Serving the Underserved: Latinx Community Bearing the Brunt of COVID-19 in Central Virginia

Though COVID-19 has impacted communities around the world, it has not affected all communities equally. When a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) team noticed that Latinx residents in parts of central Virginia were suffering disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infection, they wanted to learn why.

CDC sent a team of bilingual epidemiologists and community outreach specialists to help support the Richmond and Chesterfield health districts. Based on what they saw, CDC reached out to the CDC Foundation for help, and the Foundation and its donors supported the local communities with a grant to help expand resources and support for the Latinx population.

“The community we are looking at in Richmond works primarily in the service industry,” said Anna Gonzales, a CDC Foundation COVID-19 senior advisor. “They work in jobs where there isn’t much telework and they don’t get paid time off. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid.”

That economic pressure forces many Latinx workers to be around others as part of their job, increasing their risk of exposure. Many of these workers who do become sick are also often reluctant to get tested, fearing mandatory quarantine that would threaten their income, or for undocumented workers, deportation if their status is discovered. Others fear the costs of care or hospitalization.

Photos by Fernando Rodriguez

The numbers tell the story. More than half of Virginia’s Latinx individuals with confirmed cases of COVID-19 are underinsured or uninsured. Though Latinx residents make up only 9 percent of Virginia’s population, they represent more than 30 percent of all known COVID-19 cases. While economic pressures were found to be a driving force behind the disproportionate infection rates, there are cultural factors as well.

“Many Hispanics and Latinos live in households with other generations and larger families,” said Fernando Rodriguez, communications director for Virginia’s Richmond and Henrico health districts. “They don’t enjoy the advantage of being able to quarantine in another room if they do get sick.”

The challenge is how to address these issues. Despite community testing, public health messaging, and outreach efforts, the city of Richmond and neighboring Chesterfield County continue to see elevated infection rates among their Latinx communities. One reason such outreach has been ineffective, Rodriguez said, has quickly become clear.“The first challenge that we confronted was having resources in both English and Spanish,” Rodriguez said. “It’s critical to have flyers, fact sheets and visuals in the language we need to target, and there was a lack of that.”

The CDC Foundation support adds a lot of credibility, so we can bring in support from other nonprofits and foundations to contribute to resources like community health workers who can connect directly with the community.

Fernando Rodriguez, Communications Director, Virginia’s Richmond and Henrico Health Districts

The CDC Foundation’s grant to the Richmond and Chesterfield health districts, in partnership with fiscal sponsor Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, helps to expand social support and resources for those in quarantine or isolation, develop outreach and support strategies for undocumented residents, and to establish an income replacement program for workers who test positive for COVID-19 but are not eligible for paid sick leave. The CDC Foundation backing, Rodriguez said, is helping in other ways as well.

“The CDC Foundation support adds a lot of credibility, so we can bring in support from other nonprofits and foundations to contribute to resources like community health workers who can connect directly with the community,” Rodriguez said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact communities around the world, public health workers struggle to keep up with the needs while addressing the unique challenges posed by underserved populations like Virginia’s Latinx residents. For public health workers like Gonzales, who spent 20 years in senior leadership positions working at the intersection of public health and clinical delivery systems, the CDC Foundation is well-positioned to help prepare for the next public health crisis while addressing the COVID-19 outbreak as well.

“There are communities like these around the country dealing with similar issues,” Gonzales said. “A focus on prevention is critical, and we are looking for gaps in need where the CDC Foundation might be able to assist.”

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