GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Not everyone is being impacted by COVID-19 in the same way. Across Michigan and in Kent County, some groups suffer more than others.
“About 10% of our population here in Kent County is Hispanic, but to date, about 30% of our COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in those who are Hispanic,” Dr. Brian Hartl, supervising epidemiologist for the Kent County Health Department, told News 8 Wednesday.
That is higher than any other racial group — though African Americans, who make up about 10% of the county population, accounts for about 20% of infections, according to county data.
“We are seeing a rise, that’s very troubling,” said Adnoris Torres, director of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, which has been working to get help to the Latino community and to increase communication. “The pandemic has been occurring since March and there are still persons not fully aware of what’s going on.”
He says that the Hispanic population’s lack of access to some safety gear makes the situation worse.
“It’s concerning that even though there are efforts to communicate out to the community, we haven’t seen PPE accessible for communities that are predominately Latinx,” Torres said.
In Kent County, there are migratory and undocumented workers who have typically not had access to health care, education and other social services.
“When we see persons that may have housing inequity, you may have multiple families living in a dwelling because that’s what they can afford now,” Torres said. “Those persons are not receiving $1,200 checks, those persons can’t apply for unemployment.”
While the Kent County Health Department offers all of its information in Spanish and many other languages, officials say sometimes information translated from English to another language doesn’t resonate.
This disparity is not a Kent County problem alone. There are similar situations nationwide. But COVID-19 didn’t create the disparities, according to John Austin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution policy research organization and director of the Michigan Economic Center.
“All of these conditions have been there for some time, they just now manifest with death and with infection at higher rates,” Austin said.
Austin says northern Midwestern cities like Grand Rapids are among the most segregated in the U.S. in terms of dense concentrations of minorities. He said the historic disparities leave the Hispanic population vulnerable.
“If someone shows up infected from their job as a bagger at Kroger and brings it home, you’re more likely to infect more people if you have a larger household,” Austin said.
Kent County statistics show those infected with coronavirus are younger than in the majority population, likely meaning they are contracting it while working in essential jobs in agriculture and the service sector.
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist is heading a state task force looking at racial disparities in coronavirus.
“It’s tragic to think that more deaths openly being seen now can finally drive some greater attention, but the proof will be in the pudding,” Austin said.
Kent County officials warn that higher infection rates in any segment of the population will keep the numbers from going down overall. Hartl said the department is working hard on communicating safety messages and listening to the needs of the Hispanic community.
Torres says eight Hispanic agencies in involved in the La Lucha Fund through the Grand Rapids Community Foundation are reaching out to help families with everything from groceries to rent to health expenses to child care. They have received more than 800 applications for aid.
“Those are the communities that should be extended more grace, should be approached at a higher rate,” Torres said.