On Sept. 2, Mayor Lori Lightfoot handed out masks and hand sanitizer in Belmont Cragin, which is seeing an uptick in its coronavirus positivity rate. Credit: Mayor's Office

BELMONT CRAGIN — Yeni Pinedo keeps getting bad news.

Each week, the Belmont Cragin-based volunteer finds out another one of the families she works with, sometimes the whole family, has coronavirus.

“Instead of going down, this thing is going up,” said Pinedo, who oversees the parent mentor program at the nonprofit Northwest Side Housing Center. “It’s really sad. There’s nothing I can do. We can just ask people to please take care of yourselves.”

Over the past few months, officials have increased testing and outreach in Belmont Cragin, which has struggled with coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

Despite those efforts, the predominately Latino neighborhood remains one of the epicenters of the pandemic in Chicago, data shows.

The 60639 ZIP code, which includes much of Belmont Cragin, has had 4,486 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Monday, according to Chicago Department of Public Health data. The ZIP Code has a seven-day 12.9 percent positivity rate, among the highest in the city.

“We’ve consistently been at the top of the list. We haven’t seen the change over time that other neighborhoods have seen,” said James Rudyk, executive director for Northwest Side Housing Center.

Six months into the pandemic, the most vexing problem facing Rudyk and other local leaders is how to protect Belmont Cragin residents when the cards are stacked against them.

Many residents are undocumented immigrants and essential workers. Families are doubled and tripled up in the same home, which has made social distancing and quarantining impossible.

“We’re not back to business as usual. We’re still operating in the same mode. The summer became a social end to the pandemic,” Rudyk said. “We’re saying the pandemic is still real, the need is still real.”

‘The Need Is Greater Than Any Of Us Will Be Able To Address’

In May, the city opened a second testing site in Belmont Cragin, home to the city’s largest Latino population, after cases there had surged to an “unbelievable” level.

That clinic, at Prieto Academy, 2231 N. Central Ave., has been one of the city’s busiest since it opened, said Rudyk, who said city officials briefed him on the matter.

Officials have also held a number of pop-up testing events in Belmont Cragin to get the neighborhood’s outbreak under control.

As of Monday, the 60639 ZIP Code has seen 20,878 people tested since the start of the pandemic, about a quarter of the ZIP code’s population, according to city data.

COVID-19 testing in Chicago. Credit: Chicago Mayor's Office

Over the past few weeks, the positivity rate has been ticking up at Prime Care Health at 5635 W. Belmont Ave., a clinic that administers COVID-19 tests.

Dr. Jim Christoforidis, the chief medial officer at Prime Care Health, which has six locations across the city, said between their two testing sites — one in Belmont Cragin, the other in Humboldt Park — they were hovering at 10 percent for most of July and into mid-August. They’re now at a 16 percent positivity rate.

But the two clinics are also administering far fewer tests now compared to the height of the city’s outbreak, Christoforidis said. In mid-May, the clinics peaked with 278 tests in one week. Over the week ending in Sept. 5, the clinics only ordered about 65 tests.

Christoforidis said that could be because Belmont Cragin residents and residents of surrounding communities are opting to get tested at city-run testing sites like Prieto or local hospitals.

Rudyk, the head of Northwest Side Housing Center, said a majority of the tests in Belmont Cragin are being administered at city-run sites.

“Those sites are more available to folks. They’re walk-up and usually combined with a food pantry,” he said.

Some testing sites are finding it difficult to reach Belmont Cragin residents because many of them are undocumented, are uninsured or under-insured and fear seeking medical care.

To combat that, Rudyk said his team has worked closely with parents through its parent mentor program on outreach to ensure undocumented families know they don’t need insurance “or any sort of status” to get tested.

Rudyk said they’ve also gone to parks, churches and other gathering places to spread the word about testing and the importance of social distancing and wearing masks. That work is being done on top of handing out free food and cash to families struggling with the economic effects of the pandemic.

Northwest Side Housing Center’s team provides groceries in August. Credit: Facebook

Rudyk and his team aren’t the only ones working to protect Belmont Cragin residents.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), whose ward includes part of Belmont Cragin, said he and other local leaders, doctors, church leaders and Latino officials meet weekly to “discuss what the community needs … to try and make sure our community is not being forgotten.”

Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot visited Belmont Cragin and handed out bottles of hand sanitizer and masks to hundreds of residents in response to the uptick in coronavirus cases.

Rudyk said while he’s impressed with the mayor’s response and her willingness to help, “The need is greater than any of us will be able to address.”

What’s Driving The Spread

Chicago health officials have said family gatherings are a “major source” of the virus’s recent spread in the city.

Ald. Felix Cardona Jr. (31st), who represents part of Belmont Cragin, said that’s what’s driving the spread in the neighborhood.

Cardona said his office has been fielding calls from residents complaining about their neighbors throwing large parties where people aren’t practicing social distancing or wearing masks.

“In the summertime, families — Latino families — love to have parties, they love to celebrate, and the thing is, they’re celebrating for many reasons, and good reasons,” Cardona said.

“There are certain houses that have parties of 30 people in their backyard. What do you think is going to happen when you have [a] party of 30 people and they’re not wearing masks or keeping social distance?”

Ald. Felix Cardona Jr. (31st) speaks to the reporters outside the Thompson Center on April 28, 2020. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Pindeo, the volunteer at Northwest Side Housing Center, is a longtime resident of Belmont Cragin. She said her neighbors have disregarded health guidelines and thrown massive parties.

“It’s not only 20 people, no. It’s maybe 100 people. You could see every car that was coming — four, six and eight people coming out at the same time,” she said.

But parties alone shouldn’t be blamed for the virus’s spread, other leaders said.

“It’s easy for folks to see a picture where folks are [partying], playing loud music and people zero in on that. But what are we doing to support families that are living 10 to a household?” Rudyk said.

Villegas, who represents the 36th Ward, said one of the greatest challenges facing the neighborhood is families are doubled and tripled up and sick family members can’t properly quarantine. He said he wants to bring in federal funding and open up a hotel, church or a vacant warehouse in the area that would allow sick Belmont Cragin residents to isolate themselves.

“Right now what’s available is Downtown,” Villegas said. “Our community is the community of all the essential workers. We don’t have that luxury of working from home. … You add the fact that they’re lacking the ability to quarantine, and that’s why we’re seeing that steady number.”

Pinedo, 42, and her husband have three daughters, ages 20, 15 and 13. Pinedo’s husband works at a welding factory at Diversey and Normandy avenues to support the family.

So far, the factory hasn’t seen a coronavirus outbreak. One employee was exposed but ended up testing negative, Pinedo said. But at no point during the pandemic has the factory closed.

“They never stop working,” she said, pausing before adding, “We depend on that, whether he like[s] it or not.”

Pinedo said her family’s financial situation is similar to that of many Belmont Cragin families.

“We have to go to work, no matter what,” she said. “We don’t have any money in our savings to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to work because one of my coworkers got infected.’

“You have to go to work. You have family and they depend on you.”

Community members seeking information on testing and other resources can find them here: Illinoisunidos.com.

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Logan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale reporterrnrnmina@blockclubchi.orgnnLogan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale reporterrnrnmina@blockclubchi.org Twitter @mina_bloom_