LITTLE VILLAGE — Faced with a surge of coronavirus cases in Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods, the city is scrambling to increase testing and treatment on the city’s South and West sides.
But one Brighton Park alderman said city officials were too slow to act and failed to protect Chicago’s Latino residents — many of whom are essential, low-wage workers who live in close quarters and have no health insurance.
Ald. Raymond Lopez said the distribution of coronavirus testing and language-appropriate resources in communities of color has been anything but equitable. For weeks, the 15th Ward alderman said he and other Latino aldermen have been “raising the alarm” about the need for more testing in Southwest Side neighborhoods.
Now several weeks into the pandemic, Little Village, Brighton Park, Gage Park, Chicago Lawn and Belmont Craigin — all predominately Latino neighborhoods — have the most coronavirus cases in the state, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“I’m not surprised that our communities are that far behind the eight ball when we have not made it a priority to engage them in a language they can understand, with resources they can access,” Lopez said.
Lopez said it is “frustrating and disheartening” to see Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. JB Pritzker tout a flattening of the curve as neighborhoods of color are still in the “midst and grips” of the virus.
Just a month ago, the Latino community accounted for 14 percent of cases and 19 percent of deaths in Chicago. But in instances where a patient’s race or ethnicity is known, Latinos now account for 37 percent of Chicago’s COVID-19 cases and 25 percent of the city’s deaths, city officials said Wednesday.
In all, there are now 7,770 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Latino Chicagoans.
Latinos represent 29 percent of the Chicago population, according to city data.
Aldermen are the ones who see the “cracks in the system … . All of these concerns have been raised for weeks and we are not moving the needle fast enough to protect these vulnerable populations,” Lopez said. “It’s ridiculous.”
“In Downtown, Gold Coast, Uptown, people there are getting tested left, right and center,” Lopez said. “Obviously, they have insurance, more access to health care but in neighborhoods that don’t — that’s a problem on multiple levels.”
Lightfoot said the influx of Latino cases “demands we dig down deeper and work harder to confront this reality.”
“With increasing testing, improved reporting and the continued spread of this terrible virus, we are seeing a surge in cases among our Latinx cases,” Lightfoot said at a press conference.
The city created its Racial Equity Rapid Response Team in early April after data showed Black Chicagoans were being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Now that Latinos are particularly hit hard, it’s expanding the focus of the team, Lightfoot said.
The team will “be zeroing in on areas where we see the highest increase in case rates,” like in areas with high Latino populations, Lightfoot said. That means the city will need teams on the Northwest and Southwest sides of the city, and those teams will have to work with community groups and leaders there to create strategies for reaching people, she said.
“Each community has its own unique set of challenges, and they have to be addressed in their own unique way, and we will do that with trusted partners in each of these areas,” Lightfoot said.
But Lopez said the collaborative effort should have been in place long before the surge that has ravaged Black and Brown communities.
Lopez said communities on the South and West Sides face an assortment of barriers when it comes to accessing health care, and a more nuanced approach was needed from the outset of the outbreak.
“When you approach this pandemic from a singular point of view that everyone is the same level of health insurance, same level of employment security, same level of education and same [language] — that’s a problem,” Lopez said. “You have to meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.”
A Lag In Testing
As of Wednesday, the 60623 ZIP code, which includes Little Village and North Lawndale, had the highest number of coronavirus cases across the state with 1,596 people testing positive for the virus.
A WBEZ analysis showed a positive rate of 38.09 percent per 1,000 residents in the ZIP code but the area ranked 50th in Cook County for total tests per 1,000 residents.
Since mid-April, Project Vida and Howard Brown have partnered to provide free testing in Little Village. To date, the site has tested more than 1,000 people and 57 percent of have come back positive, said Jerome Montgomery, executive director of Project Vida.
A majority of people tested at the site have been asymptomatic, Montgomery said. About 80 percent of people coming to get tested are uninsured.
Some are undocumented and fear being tested, Montgomery said. Many are low-wage essential workers who are still going to their jobs every day. Many have pre-existing health conditions.
“It’s easy to feel that it’s time to return to work and we are flattening the curve, but there are many communities that are still without service or access to testing,” Montgomery said. “Unfortunately many of those are communities of color.”
“This exemplifies and highlights the disparities that we see within the communities with other health conditions.”
Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who represents Little Village, a cornavirus hotspot, said testing is ramping up but “wasn’t perfect by any means.” It was difficult to start up widespread testing because there are too few federally qualified health centers in the neighborhood, Cardenas said.
Testing “has gotten better but we are not” where we want to be, Cardenas said.
Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), who also represents Little Village, said he’s convened weekly calls with health care providers, clinics and nonprofits to increase coordination for testing and resources. He said some clinics have had to turn people away because there aren’t enough tests.
“We have to do more work … to get to the core of the structural injustices, both health and economic, that leave the Latino community much more at risk to being impacted by COVID-19,” Rodriguez said.
Shelter In Place Is A Privilege
Last month, a coalition of medical professionals, organizations and elected officials statewide started the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative, calling for changes to how officials are handling the crisis in Latino communities. The organization has worked to spread information around the virus, increase testing and provide resources for families who have been financially impacted by the virus.
Dr. Marina Del Rios, a physician at UIC Medical Center, said the effort was created after health care professionals saw COVID cases in Latino patients that were not reflected in official data.
Along with health disparities in Latino communities, Del Rios said a high prevalence of coronavirus in the Latino community is due, in part, to the few protections for Latino workers who are unable to stay home.
“We know of [work] places where people don’t have adequate protections, they [have] terrible sick leave policies, people are working close to each other,” Del Rios said. People are afraid of taking time off because they are “afraid of getting fired or penalized … which allows for the spread to continue.”
Historically, Latinos are among the last to have access to testing or adequate resources to deal with viruses and illnesses, said Dr. Maya Green, Howard Brown’s medical director for the south and west regions.
“Every time we hear a resource is limited, we can know those resources are going to be missed for people of color,” Green said. “We have to advocate for our communities and these resources.”
Folks living on the South and West sides are often essential workers at factories, meat packing plants and grocery stores. But they aren’t treated as such when it comes to health care and wages, Green said.
Containing the spread in communities of color has also been challenging because families live in multi-generational homes occupying one space, making shelter in place difficult, she said.
“That shelter in place is a privilege that some people have and some people don’t,” she added.
Even as city and state officials work to address the coronavirus crisis, Green said culturally appropriate strategies and communication needed to be implemented from the start.
The urgency to address the current pandemic in Black and Brown communities can’t just be during the time of COVID, Green said.
“We have to continue to push that so in the next time 100 years we don’t repeat the lessons that we learned today,” Green said. “Every day we fail to beat it together … . We have to move as a unit in order to beat this thing.
“Moving as a unit means no community can heal without the other.”
Community members seeking information on testing and other resources can find them here: Illinoisunidos.com.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.