In the nation's smallest state, this group is hardest hit by coronavirus

Nicole Acevedo

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and other Latino elected officials in the state are sounding the alarm over the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its growing Hispanic population — and the longstanding issues that have contributed to the crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic's effects "really unmask the fact that poverty is not good for your health," Gorbea, who made history in 2015 when she became the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in the New England area, told NBC News.

Latinos are about 16 percent of the state's population, but make up about 43 percent of those testing positive for the coronavirus, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health. The numbers don't include cases in which demographic information is unknown.

The impact of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, among Latinos is most evident in Central Falls, the smallest and most densely populated city in the nation's smallest state — and Rhode Island's coronavirus hot spot.

With 4,030 cases per 100,000 people, Central Falls has the state's highest rate of infections, surpassing that of the capital city, Providence, which stands at 2,563 per 100,000, according to the most recent data from Rhode Island Department of Health.

Latinos account for nearly 66 percent of the city's population of over 19,000, according to state data.

"It’s really not a surprise that they’re being disproportionately impacted because they are the workers in essential jobs that involve close proximity to people, like the nursing home workers or any kind of service jobs, the types of jobs where Latinos are overrepresented," Gorbea said. "Then they go home, to what are fairly crowded conditions. They’re not going home to a suburban home where it's easier to socially distance and quarantine yourself ... That has a cost."

With a median household income of roughly $30,000 a year, Central Falls is considered the poorest municipality in Rhode Island.

Central Falls Mayor James Diossa said during a virtual panel hosted by the Latino Policy Institute earlier this month that many of his constituents lack access to health care or a primary care physician.

Diossa, who's also the city’s first Latino mayor, added that a lack of knowledge about the virus has contributed to its spread. "Oh, I have a cough. It can't be related to coronavirus. I'll get through it. And instead, infect more people because of that."

Central Falls is also home to thousands of the approximately 29,000 immigrants who lack legal status in Rhode Island,according to the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University. Many undocumented Rhode Islanders "are afraid to reach out," Diossa said.

A 'tailored approach' could save lives

Issues around population density, poverty and health care access are among those contributing to the disproportionate number of coronavirus infections in some of the nation’s most tightly packed neighborhoods where many Latinos live.

"Broad pronouncements about social distancing" and "little attention to giving out information in Spanish" did a disservice to Latino communities trying to grapple with the coronavirus at the beginning of the crisis, according to Gorbea.

"You still need to work with those families to figure out what does that mean for them and tailor the approach in a way that fits the realities of these families," she said.

A recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 40 percent of black people and Latinos live in neighborhoods where certain living conditions make them more vulnerable to getting infected or transmitting the virus. Multiple family generations sometimes share an apartment. Essential low-wage workers don’t have the ability to work from home. Grocery stores and pharmacies are scarce and dependency on public transportation is high, all situations that limit people's ability to adequately separate themselves from others.

In Rhode Island, "a tailored approach" for some Latino families "will be on the focus of wearing masks and washing their hands," Gorbea said. "Those two you can do, regardless of where you are."

But more important is ensuring that nearly 123,000 native Spanish-speakers in Rhode Island, which is 12.3 percent of the state's population, have access to potentially lifesaving information in their native language.

"They were not getting the information they needed, so we advocated for Spanish-language information," Gorbea said, adding that the advocacy seemed to have worked after Gov. Gina Raimondo recently launched the state's contact tracing mobile app, known as Crush COVID RI, in both English and Spanish "from the get-go."

Central Falls leaders have partnered with officials in Pawtucket, a neighboring city, to create the BEAT COVID-19 initiative and give people in underserved communities access to a primary care doctor, tests, educational support on how to safely isolate, as well as resources to overcome hardships associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of the initiative, Central Falls recently opened its first testing site where services and resources are provided in a "culturally competent way," Gorbea said.

Image: Central Falls testing site (Rhode Island Department of State)

In order to lower infection rates among Latinos, the state is focusing on disseminating bilingual safety information and setting up testing sites across communities with limited access to suburban areas, where testing sites were initially set up, according to Gorbea.

Gorbea, Diossa and 20 other Latino officials in Rhode Island addressed a letter to Raimondo and the state Legislature leadership last month, urging them to use the crisis to "reinvent the delivery of public services and bring about unprecedented innovation and improvements in our economy, education, health and quality of life."

"Going back to the status quo that left many behind in our state is no longer an option," the letter reads.

In the long term, Gorbea told NBC News, "we need to deal with issues around housing and the economic inequality that affects these essential workers that are really underpaid, given the kind of work that they're doing and the exposure they face. We need to address the reasons why the pandemic has hit the Latino community so hard — and those have to do with issues of equity."

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