Skagit County’s Hispanic population is suffering disproportionately from COVID-19.
About 60% of the county’s positive COVID-19 cases have been in the Hispanic community, despite making up about 18% of the population, according to county data.
In response, the county contracted with Community Action of Skagit County to coordinate an outreach plan to fix this disparity.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone has what they need to be healthy,” said Kayla Schott-Bresler, deputy county administrator.
Schott-Bresler said the disparity in positive cases doesn’t mean Hispanics are intentionally failing to follow public health guidelines, which are available in English and Spanish on the county website. Rather, she said it has more to do with conditions that amplify health concerns.
Persistent societal inequalities in economic stability, housing and education each fit into a public health framework called the social determinants of health, she said.
Hispanic families, in Skagit County and elsewhere, are more likely to live in crowded homes or work in low-paying essential jobs, meaning they’re at higher risk of catching and spreading the virus, Schott-Bresler said.
“All these social determinants of health are working against some members of the community,” she said.
Jose Ortiz, director of Catholic Community Services’ Farmworker Resource Center, said he knew when the pandemic started that because of these determinants the virus would disproportionately impact the Hispanic community.
“It scares me,” he said, adding that the county’s data likely doesn’t reflect the true impact on the Hispanic community because of the relatively low number of Hispanics getting testing.
He said Hispanic families are less likely to have health insurance, and are often reluctant to go the doctor.
“They take care of themselves,” he said. Unless symptoms are severe, “they’re not going to go to the hospital. I guarantee it.”
And because of a shortage of affordable housing, Hispanic families often live in an apartment with one or two other families, Ortiz said. Practicing social distancing is impossible in an apartment with this many people.
“It’s easy to isolate yourself if you have your own bedroom,” he said.
Elizabeth Jennings, community engagement manager with Community Action, is coordinating the nonprofit’s messaging to the Hispanic community.
She said Community Action was brought in by county Public Health in late April to coordinate outreach because of its close relationships with the Hispanic community.
In conversations with members of the nonprofit’s Latinx Advisory Committee, Jennings said her team learned the educational material provided by Public Health wasn’t the problem.
“It wasn’t the message, it was the messenger,” she said. “It needs to come from a trusted source.”
With this in mind, Community Action staff who already worked with the Hispanic community are now meeting one-on-one with Hispanic families, teaching them about the importance of masks and social distancing, Jennings said.
Iris Carias, a Mount Vernon City Council member who also works in Community Action’s Women, Infants and Children programs and in the Mount Vernon School District’s migrant program, is helping with the outreach.
Since early in the pandemic, she has been on a team that has been delivering personal protective equipment to Hispanic families and teaching them how to use it, she said.
To keep a safe distance, she stands in their driveways and models the personal protective equipment.
“Hispanic people, that’s the way they learn,” she said.
Carias said she’s crafted a message based on selflessness and cooperation, and that emphasizes the benefits masks and social distancing have on friends and family.
“I wear my mask to protect you,” she said. “Please wear your mask to protect me.”
In the time since this home visit program began, Carias said she’s seen an increase in the use of masks and in social distancing in the Hispanic community.
Interest in the program is increasing too, she said, as she gets calls from more and more families who have heard about the program and want help.
“When they see me, they stay far from me (and) they wear their mask,” Carias said.
At the same time, the business community is giving Hispanic business owners information to share with customers.
Silvia Reed, business development and foundation director for the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce, is working to counter ingrained cultural norms and let Hispanic residents know that they’re temporarily unsafe.
Hispanic parents tend to bring their families along when running errands, she said, which creates more opportunities for infection.
Reed said Hispanics are typically more physically demonstrative than Anglo-Americans, and it’s been difficult to communicate how important it is to stop hugging and shaking hands.
“For the time being, you have to keep your distance,” she said. “All of that is distinctly not part of the culture.”
Reed said she feels like the education isn’t getting traction quite yet, as she’s still seeing large groups of Hispanics ignoring public health guidelines. So the chamber is collaborating with Community Action to host a July 16 online panel discussion aimed at Hispanic households and business owners who have questions about best practices.
Ortiz said he too is seeing people he’s educated about wearing masks failing to wear them when he’s not watching, and is seeing farmworkers working too close to each other.
He suggested county Public Health focus its outreach on some of the larger apartment complexes, including going to them once a week to check in with residents.
He said it’s common in Mexico to see cars with loudspeakers advertising or broadcasting information to pedestrians. That, he said, could be something to try in predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.
“I think we’ve got to think a little differently than we are used to,” Ortiz said.