the living room floor. By the time paramedics arrived, Medina, 56, was gone. His wife, Leonor Medina, an unemployed hotel housekeeper, was left with an $8,000 funeral bill she couldn’t pay until neighbors and members of their church chipped in.
At the funeral, the couple’s middle child, Alberto, 14, flung himself onto his father’s body, holding tight as he wept. He has since tested positive for the virus. So did his mother and 11-year-old brother, Freddy. Leonor Medina seeks comfort in her Pentecostal Christian faith, grateful that her symptoms — and those of her children — have been mild.
“This is a demon that wants to kill everyone,” she said. “I was spared, and so were my sons.”
Jeff C. McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said the number of Latinos who work in hotels, restaurants and stores was one reason he asked Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to delay relaxing restrictions on nonessential businesses in Northern Virginia until at least Thursday.
“Some of them are eager to work again because they’re not getting income, but there is a whole lot of them also scared to go back to work,” said McKay (D-At Large). “That’s a really bad position for anyone to be in.”
‘Desperate state of affairs’
In the District’s historically Latino Columbia Heights neighborhood, the virus ripped through Flor Morales’s home like a tornado. They still don’t know how it got in.
Morales, 23, lost her job as an office custodian when the pandemic began. But her husband continued to work in construction, and her twin sister, Rosa Morales, kept her job at McDonald’s, despite her growing unease over maskless customers and the cramped restaurant kitchen.
In early April, their mother, Maria Elena Velasquez, got sick and died of covid-19. Soon, Rosa was coughing. She quarantined in the only vacant room: the one her mother had used. Within days, her father’s temperature spiked. Both tested positive for the coronavirus.
The family heard about sick friends and neighbors — a pastor and his wife, the owner of a pupuseria down the block, co-workers, street vendors, supermarket employees.
One of the boarders who rented a room from the Morales family also fell ill.
Flor Morales spends her days taking care of everyone else — delivering food to her father, leaving hot soup and tea outside the basement door for her sister, caring for her three children and four nieces and nephews, the youngest one just 6 months old. When Morales’s 8-year-old niece developed a fever, she carried the girl to her car and took off toward the hospital, passing groups gathered on corners, neighbors talking without masks. One night, she shut herself in the bathroom she shares with her husband and their kids, threw herself onto the tile floor and screamed.
“God!” she shouted. “Why did you take her away from me?”
Downstairs, her sister Rosa leaned up against the closed basement door and cried. Ivan Torres, a language access coordinator for the District, said quarantining Latino patients who live in crowded multigenerational homes is rarely effective. Instead, Torres said, local governments must provide lodging and support to allow individuals to quarantine safely away from their families.
“We know not everyone can say, ‘Okay, I’ll just stay in my room’ or ‘I have my own bathroom,’ ” Torres said. “We understand what the reality is.” The District and parts of Maryland and Virginia have worked to provide individuals with a place to isolate. But advocates say most rooms go to homeless people, and many Latino residents don’t know about the option.
In the predominantly Central American immigrant neighborhood of Langley Park, Md., an entire family of six came down with the virus, said Prince George’s County Council member Deni Taveras (D-District 2). When the parents were hospitalized, the four children were taken in by relatives — adding another layer of potential exposure.
“It is a desperate, desperate state of affairs,” said Taveras, who lost four family members to covid-19 in New York. Prince George’s recently opened a quarantine site seven miles from Langley Park that can hold 100 people, but officials declined to say how many rooms are in use. In Virginia, Fairfax County has rented 221 hotel rooms, and Prince William County has rented 40. The District has designated 864 hotel isolation rooms, which officials said primarily are used by people who otherwise would be in shelters or on the street. D.C. data shows just 38 people have used the hotel rooms because they were unable to quarantine at home.
Public health advocates and doctors said government agencies need to do more. James Lamberti, a pulmonary care doctor whose practice in heavily Latino Annandale treats as many as 30 patients per day, called the lack of quarantine sites in Fairfax County “an embarrassment.”