Why COVID-19 infections are surging in suburban Latino communities

  • A driver hands over his testing kit to Illinois National Guard soldier Carlye Clehouse at a testing facility in Waukegan. The city, with a population that is about 55% Latino, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 virus.

    A driver hands over his testing kit to Illinois National Guard soldier Carlye Clehouse at a testing facility in Waukegan. The city, with a population that is about 55% Latino, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 virus. Associated Press

  • Latino essential workers at meat processing facilities have faced added risks of exposure to COVID-19. Latinos are the largest ethnic/racial segment of confirmed cases in Illinois, state health authorities say.

    Latino essential workers at meat processing facilities have faced added risks of exposure to COVID-19. Latinos are the largest ethnic/racial segment of confirmed cases in Illinois, state health authorities say. AP Photo/Stephen Groves

  • Eira Corral Sepúlveda

    Eira Corral Sepúlveda

  • Maris Vela

    Maris Vela

 
 
Updated 5/18/2020 6:35 AM

Hilda Guerrero of Hanover Park doesn't have the option of working from home during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Guerrero, 57, works an assembly line at a Bartlett factory making parts for medical and electrical equipment. She is supporting a family of four, while helping from a distance as her brother, sister and brother-in-law recover from COVID-19 infection, all tended to by her sister's teenage children.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Her situation is not unique. It's what Latinos employed in low-wage jobs across the suburbs are dealing with, fueling a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases within that population.

They are factory, service and restaurant industry workers; meatpackers; cashiers; grocery store clerks. They work in health care as housekeepers, nurses and doctors at hospitals and nursing facilities, increasing their risk of exposure. Close-quarter living in extended family groups also prevents proper social distancing, contributing to the virus spreading within poor families.

Many essential workers like Guerrero must go out "to earn their daily bread to feed their families," as she said through a Spanish-language interpreter.

So far, five of Guerrero's co-workers have been infected with COVID-19. Though her employer has implemented social distancing measures, provided masks and other protective equipment for workers, she still fears infection.

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Latinos comprise the largest ethnic/racial segment of confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide -- 29.4% -- according to Illinois Department of Public Health data.

State data shows 54% of Latinos tested are confirmed to have the virus ­-- the highest percentage among all racial and ethnic groups. The proportions are 14.4% for whites, 31% for blacks and 30% among Asians, as of Sunday.

Ironically, while the infection rate is high, the death rate is lower among Latinos, possibly, experts say, because Latinos contracting the virus are much younger than in other racial/ethnic groups.

The mortality rate for Latinos statewide is 2.6%, state data shows. That compares to nearly 8% for African Americans, who are seeing more infections among the elderly, 9.2% for whites and roughly 6.8% for Asians.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Latinos also represent a majority of employees at nursing homes, which have been hard hit by the disease.

Nursing home deaths represented 49% -- 1,975 -- of Illinois' 4,058 COVID-19 fatalities as of Friday. DuPage County had 1,475 confirmed cases in nursing homes and 245 deaths, state data shows.

Yet, without widespread community-based testing, these numbers still don't tell the full story of cases spread throughout the community. Most people exhibiting mild symptoms are told to stay home and are not tested, said Karen Ayala, DuPage County Health Department executive director.

Experts also say many low-wage earning Latinos delay seeking medical care when symptoms arise, possibly due to fears over immigration status, lack of access to health care and having poor or no health insurance.

Leaders also are concerned Latinos may be underreported in the numbers of both COVID-19 cases and deaths due to exclusion of race and ethnicity data and gaps in local data collection.

"The coronavirus is being called the great equalizer ... this virus has been more of the great revealer," Hanover Park Village Clerk Eira Corral Sepúlveda said. "It's revealed some inequities in our community."

She said Latinos have limited access to work from home compared to other communities and less access to PPE at their jobs.

"If it's difficult to give access (to PPE) to a well-respected sector of our workforce, such as doctors and nurses, can we expect that society is going to provide proper protection to meatpackers who are often forgotten and treated as disposable?" she asked.

Maria Vela, a village trustee in Carpentersville, added that Latinos face problems getting free COVID-19 testing, culturally sensitive health care and social safety net programs in their native language. And, with churches closed, leaders say, it's become harder to reach Latino families who rely on them as trusted sources for information.

"They lack the understanding that this is a very serious virus, that the infection rates are very high, and until they experience it in their family, that's probably when they get to understand it," said Vela, whose village has a population that is 50% Latino.

Meanwhile, Guerrero, another sister and sister-in-law take turns dropping off food for their family members now on the mend from the infection. It's been difficult and stressful for the whole family, but they "are united" in the struggle, she said, adding that she hopes never to find herself in such a situation again.

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