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Higher COVID-19 case numbers for Latinos in the Magic Valley highlight larger issues

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Migrant workers

Migrant workers pull weeds out of a bean field in July 2016 near Filer. Latinos are overrepresented in essential labor including agriculture jobs, which is a contributing factor to higher numbers of COVID-19 cases.

TWIN FALLS — In five of the Magic Valley’s eight counties, Latinos made up more than 50% of COVID-19 cases.

While the types of jobs Latinos tend to work and larger family sizes play a role in he numbers, experts say this is an expression of structural shortcomings in the health care system and Latinos were at a disadvantage even before the pandemic.

The numbers from the South Central Public Health District align with three trends: Latinos have larger household sizes, there has been an increase in testing for those who work in food processing where Latinos tend to be overrepresented, and Latinos are more likely to distrust government agencies, which may impact if Latinos seek care when they think they are infected.

“This population lives in larger family sizes, so if one person comes home with it, more people are exposed and are put at risk of contracting the disease,” Brianna Bodily, spokeswoman for the South Central Public Health District, said. “Cases increase faster than they would in smaller households.”

Last month, outbreaks hit two food-processing plants with a majority-Latino workforce. Rite Stuff Foods in Jerome, which makes specialty potato products, had 50 workers test positive, while Ida-Beef, a meatpacking plant in Burley, had 44 positive cases — more than 60% of its employees.

The pandemic and subsequent outbreaks have workers in these industries concerned about their risk of getting the virus. Workers in agriculture and related industries were deemed essential in the early stages of the pandemic and were able to continue working, which also increases their risk of exposure to the virus.

“Some express concern both ways,” Mario de Haro-Marti, University of Idaho Extension dairy livestock and environmental educator, said. “Either getting the virus at their job and spreading it at home or getting it in the community and bringing it to work.”

At the same time, Latino workers in agriculture, many of whom are undocumented, worry about the financial impact of the virus. Bodily said many of these workers are dependent on their income and may be living paycheck to paycheck. This means they may not be able to prioritize their health.

“In the Magic Valley especially, a concern is they may lose their job if they have to take time off if they get sick,” Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said. “Even if their employers offer insurance they can’t afford it. Many have said ‘if we have a choice to put food on the table or get insurance, we’re going to put food on the table.’”

The risk of contracting the virus can vary depending on where Latinos work. Some dairies are doing extensive training to prevent the spread while others are relying on fliers and extra hand-washing stations, De Haro-Marti said. It takes comprehensive and culturally-appropriate education to protect workers from infectious disease, so those working in places taking fewer precautions or have limited personal protective equipment are at a disadvantage.

Prior to the announcement of the Ida-Beef outbreak, someone made an OSHA complaint about COVID-19 precautions, the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed. Operations manager Bill Gilger told the Times-News that he was not aware of the details of the complaint or if it was even made by an employee.

De Haro-Marti and educators with South Dakota State University and other educators with the food science department and veterinary science department at the University of Idaho in March created a video for dairy workers in Spanish with English subtitles explaining the origins of the virus, how to prevent its spread and proper hygiene. He is now working with three other universities to obtain a grant to create a toolkit for Latino workers and dairy and agriculture employers to help educate its essential workers about the virus.

“What we have seen is there is a lack of a concentrated center of information that is culturally appropriate for the Hispanic community,” de Haro-Marti said.

Information in Spanish was delayed from the beginning. Gov. Brad Little’s stay-at-home order wasn’t translated into Spanish for several days. The 10-page stay-at-home order issued in Blaine County prior to the statewide order was only delivered in English despite the county’s request the governor’s office provide a Spanish translation. This left Blaine County to rely on a hired translator to translate it. The Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs now translates all correspondence from the governor’s office about COVID-19.

The public health district had material available in Spanish and set up a Spanish hotline in anticipation of the need for one. The governor’s office’s coronavirus website was available in many of the languages spoken in Idaho, but it required users to locate the translation tab and select their language. Additional steps to accessing information, like having to click to other pages or a confusing interface, could discourage people needing language assistance from using certain sites, de Haro-Marti said. Uncertainty about the information may have contributed to delays in preparation in Latino households.

“Families are confused if this pandemic is a reality,” Gonzalez said. “Most of them were not sure if what they were hearing was factual.”

It’s not just state responses that left Latinos vulnerable to COVID-19. Biases and a lack of cultural awareness in care have historically made Latinos distrustful of the health care system. The complexity of the health care system becomes even more difficult to navigate when culturally or linguistically appropriate services are not available. The cost of care is often out of reach to Latinos who tend to have more low-income jobs and have a lower level of education, which discourages them from seeking care even in emergencies. This leaves them on unequal footing compared to other groups in situations like a pandemic.

“If we come back to this ‘we’re all in this together,’ the reality of our system leading in into this pandemic is that it was exclusionary,” Daniel Lopez-Cevallos, associate director of research at the Center for Latina/o Studies and Engagement at the University of Oregon, said. “Relatively few people had the level and the quality of care that we would all need to be able to navigate the uncertainties of this pandemic.”

Reporting COVID-19 cases to government agencies is also complicating access to care for Latinos. Undocumented people are reticent of giving out their information for fear of being targeted by immigration authorities. Bodily said the public health district will never ask someone about immigration status.

“That’s very concerning,” Bodily said. “But when it comes down to a disease like this with a social stigma like this, (Latinos) have even more distrust with a public agency reaching out to them. All we care about is making sure they are healthy or getting the help and education they need.”

Coalition building between trusted organizations and health care systems, schools and government agencies is crucial to ease the tensions. Information and outreach work best when trusted community leaders are involved, but a repeated investment of time and resources is key to creating longstanding, positive relationships.

Gonzalez will visit with representatives from the South Central Public Health District next week to talk about the data and appropriate outreach for the Latino community.

“I want to know how accurate these numbers are,” Gonzalez said. “That’s going to be key to knowing if we need to put more effort toward those communities.”

Higher case numbers do not reflect an inherent danger with certain groups and skin color or ethnic background is “not a predetermining factor for any disease,” Bodily said. She discouraged being discriminatory as a reaction to the numbers.

Even young Latinos who were born in the U.S. — and have no language need — face similar barriers to care, indicating that racial disparities and racism affect the health care they may or may not receive, Lopez-Cevallos said. The current national discourse around immigration and public charge fuel disparity and a distrustful view of government. Positive community interactions, however, can change that relationship going forward.

“Experiences of discrimination in general outside of a health care setting carry into and create this climate, this anti-Latino climate and what we found is that it carries on to the interactions and perceptions of the quality of care,” Lopez-Cevallos said. “... On the other side is that when folks are connected in some way, both youth and adults, that leads to more of that connectedness, of welcoming, of institutions that are showing more intangible ways the effort to reach out to those communities, to bringing them in, that increases that level of trust. And that carries.”

Megan Taros is a Times-News reporter and Report for America corps member covering the Magic Valley’s Hispanic community and Jerome County. You can support her work by donating to Report for America at

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