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‘It’s not surprising at all’: Why Latinos in Roanoke have been hit so hard by COVID-19

‘But if we don’t start now, it’s going to get worse.’

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ROANOKE, Va. – The past year has brought financial strain, isolation and a slew of other unique and complicated problems for every Virginian.

But for the Latino community, especially in Roanoke, challenges brought on by the pandemic have been even more difficult — and they’ve been years in the making.

“All of those basics of what we tell people to do to help protect themselves is 10 times more difficult for this population,” explained Dr. Azziza Bankole, the Chief Diversity Officer at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

Roanoke’s population is just over 6% Latino, according to U.S. Census data; however, that population accounts for about 14% of the city’s coronavirus cases for which race and ethnicity data is available.

The same trend holds true when looking at hospitalization numbers, with Latinos making up about 17% of the total number of people who have been hospitalized in Roanoke.

“It’s not surprising at all,” said Bankole. “Health disparities have persisted and have been exacerbated with COVID. What we’re seeing has always been there, it’s just more acute.”

When it comes to looking at the breakdown of coronavirus cases by race and ethnicity, it can be hard to get the full picture because the data is incomplete.

Here’s what we know as of Thursday, March 11

Latinos account for 726 of the 7,712 coronavirus cases reported in Roanoke; however, for 2,430 cases, about 30%, ethnicity data is not reported, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

When looking at other demographic breakdowns:

  • When cases are organized by age groups, 122 cases are not reported
  • When cases are organized by sex, 25 cases are not reported

It’s not just Roanoke where ethnicity data is unavailable, out of Virginia’s 590,625 coronavirus cases, the data is not reported for 131,859, about 22% of cases.

So why are there so many cases lacking race and ethnicity data?

According to Christie Wills, communications officer for the Roanoke City Health District, people can choose to opt-out of self-reporting that information at the time of testing.

Bankole said that while the incomplete data does make it more difficult to address health inequities, what’s really important is that the health department has emphasized the importance of getting accurate race and ethnicity data with coronavirus cases and with vaccines.

Getting accurate data oftentimes requires resources, a.k.a. money, which can be tough to come by in public health.

In a press conference on vaccine equity, Dr. Cynthia Morrow, health director for both the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts, said that public health is “chronically underfunded.”

If she could receive more funding from the federal government, she said that an investment in population-based health information technology would allow the health department to “be much more proactive instead of reactive trying to address health equity.”

You can watch that full conversation from Feb. 23, 2021, below:

So, how did we get here?

The answer to how these health disparities have persisted is not linear.

Both Bankole and Morrow said it starts with understanding and examining structural racism.

“Because of structural racism, people of color have disproportionate access to resources,” said Morrow in an email statement.

Casa Latina President Dr. Kris Tilley-Lubbs has some insight on what that disproportionate access can look like.

Casa Latina is a local non-profit social service agency that aims to cater to the needs of the Spanish-speaking community.

“So many of the people that we are talking about are unable to get unemployment, or a stimulus check — they’re not eligible for any kind of benefits at all,” explained Tilley-Lubbs. “They can’t get SNAP, they can’t get Section 8 housing, they are not eligible for anything.”

For those who can get access to certain resources, like Section 8 housing, there are still urgent obstacles looming.

President Biden has extended the eviction moratorium, but it’s set to expire at the end of the month.

“There’s also the imminent threat that on March 31, when this eviction moratorium ends, that a large percentage of our population is going to be homeless,” said David Bustamante, executive director of the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Bustamante said that if the eviction moratorium isn’t extended, it could impact about 300 out of 2,325 families that the housing authority serves.

When you take lack of access to critical resources and pair it with businesses being forced to shut down during the pandemic, many people are left in a tough spot.

“They don’t have enough money to pay for rent because they weren’t working, so they have to share cars, they have to share a place to live,” said Thania Torres, co-chair and volunteer coordinator for Casa Latina.

Sharing a place to live is commonplace among many of the families that Casa Latina comes in contact with, according to Torres.

In the Roanoke Valley, Torres said it’s not uncommon for her to come across households that have five, seven, or even 10 people living under the same roof.

Bankole noted that because of how the virus spreads, this poses a major issue, “How do you quarantine when you share your room with somebody else, and there’s no other space for you to quarantine in?”

Those who have been able to get back to work or stay working amid the pandemic are facing another set of issues.

According to the CDC, Hispanics comprise 17% of the overall workforce but are overrepresented in certain frontline jobs.

“They’re at a higher risk of getting the infection because they are out more and they’re meeting more people,” said Bankole.

Bankole also pointed out that while she is provided with personal protective equipment at work, that’s not always the case for other frontline workers.

What’s next?

Experts have said that while the vaccine is now starting to become more readily available, the road ahead is long.

“Are the numbers where we need them to be? No. We need them to be much, much better,” said Morrow during that press conference on vaccine equity.

When asked about what comes next, Bankole said the answer isn’t easy.

“None of it is easy to solve. It’s not. There are probably solutions that in the next 30, 40 years that you will see the result. But if we don’t start now, it’s going to get worse,” said Bankole.

But when it comes to immediate next steps, Tilley-Lubbs said that fear has made it hard for some to trust in the process.

“In the last four years, we have seen so much more distrust of anything that seems official that it’s caused people to really be afraid to seek out help or seek out information,” said Tilley-Lubbs.

[Roanoke nonprofit providing COVID-19 resources to Latino community]

Torres talked about some specific questions she has been asked about the vaccine that highlight just how tangible that fear is, “I’ve had people ask, ‘Is this vaccine [going] to kill us? Are they trying to kill us because they don’t want us in their country?’”

Torres said that accessing information about the vaccine can be hard, which can play into the fear and mistrust that some are already feeling.

“People are just afraid to get the vaccine because they don’t have enough information, or maybe the information is not in Spanish, or maybe the information is not available for everyone because if it is available in Spanish, you have to go to a website … and maybe someone doesn’t have internet access,” Torres said.

To help solve this problem, Roanoke City Councilmember Vivian Sanchez-Jones and the City of Roanoke are now partnering with several Spanish-speaking countries like Mexico, Honduras, Columbia, Guatemala and El Salvador, to disperse important vaccine information.

Tilley-Lubbs said that while certain situations make it hard to get information on the vaccine, the city and the local health department have been putting in work to make the process easier.

According to Tilley-Lubbs, one of the most helpful steps taken has been the two small clinics the city recently held that specifically catered to Blacks and Latinos in Roanoke.

During the vaccine equity press conference held by local officials, it was announced that the city received a grant from the Virginia Dept. of Emergency Management to hold more community-based clinics. That grant also made it possible to hire a bilingual support specialist, Katie Hendrick.

“We still have an incredible amount of work to do. This is not just two clinics and we’re done with it, this is the beginning of our plan,” Morrow stated. “I’m hesitant to say where we need to address the gaps because we still have a gaping gap in front of us. We’re just at the very beginning.”


About the Author:

Samantha Smith joined WSLS 10’s award-winning digital team as a digital content producer in July 2018.