Almost two thirds of COVID-19 cases in Forsyth County are Latinx people.

COVID-19 is surging through the Latinx community in Forsyth County with a ferocity that lays bare challenging employment and housing realities that make it difficult for many members of the community to protect themselves from the virus.

Latinx people account for 68.1 percent of COVID-19 positive cases recorded by the Forsyth County Public Health Department, but only 13.0 percent of the county’s overall population, according to the most recent Census numbers, although some say that their actual share of the population is higher.

Six out of 25 people who have died from COVID-19 in Forsyth County — 24 percent — are Latinx.

“There’s two major reasons, one being that the majority of the Hispanic community live very close together, and in order to survive, a lot of people will rent out within their own home, so you’re going to have more than one family in the home,” said William Herrera, a retired police officer in Winston-Salem who is active with the Hispanic League.

“A lot are surviving paycheck to paycheck and have to go to work,” he continued. “Even when not feeling good, they still have to work because one day off of work without income can have a big impact.”

Members with the Hispanic League have been doing COVID-19 outreach in communities.-Photo courtesy of Hispanic League

Mari Jo Turner, the Hispanic League’s executive director, said she believes Latinx people make up closer to 17 percent of the Forsyth County population. Those who are not documented were left out when the federal government began making direct deposits into workers’ checking accounts in April. A previous report by Triad City Beat showed how only 13 percent of respondents of a Latinx survey said someone in their household qualified for the stimulus check.

“When we started sheltering everybody in place, a lot of the Hispanic/Latino people were not able to receive the stimulus check,” Turner said. “They continued to go to work, so they could provide for their families.”

TCB reviewed death certificates for 15 of the 25 deaths from COVID-19 in Forsyth County. Among those 15 death certificates, all four of the Latinx people who succumbed to the virus were born in Mexico. They include a 54-year-old construction laborer, a 66-year-old maintenance worker for an apartment complex, a 61-year-old homemaker and a 72-year-old man whose industry classification is listed as “entertainment.” Latinx people are dying of COVID-19 at younger ages than the population as a whole, with 63 as the average age of death, compared to 69 for the county.

“Often times you’re finding people who are Hispanic/Latino, they may have jobs in construction work or tasks that are more labor intensive; they may not be socially distancing,” Turner said. “If you’re working together on a job where you have many people working together, it’s harder to social distance.”

Latinx people are also experiencing the brunt of the pandemic in Durham. Like Forsyth, the official Latinx population in Durham County is 13.7 percent, but the county public health department reports that they account for 56.4 percent of positive cases. Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, the CEO of El Centro Hispano in Durham, said during a June 11 roundtable that in addition to lack of access to healthcare, one of the major reasons for the disproportionate impact is that many Latinx people work in the construction industry. 

“They are more exposed to the virus, but also what we hear is they don’t have enough PPE, or personal protection equipment,” she said. 

The virus’ deadly inroads into the Latinx community across North Carolina manifested in a grim milestone: On June 1, 8-year-old Aurea Soto Morales of Durham became the first child in the state to die from COVID-19.

Notably, Durham and Forsyth, along with Mecklenburg — all counties where Latinx people officially make up more than 13 percent of the population — also have the highest numbers of positive COVID-19 cases: 84 per cases per 10,000 residents in Durham, 65 in Mecklenburg and 58 in Forsyth, according to the most recent numbers available from the state Health and Human Services Department. In contrast, Guilford County with Latinx people making up 8.2 percent of the population has 38 cases per 10,000 residents, and Wake County, with Latinx people making up 10.3 percent of the population, has 28 cases per 10,000.

In Guilford County, Latinx people account for 13.1 percent of cases, although that number could be much higher considering that 35.9 percent of cases are classified as unknown ethnicity. And Latinx people account for 4.8 percent of deaths in Guilford County. 

‘We let our guard down’
“We let our guard down in North Carolina and Forsyth County because it wasn’t hitting as hard as it was hitting bigger cities,” William Herrera, the Hispanic League volunteer, said. “As other places have started to open up, we’re going to see more cases because we are an essential hub for people traveling through from other states.”

Since the phased reopening began in North Carolina, the pandemic has rebounded in the state, with record levels of new cases over the past weekend. In the past week, Gov. Roy Cooper and Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen have expressed concern about the trendlines, with Cohen saying on June 8 that “our metrics have moved in the wrong direction,” adding in a later briefing: “I think all of those in combination — more cases that we’re finding through testing, percentage positive going up, hospitalizations going up — I think those tell us in combination that we are seeing more virus in our communities. And I think you can see… that the timing is very much linked to the last two to three weeks. It is very much linked to when we started reopening.”

Herrera said he personally knows 20 people who have died from COVID-19 in his hometown of Hempstead, NY — part of the US epicenter of the pandemic in the greater New York City area — including five business owners, a volunteer firefighter and his sister.

“I know this is real,” he said. “Unless you personally know people that passed away, the reality doesn’t hit you as much as it hits other people.”

Martha Mendez, Herrera’s sister, died in a nursing home in New York in early March.

Herrera said his sister was one of the best cooks in the family. And she “had the exact penguin walk” as their father, although she was always getting in trouble with him.

“She came from El Salvador at an older age and raised her kids as best as she could,” Herrera said. “She had been through a lot in life. Her ex-husband attempted to stab her to death. The police got to the house and stopped it, but she was stabbed 20 times…. She ended up on her own. And survived. She took second and third jobs to pay for her home.

“She had a heart attack, and got past that,” he continued. “She had a stroke and got past that. She had a second and third stroke back to back; that’s what finally knocked her out and put her in the nursing home.”

During the early days of the pandemic, Herrera and other family members frequently called the nursing home to check on Mendez.

“They kept telling us that she was fine, that the doctors were checking up on the patients,” he said. “She had respiratory issues and diabetic issues, but otherwise she was fine. They told us she asked for a glass of water in the middle of the night, and then the next day she passed.”

‘It’s hurting us so bad’
The Hispanic League has been working with the Forsyth County Department of Public Health and other community partners to distribute masks in the Latinx community and educate people about the importance of social distancing and other preventative measures. Herrera also said the agency is providing financial assistance to families so they can get rooms at hotels to quarantine if someone gets sick.

The Hispanic League hosts a weekly, hour-long Facebook Live event every Thursday at 11 a.m., Executive Director Mari Jo Turner said. Dr. Reina Rodriguez with the county health department provides a weekly update, and other guests give advice on mental health and topics such as dealing with anxiety resulting from being stuck at home, grieving and keeping children safe at home.

During the Mask Winston-Salem project, Turner said the Hispanic League gave out almost 2,000 masks to dozens of small businesses, which in turn distributed them to their employees and customers. She added that the nonprofit Love Out Loud distributed masks to residents in high-risk neighborhoods of Winston-Salem.

Herrera said he sees communication as the most critical need in the effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic in the Latinx community.

“I would like to see a local Spanish news channel,” he said. “To me, it’s the quickest way to get the news out. The Spanish community has to rely on the local Spanish-language papers. Even though there are Spanish channels, they’re more giving information on the biggest cities. I would like to see something more local.”

Forsyth County Public Health Director Joshua Swift briefly acknowledged the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Latinx residents during his most recent report to county commissioners on June 11.

“Hispanic outreach continues, with increased emphasis on education about how to prevent COVID-19 through various media platforms and by having staff working out in the community as they have been doing for months,” he said. 

Turner said the Hispanic League is working with the health department to ramp up contact tracing in the Latinx community.

“We’re trying to come up with better messaging so we can make this go away,” she said. “It’s hurting us so bad. Part of that is getting the testing done. If we can do the contact tracing, we can get people to quarantine if they’ve been exposed, and not continue spreading the virus.”

For advice about COVID-19 in Spanish or English, call the Hispanic League’s COVID-19 help line at 336-701-6257.

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