Robert Gehrke: Utah officials should have done more to protect minorities from the coronavirus

Robert Gehrke

As rapidly as new cases of COVID-19 have spread around the state, few places have been harder hit than Salt Lake County’s west side.

In the past two weeks, West Valley City, Kearns, Rose Park and Glendale have reported a combined 893 new cases.

It so happens that those areas have some of the highest percentages of Latino residents in the state, a fact that is exacerbating a devastating truth — Hispanic and Latino Utahns, as well as Pacific Islanders, are bearing a shockingly disproportionate burden of the pandemic.

As of Sunday, Hispanic and Latino residents accounted for nearly 7,500 of Utah’s more than 17,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases and growing by more than 200 per day. A Latino resident in Utah, according to the data, is nearly seven times as likely to contract the disease than a white Utahn.

Polynesian and Black communities are also disproportionately impacted — roughly five times and three times, respectively, more likely than whites to catch the virus. Those three groups account for half of the coronavirus cases and just one-fifth of the state’s population.

Too many of the faces behind the faceless numbers are brown. This pandemic has turned a bright spotlight on the very real socioeconomic and cultural inequalities that have been swept under the rug for too long.

And the disparity becomes more clear as the cases pile up.

Since the virus started to spread, said Liliana Benavidez, an epidemiologist with Salt Lake County, workplaces have been big contributors to the transmission, with certain occupations being particularly hard-hit — construction, manufacturing, in-home services like installers. More recently, we have seen major outbreaks at meat-processing plants and the food industry.

They’re the blue-collar trades where working-class Utahns — especially Hispanic and Latino workers and immigrants — make up a disproportionate portion of the workforce.

“Lately, just in this last week alone, we’ve seen those really big numbers, [but] there isn’t a large outbreak to connect it to, so now it’s just community [spread],” she said.

That is an extremely troubling development. When officials know where the virus is being spread they can step up distancing, cleaning, education and, if necessary, quarantines in order to control it. But when you don’t know where it is, it’s almost impossible to combat.

The rapid growth strains the ability of contact tracers to do their detective work to find the source of exposures and prevent new ones, a challenge that is compounded when they encounter language barriers.

The reason for the rapid spread in the Latino community is fairly well understood.

They have inadequate access to health care. Generally speaking, they live in higher-density housing, often with more than one generation of a family living together. That makes it difficult for someone who has been exposed to isolate themselves and makes it easy for the virus to get passed from family member to family member.

They do jobs that, even during the shutdown, were considered essential and are not conducive to teleworking. They need to work to make ends meet and sometimes will work even if they’re sick. We saw that in the outbreak at the JBS meat-packing plant in Cache County, where infected workers were still told they needed to show up on the line.

Undocumented immigrants, in particular, are vulnerable to those pressures. Benavidez said health officials have also had to work to counter misinformation affecting the Latino community — the idea that those who get tested would end up on a list, that they might lose their jobs if they test positive.

None of these things should have come as a surprise. We knew going in that any contagious disease outbreak has a vastly disproportionate impact on underserved communities, racial and ethnic minorities, and low-income residents.

We knew, but our elected leaders didn’t do enough to put the measures in place to control it.

“I have to continue to express frustration in how things were approached initially, back in March, back in February, when we knew this was coming,” said Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former state legislator who now serves on the state’s COVID-19 multicultural subcommittee.

“You have all these experts who would have been able to provide great counsel to the governor’s office, to the Legislature, to individuals who are making decisions on how to get ahead of potential hot spots and high-risk groups,” she said, “but I don’t see any indication that they were brought in early on.”

Instead of committing resources to organizations that could have been proactive about educating underserved communities about the danger and what to do, money was spent stockpiling worthless malaria medicine and buying a phone app that doesn’t work.

Now Utah’s Latino community is paying the price.

Steps are being taken to try to limit the spread, as my colleagues Alex Vejar and Norma Gonzalez reported last week. Over the weekend, Salt Lake County set up free testing sites in Glendale, Rose Park and West Valley and advertised them in Spanish.

More information is being published in Spanish and the government is working with community organizations to spread it. Spanish-speaking public service announcements are being produced. Masks are being made available through the state’s A Mask For Every Utahn program. More Spanish-speaking disease trackers are being hired. Health officials are focusing efforts on controlling workplace outbreaks and steps are underway to develop a way to report employers who endanger employees by ignoring guidelines to the Labor Commission.

Hopefully these steps will flatten the curve. If they don’t, more drastic steps will need to be taken, because we can’t let Utah’s communities of color become a sacrifice to a quicker economic recovery.