Utah Hispanics now account for more coronavirus cases than whites

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Picaso tests a patient for COVID-19 during an event sponsored by Comunidades Unidas at Mid-Valley Health Clinic in Midvale on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The event was also sponsored by the Utah Partners for Health, Mid-Valley Health Clinic and the Utah Department of Health.

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The number of positive COVID-19 cases in Utah’s Hispanic community surpassed those of any other race or ethnicity Wednesday, even the supermajority white population.

Hispanics make up 14.2% of Utah’s population, but they account for 38.6% of the state’s coronavirus cases, according to the Utah Department of Health’s most recent data. The state has had 8,706 people test positive; 3,363 of them are Hispanics.

Whites, 78% of Utah’s population, now represent the second highest number of cases at 3,350 or 38.5%.

Edwin Espinel, the Spanish-language spokesman for the Utah Department of Health, called the new data “mind-boggling.” He said while there are many inferences one can make about why Hispanics surpassed whites, there isn’t yet enough data to support any of them.

“The bottom line is that cases are continuing to increase,” Espinel said. “That is concerning. We want to keep looking more deeply into it and see what we can do.”

Espinel said testing has ramped up for Hispanics and other communities of color, which could account for the rise in cases. But “the answer is more complex than that.”

While the case numbers for Hispanics surpassed whites, the number of people who have been hospitalized for the virus has not. Whites account for 316 total hospitalizations, while Hispanics are at 249 in the latest stats.

In an attempt to standardize the numbers, health officials often look at the rate of positive cases for every 100,000 people in each community. In this metric, Hispanics, with a 747 rating, had the highest rating and whites, at 135.8, had the lowest. In between are other ethnic groups.

Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders are the second most affected among the state’s communities of color, with 334 positive cases as of Wednesday and a rate of 666.7 positive cases per 100,000 people. The American Indian/Alaska Native population, which accounts for 2.3% of Utah’s population, moved to 309 cases — a rate of 428.8. The black community is now at 281 — a rate of 419.5. The Asian community accounts for 208 cases and a rate of 175.1.

Every ethnic group, besides Asians and whites, has more coronavirus cases than one would expect, given the size of the respective populations in Utah.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“I would say that the numbers are numbing but not surprising," said former state Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a leader in Utah’s Hispanic community. "We know that Latinos are less likely to be working in jobs that allow them to stay home. We know they’re more likely to be employed as those determined to be essential workers. They’re in close proximity to other co-workers.”

The health department started disclosing race and ethnicity data in mid-April, when the disparity in positive cases between white Utahns and Utahns of color was first revealed.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said at that time, “We know that our health care system has disparities. And this pandemic is shining a particular bright light on those.”

In mid-April, Hispanics accounted for 28% of the cases, a figure that has grown in recent weeks. Since that time, there have been efforts by community leaders to better inform Utah’s Hispanic community about the risks of the virus and to boost testing.

“I think that unfortunately our people of color and what we’re seeing here predominantly with our Latino community, because we’re the largest minority in the state, we’re the canary in the coal mine," Chavez-Houck said. "And we just need people to recognize that. We need the community to recognize that.”

Utah is hardly unique; nationwide the coronavirus has hit people of color more than whites.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau website, New Mexico (49.1%), Texas (39.6%) and California (39.3%) have the biggest Hispanic populations in the United States.

While the Hispanic demographic is the largest in New Mexico, the American Indian/Alaska Native demographic has been the one to be hit hardest by the pandemic, making up 57.6% of the state’s cases. Hispanics make up 23.39% of COVID-19 cases in that state.

In Texas, Hispanics lead the state with number of cases, but it’s almost on par with the population at 39.7%. While the state is 41.5% white, that demographic accounts for only 27.5% of the cases.

Of California’s cases, 74.9% are amongst Hispanics, while whites make up 9.1% of positive cases. However, that may be in part due to better resources that led to more Hispanics being tested.

Maria Montes, community engagement and advocacy coordinator for Comunidades Unidas, believes there are a variety of factors that play into the “heartbreaking and eye-opening” disparity of case rate per 100,000 in both groups in Utah (747 for Hispanics and 135.8 for whites).

But it starts with the way the state defines who can have access to health care and who cannot.

States like California and Illinois, which also has a high percentage of Hispanic residents, have Medicaid expansions. California allows undocumented immigrants and children of undocumented immigrants to be able to access programs like Medicaid, which can help them receive testing and treatment for COVID-19, Montes said.

“Our state doesn’t allow that,” she said. “Our state mandates that in order for somebody to be eligible for Medicaid, they must be a permanent resident and they’re an adult for five years or more. Those are the kind of challenges that from the beginning sets the stage for this kind of hurricane, this kind of storm to come together because, structurally, our state health care system isn’t created for anybody who has a low income. And though harsh, that’s the reality and I think the numbers and the data can really point to that.”

On Wednesday, the state health department announced that four more Utahns have died from COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 105. The four new fatalities are:

• A Utah County man, between ages 60 and 85, who was hospitalized when he died.

• A Weber County woman, between 60 and 85, who was in a long-term care facility.

• A Weber County woman, older than 85, also in a long-term care facility.

• A Salt Lake County woman, between 18 and 60, who was hospitalized when she died.

The state tallied 86 new cases of COVID-19 since Tuesday and 20 more Utahns went into a hospital because of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of hospitalizations to 716. There are now 96 positive COVID-19 patients in hospitals.

Another 2,034 tests have been processed from the day before, the state reported — which brings the total number of people tested over the 200,000 mark. Of the 200,626 tests performed, 4.3% have been positive for the coronavirus.

— Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this article