The Latino population’s struggles with the coronavirus pandemic stick out among Northern Virginia’s otherwise deft handling of the disease over the past five months. While the hardest hit demographic in Fairfax Health District has recently begun to abate, concerns over employment and housing that expose the group to greater community transmission persist, as does the urgency over the issues’ response.
When data on the racial breakdown of health district’s residents was released in late May, Latinos made up over 60 percent of all cases of Covid-19 despite only accounting for 16 percent of the district’s population. In August that number dropped down to just under 50 percent, but it still dwarfs the next largest group in Whites at 17.5 percent.
Fairfax County zip codes with high Latino populations lead the health district in cases per 100,000 people. That includes places such as Hybla Valley (41 percent Latino) and Groveton (35 percent) near Route 1 at the top with 3,486.4 cases per 100,000 people. Not far behind are local hotspots in Bailey’s Crossroads (36 percent) in fourth with 3,151.2 cases per 100,000, West Falls Church (30 percent) in seventh with 2,862.5 cases per 100,000 and Annandale (33 percent) in eighth with 2,689.8 cases per 100,000.
“There’s a lot of anxiety around Covid-19 in our patients,” said Terry O’Hara Lavoie, co-founder of the nonprofit healthcare provider, Culmore Clinic. “We have to do a lot of reassuring of patients.”
Culmore Clinic wasn’t able to offer testing in the beginning of May, but Lavoie and executive director Anne-Lise Quinn said their spike in cases came during mid-April, judging from the symptoms patients described during telehealth calls. That meant its own spike was in line with the county’s, but roughly a month ahead of Virginia’s statewide spike of mid-May.
The free clinic’s patient population is around 69 percent Latino, but over 90 percent of those who have tested positive were its Latino patients. That included nine who were hospitalized and one male patient who died while dealing with the virus, though the clinic couldn’t say for sure his death was attributable to Covid-19.
A transition to telehealth on March 17 made Culmore Clinic more available to its patients during the pandemic. What was once only operating for in-person visits a day and a half each week jumped up to six days a week, and its medical professionals, who are largely volunteer-based, were happy to be so useful during such a trying time.
Partnerships with NOVA Script Central helped patients get free prescriptions during the first few months of the pandemic, and cooperation with Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center helped provide free groceries after a visit. The clinic also offered personal protective equipment onsite to patients at medication pickups as well as when they made home deliveries.
But the treatment side of the equation has been kept busy by two factors that facilitate the spread among local Latinos.
For one, the group largely falls in a lower socio-economic class that consists of service workers, according to CASA de Virginia director Luis Aguilar, a nonprofit that supports the Latino community with legal, educational and health resources. They don’t have the luxury of working from home that many white-collar employees do, so Aguilar said those Latinos couldn’t take off because they didn’t want to fall behind on rent or bills, if they were lucky enough to keep their jobs in the first place.
The other complicating factor was their living situations, which are in part from the economic challenges Aguilar laid out before, but also due to cultural preferences.
“Within the Latino community, we tend to care for our senior citizens,” Aguilar said. “We even keep them in our households, that way we can always care for another.”
But this lifestyle has made it easier to introduce the virus into homes when, as Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said, there may be up to seven people residing in a two-bedroom apartment.
Gross’ district encompasses two hotspots in Bailey’s Crossroads and Annandale. She recalled a conversation with Culmore Clinic’s directors back in the spring where they told Gross it was three streets in the Culmore neighborhood that had most of the new infections. It reminded Gross of comments made by Prince George’s County, Maryland’s public health director during a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments meeting earlier this summer.
“Americans have very short memories. They’re so surprised that something like a pandemic would affect people who are poor [and] low income…this is the way it’s always been,” Gross said paraphrasing the health director’s comments, before speaking for herself. “In many of the areas where we’re seeing higher results of Covid-19 infections, it’s the poor, undereducated, over-crowded, frontline, entry-level workers. This repeats itself throughout history.”
The county’s Medical Isolation Program has offered some reprieve for those who live in crowded homes. Local hotels receive funding through the county to allow Covid-positive patients to self-isolate in vacant rooms and prevent them from bringing the virus home.
While the diagnosis of the community spread appears clear to all those involved, the pace at which it’s been addressed has received mixed reviews.
Due to Fairfax County’s size, it received $200 million directly from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Twenty million dollars has been allocated to Basic Needs Support, or food and financial assistance, with the latter taking the form of rent, mortgage, security deposits, housing fees (late, condo, HOA, etc.), utilities and prescription assistance. Gross said hardest hit areas received a larger share of the funds.
Those funds began being passed down to community-based organizations on May 26. One such organization is the Annandale Christian Community for Action, which will receive $3 million in funding total, according to Gross, but is delivered in $1 million increments so the county can track spending.
So far, the county has designated $153 million for a specific use, with another $47 million waiting to be allocated.
Gross is confident the remaining money will be available to get Fairfax County through the end of 2020, but Aguilar has felt the process is far too slow.
He said the local and state governments reactive approach, rather than a proactive one, has had them lagging behind the needs of the Latino community. Aguilar had already ruled out significant help from the federal government.
Aid is all the more important, Aguilar said, considering some Latino families were left out of aspects of the CARES Act support because of their status as undocumented immigrants.
Aguilar noted that CASA has helped fill in the gaps that the government couldn’t.
For instance, it provided personal protective equipment and gave individual families between $250 – $500 in cash payments to help them out. CASA has also provided food assistance to those in need.
To him, delivering news to local Latinos about how seriously they should follow public health guidelines is easy. Convincing them that it is more important than supporting their family is not.
“What’s hard for me to tell them to do is wash your hands and stay home when they don’t have the income to stay home. Some folks have to go outside and figure out a way to pay their rent or their bills,” Aguilar said.