Utah Latinos are urged to stay safe from COVID-19, avoid big holiday gatherings

(Kristin Murphy | Deseret News, pool) Edwin Espinal, Utah Department of Health Spanish public information officer, speaks during a Spanish language COVID-19 press briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

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Although the spread of the coronavirus has slowed among Utah Latinos, they are still overrepresented in daily cases — and with the holidays approaching, officials urged the community to avoid large gatherings.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert spoke Tuesday during a Spanish language news conference aimed at helping Latinos, who currently suffer 28.6% of the state’s COVID-19 cases, while they make up only 14.4% of its population.

Edwin Espinal, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Health, said that actually shows improvement because at one point, Hispanics had more than 40% of the state’s coronavirus cases.

He said officials believe that percentage has dropped because of public education programs with Latinos stressing wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands. But he added that officials worry about upcoming holidays.

Espinal said he heard one person say he loves his mother and wants to see her at Christmas. But he said, “We have to recognize that I love my mother more than Christmas,” so it’s important to avoid large family gatherings.

Dr. Wing Province, a native of Mexico who is an emergency room doctor for Intermountain Healthcare, said that he traveled earlier this year to New York City to help when COVID-19 was out of control there. He wishes Utahns could see what he did, to help them take the virus more seriously — including seeing trailers filling up with corpses outside the hospital.

“So far, things aren’t as bad here in Utah as they were in New York,” he said in Spanish. “But we are approaching here in Utah the levels I saw in New York.”

He said people ages 19 to 90 are now in Utah hospitals, and people are dying alone here.

“The truth is this virus kills more Hispanics than whites," he said. "And those who don’t die from the virus, many cannot work for weeks,” and become unable to support their families.

Province urged people who have symptoms to be tested. He said he has heard that some undocumented immigrants refuse to be tested because they worry hospital personnel may talk about them to police or immigration officials.

“That is not right,” Province said. “We are here to help you,” and said hospital officials will not share personal information without permission.

He also warned that hospitals are at near capacity. “Soon there will arrive a time when we can’t give attention to everyone who needs it, just like in New York…. Imagine what it will be like in a month when there will be COVID and influenza.”

He added hospital personnel “are tired emotionally and physically…. Please, help us.”

He emphasized: “Please always use a mask in public. Wash your hands… Avoid meetings with a lot of people.”

Herbert said he wants to emphasize that death from COVID-19 is not the only concern it creates. He’s also worried about “what we don’t know about the long-term effects of this growing virus and the debilitating impacts it has on people’s lives.”

His daughter, who had COVID-19 over three months ago, still hasn’t regained her full sense of smell, he said, and a 13-year-old granddaughter has lost both her sense of smell and taste.

“Can you imagine a 13-year old girl who is now losing weight because she is nauseated when she smells food?” he said. “It is hard for her to eat, and there are some foods that she just cannot eat anymore.”

Herbert was asked why he has not issued a mandatory mask mandate statewide. He said current criteria makes masks mandatory in 21 of Utah’s 29 counties.

“We’ve tried not to have one-size fits all approach. We’ve had many rural counties that have had very few instances, very few deaths," he said. “It would seem to be inappropriate to have them have a higher restriction than their transmission rate would warrant.”