Utah coronavirus outbreaks at work hit Latinos, other minorities far harder than others, federal study shows

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Certified Nurse-Midwife, Marti Nightingale holds a sign during protest at the State Capitol. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is asking Gov. Herbert to close meatpacking plants in the state to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, July 30, 2020.

Since COVID-19 hit Utah workplaces, 73% of the infected workers have been Latinos or other minorities — even though they made up only 24% of the employees in the affected industries.

That suggests those workers are victims of “systemic social inequities,” and need extra efforts from their employers and health officials to protect them.

That’s according to a scientific paper published Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using data and research by the Utah Department of Health and local county health departments. It looked at COVID-19 outbreaks in Utah between March 6 and June 5.

“Systemic social inequities have resulted in the overrepresentation of Hispanic and nonwhite workers in frontline occupations” that are more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus, the paper said.

“Extra vigilance in the sector is needed to ensure prevention and mitigation strategies are applied equitably and effectively to workers of racial and ethnic groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” it said.

The paper noted that about 12% of all COVID-19 cases during the study period came from outbreaks at workplaces, defined as at least two people in the same work facility having laboratory-confirmed cases within a 14-day period.

The 210 workplaces outbreaks occurred in 15 of 20 industry sectors monitored in the state. Nearly half occurred in just three sectors: manufacturing (20% of the total), construction (15%) and wholesale trade (14%).

Latinos comprise a large portion of the workers at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, where an outbreak that began in late May sickened 385 workers, according to the Bear River Health Department.

The paper said that disparity found in Utah workplaces and in meat processing plants in other states “might be driven, in part, by longstanding health and social inequities, resulting in the overrepresentation of Hispanic and nonwhite workers in frontline occupations” where coronavirus infection is more likely.

“Hispanic and nonwhite workers have less flexible work schedules and fewer telework options compared with white and non-Hispanic workers,” it said.

“Lack of job flexibility (i.e., ability to vary when to start and end work), lack of telework options, and unpaid or punitive sick leave policies might prevent workers from staying home and seeking care when ill, resulting in more workplace exposures, delayed treatment, and more severe COVID-19 outcomes.”

So the paper recommends, where possible, that more flexible work schedules, nonpunitive paid sick leave and telework options be offered more equitably to minorities.

It added that efforts should be made to offer more plain-language guidance from the CDC and the Utah Department of Health to help employers manage and prevent workplace outbreaks.

It said employers and health officials should ensure their strategies use “culturally and linguistically responsive materials and messages, which reach workers of racial and ethnic minority groups, especially those disproportionately affected by workplace COVID-19 outbreaks.”

More recent data from the Utah Department of Health shows that as of Monday, Hispanics have contracted 37% of COVID-19 cases in Utah so far from all sources and not just workplace outbreaks. Hispanics make up 14.4% of Utah’s overall population.

Yehemy Zavala Orozco, community education director for Comunidades Unidas, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants, talked Monday in a webcast by Voices for Utah Children about some systemic challenges that she says make it harder for Latinos and new immigrants to fight COVID-19.

For example, her group has tried to help some families who tested positive to stay home. But obtaining services they need to financially afford that as they live paycheck to paycheck — such as food stamps or emergency aid — often take 15 days, or longer than their quarantine time, with no way to cover costs in the meantime.

“Immigrants in this state do not necessarily understand how the system works, but also our systems do not make the effort to understand us,” she said.

“So they [state officials] say, ‘Oh, they have everything that they need. We are providing them the services,’” Orozco said. “But then we make so many different rules. We make the applications really hard for them,” so services often are not obtained and people take chances they should not that may spread the illness.

Some lack of services can even include COVID-19 tests themselves, Orozco said. She said immigrants especially often cannot afford them unless they are free, and need someone who speaks their language to administer them. She said that often has not been available.

Roberto Perez Valencia died of coronavirus Aug. 7 at Mountain View Hospital in Payson. Valencia worked on a mink farm in Utah County. His wife, Gabriela Hueramo, works at a Walmart store.

Hueramo told The Salt Lake Tribune last week she doesn’t know where she and Valencia, as well as their three daughters, contracted the virus. (Hueramo and her daughters are recovering.)

While Hueramo and Valencia had sick pay and insurance, she attributed the high rate of infection for Latinos to them working jobs that require public interaction and don’t pay benefits.

“I think that’s the big factor here right now — the lack of medical insurance and the lack of being able to get basic medical attention,” Hueramo said.