Why Does Coronavirus Hit Hispanics Harder? Reasons Might Be Found In Wimauma

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Ruth Martinez, center, tested positive for COVID-19 on June 22. The next day, test results showed that her mother, Isidra Medina, far right, and her oldest daughter, Carla, right, also had the virus. Her daughter Ashley, left, has been spared so far. This family photo was taken before they fell ill.

Ruth Martinez, center, tested positive for COVID-19 on June 22. The next day, test results showed that her mother, Isidra Medina, far right, and her oldest daughter, Carla, right, also had the virus. Her daughter Ashley, left, has been spared so far. This family photo was taken before they fell ill. (Juan Carlos Chavez | Tampa Bay Times)

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July 7, 2020

TAMPA — It’s hard for her to speak, her breathing is labored and she’s coughing a lot.
But Ruth Martínez is getting better every day. No more fever, muscle aches or fatigue, and she can taste and smell again.

It’s been two weeks since the 48-year-old mother of two was diagnosed with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Her mother and one of her two teenage daughters, with whom she lives in a small apartment in Ruskin, have come down with the virus, too.

“We take good care of ourselves at home, we wash our hands and wear masks, but I did not stop working because someone has to make money in this house and that’s me,” said Martínez, who works with a lawn service company in Tampa. “It was on the street that I got sick.”

The family represents a disturbing trend among coronavirus patients in Florida and nationwide: Hispanics account for a disproportionately large number of them.

About half of the COVID-19 cases reported nationwide include data on ethnicity, or 1.06 million of them. Hispanics make up more than a third of these cases — nearly twice their share of the population as a whole. The number of coronavirus deaths among Hispanics as of Thursday was 14,572, about 18 percent of the total where ethnicity was reported. Hispanics account for about 16 percent of the U.S. population.

In Florida, where Hispanics are a larger share of the overall population at 26 percent, they account for about 30 percent of coronavirus cases. A third of state coronavirus hospitalizations, at 4,938, and a quarter of deaths, 843, are Hispanics.

Studies are underway to explain the trend, but biological factors likely are not a reason, said Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida.

More likely are factors that were in place long before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared March 11, Levine said — factors like the limits experienced by many Hispanics in educational attainment, employment opportunities, transportation, healthcare access, food security and housing.

Plus, many Hispanics work in sectors of the economy that kept going during the pandemic, such as the service industry and food production.

“I don’t believe there is one simple answer,” Levine said.

What’s more, many Hispanics are taking risks to get their lives back to normal — in part, because the Hispanic population is younger than the general population, and in part because they’re poorer and need to get back to work, said Dr. Alexander García, emergency room medical director for AdventHealth Tampa and Brandon.

The prevalence of diabetes and asthma among Hispanics may also help explain the higher numbers, Garcia said.

Hispanics are twice as likely to visit the emergency for asthma as non-Hispanic whites, according to the Office of Minority Health with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office. And diabetes, associated with an increased risk of death from COVID-19, occurs in Hispanics at a rate of about 17 percent compared to 9 percent for the U.S. population as a whole.

The state of Florida is working with local faith-based organizations to educate hard-hit communities about staying safe during the pandemic, said Alberto Moscoso, communications director with the Department of Health. Updates are distributed in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole and the state COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard is available in English and Spanish.

Efforts by health authorities might have been more effective had they come earlier in the pandemic, said Ileana Cintrón, deputy director of Enterprising Latinas, a nonprofit in heavily Hispanic Wimauma.

“In a place like Wimauma, where the concentration of Hispanic is 75 percent and most work in the fields, the conditions have not been the best,” Cintrón said. “The masks arrived two months later. That was a perfect recipe for the virus to spread uncontrollably.”

The message about social distance, quarantine and isolation has been confusing, at times, too, she said.

“Many thought that the coronavirus problem was not really dangerous when they started to see others on the street,” she said. “And that increased the risk.”

In Wimauma, cases quadrupled in two weeks, from 63 June 16 to 263.

“Now there are more local testing centers and that is good for everyone,” Cintrón said.

Hillsborough County authorities also are working with Enterprising Latinas to provide Spanish speakers with up-to-date advice, cloth face masks for workers, and even more testing sites. One of the sites is at Enterprising Latinas, 5128 State Road 674 in Wimauma.

At least 15 Hispanic community organizations in Hillsborough’s South Shore region have joined together as the Wimauma COVID-19 Rapid Response Collaborative. They keep track of needs and share tips for stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

The collaborative has established a hotline for questions about COVID-19 and topics such as help with food and rent. Available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, the number is (813) 773-7597.

For Ruth Martínez, the COVID-19 test came back positive June 22. The next day, test results showed her mother and daughter also had the disease. A few days later, her mother was hospitalized at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Riverview with respiratory complications and disturbances in her heart rhythm.

Before she fell ill, Martínez was working eight hours a day, four days a week with the lawn service, pleased that she found employment after losing her job in agriculture to the pandemic. Now, as she recovers, Martínez has gone three weeks without her $300 a week paycheck and can’t pay her $950 monthly rent.

Most of her coworkers have tried to maintain social distancing and use masks inside company facilities, she said, but this was almost impossible while working outside, she said.

“We share the tools and use the same transportation to get from one place to another. The risk of contracting the coronavirus follows you everywhere.”

This story is part of a collaboration with the Tampa Bay Times through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Juan Carlos Chavez, Tampa Bay Times

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