As coronavirus cases rise, public health experts race to reach Latinos

Latinos make up 60% of the population in the 10 ZIP codes in Illinois with the fastest growing number of new COVID-19 cases, according to a recent analysis.

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A woman wearing a protective mask walks past a closed wedding store in Little Village, April 15, 2020. The Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative, a new collective of more than two dozen public health experts and elected officials, is racing to reach Latino communities with info on how to prevent the virus’ spread.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP photo

Dr. Marina Del Rios has lost count of how many coronavirus myths she’s had to dispel on social media.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to correct my own family on rumors flying around the internet about how if you do gargles with vinegar or lemon juice and baking soda, that somehow that’s going to protect your throat from the entry of the virus,” she said.

So when a Puerto Rican community group asked her to make a bilingual video about the virus, Del Rios, a professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, quickly said yes — but hit a wall when looking for sources on COVID-19 in Spanish.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “had plenty of information in English,” Del Rios said, “but when you look at the Spanish version of the website and click on a lot of those links, it takes you to a website that’s in English.”

Del Rios is a member of the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative, a new collective of more than two dozen public health experts and elected officials racing to reach as many people in the state’s large Latino community before the virus spreads further.

“We have to think more creatively than press conferences and newspapers,” she said. “Mayor Lori Lightfoot is a good example. She used social media very effectively to reach out to the African American population, but I don’t see an equivalent of that in Spanish.”

It’s unclear how widespread the coronavirus has become among the Latino community.

While Latinos make up 14% of confirmed cases in Illinois, some who have tested positive for the coronavirus were mislabeled as being white in the data, WBEZ reported Wednesday. Many Latinos also lack access to coronavirus testing sites.

What’s not unclear is that majority-Latino areas have become major hotspots for the virus.

Latinos make up 60% of the population in the 10 ZIP codes in Illinois with the fastest growing number of new COVID-19 cases, according to a recent analysis of state and census data by Chicago-based Enigma Forensics.

Those numbers suggest officials should do a better job of reaching out to Latino neighborhoods on how to mitigate the spread of the virus, the report said.

One idea posed by the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative is to give napkins to restaurants and food delivery drivers with printed information about the coronavirus.

“We have to think outside the box,” said Eddy Borrayo, president and chief executive of Rincon Family Services, a mental health nonprofit with five clinics in the Northwest Side.

“A lot of Latinos work in restaurants and in the food industry. We know the CDC is promoting health guidelines, but a lot of that information isn’t reaching our community. It’s up to us to make it happen.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.

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