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Latino advocates ask counties to protect vulnerable workers

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent

As Garfield County Public Health officials try to get a handle on the recent spike in new coronavirus cases, especially within the county’s Latino population, advocates from that community have offered some rather forceful suggestions.

It’s no real surprise that Latinos are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, said Alex Sanchez, director of the nonprofit Voces Unidas de las Montañas.

Many Latinos work in construction and service and tourism industry jobs, where working from home is not an option, Sanchez said.

Oftentimes, the workplace itself — construction sites, restaurants, hotels and the like — and even just getting to and from work, puts them at higher risk for contracting the virus, he said.

That’s why his group has been working to make sure the estimated 35,000 Latino residents who live from Parachute to Aspen have a voice when it comes to policy decisions and information being disseminated about COVID-19.

“We know that we have a role to play, as an organization, to do our part by reposting the critical information that comes from elected officials and government agencies,” Sanchez said. “But, at the end of the day, we can’t do government’s role.”

In Garfield County, Latinos now represent 60% of all COVID-19 cases, but make up about 30% of the population. That percentage has gone up rapidly in just the past six weeks, from less than 50% of the cumulative case total in late May, as businesses began reopening more fully.

In neighboring Pitkin County, Latinos represent 10% of the population, yet account for 20% of positive cases there, Sanchez said.

“We try to be a sounding board within the Latino community to help with some of the strategies,” he said.

That includes regular surveys to gauge Latino residents’ thoughts regarding public health concerns. The most recent of those surveys, conducted in late June and resulting in 185 responses, found that:

One in three Latinos did not know what to do if they got infected with the virus;

One in two Latino respondents do not know where to go to get medical care if they get infected;

The majority of Latino survey takers lacked confidence that their employers would protect Latino workers;

One-third of respondents did not have access to masks at work; and,

Three in five Latino respondents believe that their local governments and elected officials are not doing enough to protect Latinos from the virus.

To aid in that response, leaders of Voces Unidas on July 2 issued seven “demands” of county governments in the tri-county (Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle) area. Those are:

1. Publicly release disaggregated data on the impact of COVID-19 by community group (ethnicity and race).

2. Ensure that all official public information is linguistically and culturally effective, and that it is disseminated to all communities at the same time, via effective channels.

3. Develop (and make public) a comprehensive plan on how the county is responding to and supporting community groups that are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

4. Ensure the safety of Latinos during the reopening phase, especially as Latino workers go back to essential and public-facing jobs. Employers must be required to provide personal protective equipment for their workers and encourage safe distancing practices.

5. Ensure that all employers distribute culturally effective information in Spanish and English to all of their workers on what to do if an employee is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and their rights and protections as workers.

6. Ensure a proportionate Latino representation in all long-term planning processes to make sure that Latinos are not left behind in the recovery of COVID-19.

7. Publish a detailed report on how each county supported each of the community groups, outlining strategies and how much taxpayer dollars were spent to support each community group.

“We can speak for ourselves and know what we need and want,” Sanchez said. “But a lot of decisions are being made about Latinos, without Latinos at the table. If you invite us, we will show up.”

Meanwhile, the number of new onset COVID-19 cases in Garfield County continues to go up at an alarming rate — and not exclusively within the Latino community.

Garfield County is now the hotbed among northwestern Colorado counties in terms of new coronavirus cases over the past two to three weeks, Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long reported to county commissioners Monday.

The number of new cases jumped yet again from 408 at the time of her Monday report to 441 as of the end of the day Tuesday, according to county and state public health statistics.

The county also reported its fourth death from COVID-19 on Tuesday, involving a man in his late 60s who died at his home.

“We are a service-industry county, and that’s where we’re seeing a lot of that,” Long said of the recent surge in new cases. “Summer is our tourism business season here, and it’s when a lot of our businesses make their money.”

As that relates to workers, regardless of ethnicity, county health is working to provide as much information as possible about workplace safety, in both English and Spanish, and encourages employers to do the same, she said.

Long said she also suggests employers provide extra incentives to keep workers from sharing transportation to or from work, or to do so safely, as some of the recent cases can be attributed to carpooling.

“That’s something we should maybe be discouraging right now, and say that maybe this is not the time to do that,” she said in her report to the commissioners.

Though the number of new onset cases continues to increase, and while there have been some recent new hospitalizations (three new since late last week), hospital capacity locally is not a concern at this point.

“We continue to have COVID-19 patients who require hospitalization, and at this time our ability to care for these patients and other non-COVID patients is strong.” Dr. Brian Murphy, CEO of Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, said in the hospital’s twice-weekly COVID-19 report.

Murphy added, “It is important that we each do our part — wear a mask, practice physical distancing and frequently wash our hands — to slow the transmission of this virus. Together, we can support our community’s well-being and the reopening of businesses and our economy.”

jstroud@postindependent.com


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