Virginia Is Stepping Up Its COVID-19 Response Among Latinx Communities. Is It Enough? Virginia is stepping up its response to COVID-19 among Latinos. Advocates say there is still more work to do.
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NPR logo Virginia Is Stepping Up Its COVID-19 Response Among Latinx Communities. Is It Enough?

Virginia Is Stepping Up Its COVID-19 Response Among Latinx Communities. Is It Enough?

Paul Rodriguez, left, speaks to medical volunteer Kiana Bell at a mobile testing site run by the Fairfax County Health Department in Chantilly, Va. Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU

Paul Rodriguez, 43, a party entertainer, answered a greeter's questions Tuesday in Chantilly, Va. No, he had not had fever or flu-like symptoms in the last two weeks. No, nobody in his home had fever or flu. No, he had not worked outside his home in the last two weeks. But he wanted to get a COVID-19 test anyway.

"What I hear is people who doesn't have symptoms can be sick also," said Rodriguez, who moved to the U.S. from Peru about 20 years ago.

He was among some 400 patients who received free coronavirus testing over two days at a mobile unit sent by the Fairfax County Health Department. The unit operated out of a red and white truck parked in a residential community. On the lawn next to an empty communal pool, medical workers and volunteers bustled between tents. Rodriguez walked to a white tent where he had his nose swabbed, then walked home.

This program to test people like Rodriguez is new, and it's in response to persistent high rates of infection among Latinx communities in Virginia. In Fairfax County, for example, half the COVID-19 cases for which demographic data is available are Latino, three times their share of the population.

Medical volunteers work at a tent in Chantilly, Va., operated by the Fairfax County Health Department as part of a mobile testing program. Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU

Previously, Fairfax County delegated its COVID testing to nonprofits and clinics, while supporting their operations financially.

"Early in this pandemic there were limitations on testing because there were issues with the supply of test kits, the supply of test materials that were needed to do testing," said Fairfax County Health Department spokesman John Silcox. "That's changed over time."

Amira Roess, professor of Global Health and Epidemiology at George Mason University, said lack of tests was just part of the problem.

"Virginia, along with most states and jurisdictions in the US, did an inadequate job of reaching out to vulnerable and minority populations," she said.

Rodriguez, for example, told DCist/WAMU that he lost his sense of smell in April. He knew someone who had been diagnosed for COVID-19. He found out about free testing, but to get it, he needed a doctor's order—and a visit to the doctor would cost $200 each for him, his wife, and their two children. The sum was inconceivable as he lost work amid the pandemic. Rather than spend the money, Rodriguez stayed home.

Now, Fairfax County Health Department spokesman John Silcox said a team within his department picks sites for testing based on outbreaks among lower-income, vulnerable populations. The mobile unit parks are within walking distance of residents and patients can walk up without a doctor's referral.

Although the county has taken a more robust role in testing, it is still leaning on outside groups for followup care. Silcox said if patients test positive for COVID-19 and do not have primary care doctors, the county refers them to Federally Qualified Health Centers or free clinics.

"We've been doing these events for a few weeks now and as the summer goes on we'll continue to set up these types of testing events in different areas of the county," Silcox said.

This initiative is among several government projects to help Latinx communities with COVID-19. In May and June, the Virginia Department of Health set up one-day driveup testing sites across the state. Four bilingual staffers from the Centers for Disease Control are surveying Latinx patients with COVID in neighboring Prince William County, according to Prince William Health District Director Dr. Alison Ansher.

In mid-June, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) hosted a coronavirus briefing in Fairfax County and invited multiple Spanish speakers to give information about the pandemic. Dalia Palchik (D-Braddock), the first Latina elected to the Fairfax county board, urged residents to call a Spanish-language hotline for help with healthcare or basic needs and said services would be offered confidentially and without regard to immigration status.

This work is bolstering the efforts of nonprofits that were already helping deliver healthcare and financial assistance to Latinx communities.

Dr. Basim Khan, executive director of the Neighborhood Health network of FQHC clinics, said he noticed contact tracing growing more robust alongside testing.

"It's taken some time, but I feel like things are moving in the right direction and systems are being put into place," he said.

Khan's patients are primarily low-income, and the vast majority of his COVID-19 patients are Latinx. Khan said he noticed among his patients that the percentage of positive tests was going down—a sign the disease was less persistent. Still, he said the government efforts were vital to prevent another flareup of the pandemic.

"You have to be able to contain it," Khan said. "I don't think of it as a too little, too late thing."

Virginia has hired more contact tracers: the state has hired 456 contractors, and Fairfax and Arlington together hired another 110 people. In addition to reassigned healthcare workers, Virginia has a total of 1204 contact tracers, said Virginia Department of Health spokeswoman Tammie Smith. She said the department was compiling demographic reports, and emphasizing bilingual workers. "Spanish is the number one language," she wrote.

Luis Aguilar, director of immigrant advocacy group CASA Virginia, says efforts to help Latinx communities with COVID-19 are improving but still inadequate. Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU

Luis Aguilar, director of the immigrant advocacy group CASA Virginia, spoke at Northam's June 18 press conference. He says the increased government response is welcome but incomplete.

"We continue to see people needing support for rental assistance food assistance, healthcare assistance," he said.

Some people did not know about the free testing efforts. Others faced an economic crisis because of the pandemic and were not connected to the county's resources.

Rodriguez, the patient who got tested, found out he was negative. He said he took his family to get tested Wednesday and they were negative as well. However, he said he was struggling because he had no work. Instead, he canceled his wireless internet service and negotiated a lower rate with his cell phone company. He just missed a rent payment as Virginia's moratorium on evictions expires. He hesitated to apply for unemployment insurance or welfare because he did not want to be a public charge and jeopardize his chances of becoming a U.S. citizen.

"Normally we work and we are a happy family," he said.

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