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As rural Idaho COVID-19 cases rise, Latinos increasingly ⁠— and disproportionately ⁠— affected

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Weiser testing

Fry Foods employees line up in their cars to get free COVID-19 testing at the food processing plant in Weiser.

TWIN FALLS — Latinos are already disproportionately impacted by coronavirus in Idaho, making up one-third of the state’s coronavirus cases where the race or ethnicity of the patient is known. But stark new data from the state’s health districts show just how hard a recent spike in coronavirus cases is hitting Latinos in rural Idaho.

The vast majority of people who have contracted COVID-19 in several Magic Valley counties — which had spikes in cases last week — are Latino or Hispanic, according to data from the regional health district.

Outbreaks in food processing and meatpacking plants may be driving the case increases and ethnic disparity in some rural areas, as many of the employees who tested positive in Weiser, Jerome and Burley were Latino, or spoke only Spanish. But Idaho Latinos faced obstacles and disparities before coronavirus that made it difficult to access reliable medical care, health insurance or simply local information about the pandemic. And the virus is hitting Latinos at alarmingly high rates in nearly every area of the country.

On May 20, Idaho’s testing task force said testing asymptomatic people in racial and minority ethnic groups disproportionately affected by adverse COVID-19 outcomes in underserved communities should be a high priority for the state. This would include Latinos, African-Americans and tribal communities. But it’s unclear if Idaho has the testing capacity yet to broaden testing outreach in those communities, especially as Idaho moves into the third stage of reopening this week.

“These are the repercussions — people are being affected,” said Samantha Guerrero, a community organizer with PODER of Idaho. She helped collect and distribute 2,000 masks for Idaho farmworkers who didn’t have them. “With Idaho opening up, it’s putting them at higher risk. It’s only going to get worse.”

Race and ethnic disparities starkest in agricultural Magic Valley

The Idaho Statesman requested race and ethnicity data from all seven Idaho public health districts. Some — like Eastern Idaho Public Health in Idaho Falls, South Central Public Health District in Twin Falls and Central District Health in Boise — have made the data available online and update it regularly. While the state’s coronavirus website does include aggregated race and ethnicity data, it is not broken down by health district or county.

The disparity is particularly striking in many Magic Valley counties. Latinos are the vast majority of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases in five of the eight counties in that health district, despite comparatively low cases counts in some rural counties.

Data calculated by the health district on Wednesday evening showed Latinos were more than 78% of the 33 coronavirus cases in Lincoln County, 65% of 43 cases in Minidoka County, 63% of 47 cases in Gooding County, 61% of 161 cases in Jerome County and 54% of 51 cases in Cassia County. That’s almost double the percentage of Latinos who live in each of those counties.

The disparity lessens in Magic Valley hot spots like Blaine County and Twin Falls County, although Latinos are still disproportionately affected in Twin Falls County. Latinos are only 17% of Twin Falls County but are 20% of COVID-19 cases. About 18% of Blaine County’s coronavirus cases are Latino compared to 22% of the population. No Latinos in Camas County have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the health district.

South Central Public Health District epidemiologists say the disproportionate coronavirus impact can be partially linked to statistically larger household size for Latino families, spokeswoman Brianna Bodily said. When one family member gets sick, it’s far more likely for everyone in the house to eventually test positive.

But Latino case counts also rose after mass testing at food processing and meatpacking plants in the region. At least 50 employees at Rite Stuff Foods in Jerome tested positive for coronavirus last week, and company representatives told the Statesman that roughly half of plant employees are Latino. The Statesman found the same was true for the Fry Foods plant outbreaks along the Idaho-Oregon border, where managers and testing staff scrambled to translate for 450 employees and their families who arrived for coronavirus testing, and overwhelmingly spoke Spanish.

“Nationwide, we’ve seen a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases in Hispanic/Latino and other minority communities, and our district is no exception,” said Melody Bowyer, director of the South Central Public Health District. “Access to health care, safe and adequate housing, health education, and economic stability have long been the important social determinants of health outcomes. There is much to be learned from this crisis, and the uneven disease burden of COVID-19 on different communities will perhaps be one of the most profound lessons. It’s apparent now more than ever why we must try to bridge these gaps.”

Despite disparities, still many unknowns and obstacles

Data provided by other Idaho health districts shows similar impacts on Latino communities, as well as signs that other minority groups in Idaho could be at risk.

Hispanic Idahoans have been affected by coronavirus in the Eastern Idaho Health District, which encompasses Bonneville, Clark, Custer, Fremont, Jefferson, Lemhi, Madison and Teton counties. Twelve of the 82 cases in the district are Hispanic or Latino residents. The ethnicity of 11 people was still unknown as of Thursday.

As of May 22, eight people who had contracted the virus in the Southeastern Idaho Public Health District based in Pocatello are Hispanic — 40% of the rural district’s cases with known ethnicity. The district did not know the ethnicity of 10 people or the race of 11 people. Two people who tested positive in the district, which encompasses the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, are Native American or Alaskan Native.

On May 16, Nimiipuu Health reported 17 coronavirus cases and confirmed community spread on the Nez Perce Reservation in North Idaho. About 36% of cases in the local health district, Idaho North Central District in Lewiston, are American Indian or Alaskan Native, as of data last collected on May 22. Five people who contracted the virus are Hispanic. District officials did not know the ethnicity for 48 cases or the race for 41 cases.

The coronavirus has also touched Idaho’s refugee communities, as many work in health care facilities or at meatpacking plants around the state. Central District Health officials identified the need for Swahili-translators in the early days of the CS Beef Packers outbreak in Kuna, according to records obtained by the Idaho Statesman. Minidoka Memorial Hospital also brought Swahili-speaking staff to test workers after the outbreak at Ida-Beef in Burley, hospital CEO Tom Murphy told KMVT.

State officials do not know the ethnicity of more than 800 of the confirmed coronavirus cases — about 30% — as of Thursday evening. A review of the data provided by the health districts shows that the majority of the cases with unconfirmed ethnicity or race originate in the Treasure Valley area. Half of Central District Health’s coronavirus cases, for example, have “unknown or missing” ethnicities. As of May 13, Latinos were 36% of Southwest District Health’s coronavirus cases, but health officials didn’t know the ethnicity of 175 patients.

Overall, an Idaho Statesman review found that much available race and ethnicity data is collected inconsistently across health districts.

Margie Gonzalez, the executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said she and other community leaders would be urging health officials around the state to further investigate the impact of coronavirus on rural Latinos, in particular. While most of the guidelines for reopening Idaho are now available in Spanish, Gonzalez said the message that the virus is still a serious threat wasn’t getting out.

“Idaho as a whole is very rural, but we have communities that are more isolated and we have lots of families of color that live in those communities, because of the type of work that they do,” Gonzalez said. “It could spread very easily.”

Although the South Central Public Health District is only missing race and ethnicity data for 11% of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases, Bodily said initial disease reports to public health are often missing information on race and ethnicity. Some residents decline to report that information.

District officials have also encountered distrust among Hispanic and Latino community members toward government agencies, especially when it comes to information about COVID-19.

“We only care about investigating this disease and helping the people who have contracted it, but there are some concerns out there that they we will pursue details about citizenship or other uncomfortable topics,” Bodily wrote in an email to the Idaho Statesman. “We continue to work on breaking down those barriers by working with community leaders and consistently showing that our concern is for their well-being, not their legal status.”

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