COVID-19 strikes deep in Georgia’s Latinx communities

Latinx Georgians have an infection rate three times higher than the state average

COVID-19 strikes deep in Georgia’s Latinx communities
An Emory COVID-19 testing site in Hall County, where many poultry plant workers contracted COVID-19

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

In her years of helping migrant families in Gainesville, the “Poultry Capital of the World,” Vanesa Sarazua has seen plenty of hardship—families huddled together in a small house, children without enough food—but nothing compares with the dire circumstances she is encountering in the wake of a surging pandemic. The state’s vulnerable populations are hit hard by the pandemic, and some of the highest rates of infection are occurring in Latinx communities.

Sarazua recalls how the coronavirus took hold in one Gainesville family, sickening the mother and each of four children one by one, over a period of two months. The youngest, a 7-year-old boy, developed multi-system inflammatory syndrome, a rare childhood disorder triggered by the coronavirus that causes persistent fever and damage to the heart and other organs. Nationally, Latinx children make up almost one-third of cases—more than any other race or ethnicity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Working through the nonprofit organization she founded in 2017, Hispanic Alliance Georgia, Sarazua gave the family rent assistance and food, as well as money for gas and parking so the mother could afford to travel back and forth to the hospital in Atlanta where the boy received treatment for two weeks. (He recovered.)

Another family hadn’t eaten for two days and had no electricity, Sarazua discovered. The grandmother, matriarch of the family, had been sick and unable to work. Her daughter had a toddler and was pregnant. Hispanic Alliance Georgia helped pay her rent and utilities and delivered an emergency food box, a project launched to help home-bound families as cases spiked in Hall County in April. A monthly drive-thru food distribution began in May, and it continues to attract hundreds of people.

“Our focus was on providing food and any relief we could for those families that were affected by COVID and didn’t have any other relief,” she says. “Families would call us and say, ‘We haven’t been working for a month.’” Immigrant families don’t qualify for federal stimulus funds or assistance if any family member lacks legal status.

Since COVID-19 emerged in Georgia in March, it has spread rapidly among those considered essential workers, including people who process chicken, work in restaurant kitchens, build homes, or provide other services. In Echols County, on the Georgia-Florida border, seasonal migrant workers travel in crowded buses, live in shared housing, and pick fruits and vegetables side by side. It has the state’s highest rate of COVID-19 infection, with more than 4,700 infections per 100,000. (The county population is only 4,000, but because of outbreaks among migrant farm workers, it has more than 185 COVID-19 cases.)

Gwinnett County, the second most populous and most ethnically diverse county in the state, leads the state with more than 10,000 reported COVID-19 cases. While every part of the county has been affected, cases have been concentrated in the most densely populated areas, including Latinx communities in Norcross and Lilburn, where multiple families or generations of a single family live together, says Audrey Arona, CEO and district health director for Gwinnett, Newton, and Rockdale County Health Departments.

A graph of Gwinnett’s COVID-19 spread roughly mirrors the statewide trends, with a plateau in April, a dip in early May and a sharp rise in June. Contact tracing by the health department hasn’t detected superspreading events, such as a church gathering or funeral or celebration, says Arona. Transmission patterns also haven’t been linked to particular workplaces. “It’s more related to where people live in the county as opposed to where they work,” Arona says.

Overall, Latinx people make up 9 percent of the state’s population but one-third of its COVID-19 cases, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data for which ethnicity was reported. “When you look at Georgia and the epidemic overall, COVID-19 is taking advantage of multi-generational health disparities and health inequities,” says Jodie Guest, vice chair of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. Black Georgians are also at disproportionately high risk of contracting COVID-19 and having more severe disease.

Guest created “pop-up” testing sites in the parking lot of a poultry plant in Hall County, offering tests to family members of poultry workers to support the state’s testing efforts. “When we take the testing to communities at risk, we reduce a barrier to testing and we get much higher rates of testing, which is what we want,” Guest says. “We also want to make sure our testing sites feel very safe.” The rate of positive tests at the Emory sites has ranged from 16 to 28 percent, she says; overall in Georgia, about 9 percent of COVID-19 tests are positive.

Supported by a $7.8 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the Emory COVID-19 Response Collaborative is partnering with the Georgia Department of Public Health on testing, contact tracing, a statewide prevalence survey, and other public health efforts.

Community testing began in earnest in Hall County in late March and early April. Internist Antonio Rios recalls an early testing event sponsored by the Good News Clinic, a free health clinic, and the Northeast Georgia Health System. About half of the 350 people tested positive—whether they had symptoms or not. That astonishing tally was followed by an even larger event. Of 1,000 people tested, about a third were positive for COVID-19. The poultry industry was a common link.

Still, Georgia’s poultry industry has been able to avoid the shutdowns that affected meatpacking plants around the country. On July 7, the CDC released a report on the impact of COVID-19 on meat and poultry plant workers. Through May 31, 509 of 16,500 workers in 14 Georgia poultry plants tested positive for COVID-19—or 3.1 percent. One died. In comparison, 24.5 percent of workers in South Dakota beef and pork plants tested positive. Iowa did not update its figures, but by the end of April, 18 percent of its meat and poultry workers had tested positive, according to the CDC.

For reasons that aren’t fully understood, Latinx workers are more likely to become sick, the CDC said. They represent 56 percent of the cases among meat and poultry plants in which race and ethnicity were known, even though they make up just 30 percent of the workers.

Poultry plants began checking employees for symptoms early on in the pandemic, and as the public health advice became clearer, the companies stepped up their prevention efforts, says Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. By the time the CDC came out with guidelines for meat and poultry processing facilities on April 26—and as cases were spiking in Hall County and elsewhere—preventive measures were already in place. Today, the plants follow sanitation protocols, require employees to wear masks, and place plastic sheeting or plexiglass barriers between work stations, he says.

Yet that doesn’t help much if employees carpool to work and gather together after their shifts, especially if they lack personal protective equipment. The Georgia Poultry Federation and Georgia Emergency Management Agency distributed 150,000 masks to the community. A local task force spearheaded an awareness campaign, and many Hall County businesses now have stickers on their windows that say “No Mascara! No Servicio! No mask! No Service!”

“The community has been very responsive to the direction that is being given to them in terms of wearing masks,” says Rios, who is chief physician executive at the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.

Rios answers questions in live events on Facebook, sponsored by the Hispanic Alliance Georgia. COVID-19 has laid bare the deeper health issues facing vulnerable communities—untreated and undertreated hypertension, diabetes, and other ailments that make them more susceptible.

“I really, really hope at the end of COVID-19, whenever that may be, that a positive outcome will be that we have a national conversation about the health inequities, racism, and disparities we’ve got in our country,” says Guest. “That conversation must be broad. It has to include everyone who lives in the United States who suffers these inequities.”