Sicker-At-Work? Persistent Economic Factors Drive Higher COVID-19 Infection Rate In Weld County's Latinos
Lately, conversations during family dinner in Erika Cardenas’ home are focused on how everyone got sick with COVID-19.
“We are like, well, we were there this day and we started feeling symptoms this day,” she said, describing the back and forth at the dinner table. “But I guess since everybody was working and everything, we can't figure it out.”
All eight members of the household tested positive for COVID-19 in early December. Her mother and aunt, who work on the line at the JBS meatpacking facility in Greeley, were the first to find out they had the virus.
“I was more scared for them that I was scared for myself,” Cardenas said.
Her dad and uncle are oilfield workers. Her cousin has a job in retail and Cardenas herself is a farmers market manager for the City of Greeley.
The family did everything right, Cardenas said, like staying inside except for work and to buy basic necessities, wearing masks and, at times, even gloves when they do go out.
“We thought we were not too much at risk, right? I guess we leaned on the mentality that ‘it's not going to happen to me,’ right?” she said. “But it happened.”
Their story is not unique. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hispanic and Latino people in Weld County and statewide have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Complex, long-standing economic factors have forced members of this community into environments that put them at a higher risk of catching the virus.
“Not to generalize, but in the communities where we were seeing this occurring — and not just the Latino community, but kind of the people of color overall — their job positions put them in places where they could not socially isolate,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of Infection Prevention for the UCHealth hospital system.
From March to December 30, about half of all coronavirus hospitalizations at the UCHeath Greeley Hospital were Hispanic, according to data provided to KUNC. They also made up over half of all the intensive care unit cases.
The county’s only other hospital is owned by Banner Health. A spokesperson for the hospital system said they lacked the resources to provide similar data in time for publication.
“So there's so many reasons when you look at it and you just think, oh, my gosh, this is like the worst thing that could have ever happened,” Dr. Barron said. “Because it's like check, check, check, every risk that you could potentially have, these groups generally did.”
"Every risk that you could potentially have, these groups generally did.”
Maricela Guzman's 78-year-old grandmother spent most of December, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in a Fort Collins ICU with COVID-19. She was transferred out of Weld County because both its hospitals were at capacity.
“She was sick and then she felt fine,” Guzman said, “And then she got sick again and she felt fine. And then this last time it got her really worse.”
Guzman also lives with a big, multi-generational family with several essential workers and school-aged children. And, like Cardenas, Guzman’s family has no idea how the virus got into their home.
She was particularly worried she'd bring the coronavirus home from work at a Greeley King Soopers. Still, she kept clocking in; Guzman had to provide for her family.
For some, the impossible choice between economic survival and family health is the key driver of high infection rates, experts said.
“When COVID first hit these employers, their response was untimely and it was inadequate. They were not prepared for this pandemic,” said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Colorado. They represent workers at JBS, medical professionals and grocery store employees like Maricela Guzman.
“What workers have found is that they've been treated as sacrificial or fungible widgets, as just objects in these facilities for the sake of production and profit,” she said, pointing to systemic racism as the primary factor behind the higher representation of Hispanic and Latino people in these kinds of jobs.
Erika Cardenas’ mom and aunt are two of several hundred workers at the JBS Greeley facility who have gotten sick. Six have died. The federal government fined JBS for failing to protect its workers during the first outbreak in April. But, in a written statement to KUNC, the company disputes the charge that it has neglected health and safety at any stage.
Cardenas’ mom and aunt declined to speak with KUNC; they were not the only JBS employees who declined to be interviewed. There's a “culture” at the plant that discourages workers from speaking out, according to Cordova. The company told KUNC that it "completely disagrees" with that characterization. A spokesperson pointed to efforts to encourage transparency, like anonymous, multi-lingual reporting hotlines for both COVID and non-COVID issues employees have at work.
JBS claims contact tracing shows the second November outbreak isn’t a result of spread within the facility. Colorado’s Department of Health and Environment has not responded to a request to confirm that claim.
Cordova doesn’t just blame the companies. She also blames local government.
“Somehow it's a constitutional violation to try to enforce safety,” she said, clearly frustrated by the county. “But nobody's thinking about these workers’ right to pursue life or to be safe at work.”
Weld County has been ignoring state public health orders, encouraging residents to feel “Safer-At-Work” while the state and public health experts beg people to stay home. The county public health department and commissioners declined to be interviewed for this series. The commissioners, who are in direct control of the county’s health department, did speak with KUNC’s Colorado Edition in May. They emphasized that they were primarily concerned about the county’s economy and their belief that state public health orders infringed on constitutional rights.
“Most certainly the health issue is something that we have to consider something that we have proactively considered, but not only do we see people getting sick and some people dying, but we also see an economy dying,” Commissioner Scott James told Colorado Edition host Erin O’Toole.
Basic, 'gargantuan' issues
Dr. Mark Wallace led the county health department until he retired in May. He is now the chief clinical officer of Sunrise Community Health Clinics and medical director of the Northern Colorado Health Alliance.
Dr. Wallace remembers the beginning of the pandemic, particularly the first JBS outbreak, as a “traumatic” experience.
“I would get calls every day from the hospitals saying, ‘Hey, we're overloaded. And it appears (the patients are) telling us they’re from JBS,” he said.
Dr. Wallace said he knew the basic steps to take against a respiratory infection like COVID-19, but said getting through all the politics and red tape hampered his “ability to move quickly and pivot quickly” as cases started going up.
But ultimately, he said this is much bigger than local officials or companies.
“I've been around this rodeo enough times that where we end up coming back to are these basic issues that are gargantuan,” he said, referring to risk factors that non-white communities are more likely to face. Risks that he and other public health experts have been trying to call attention to for years, he said.
“It was such a structural issue that has been so historic that it couldn't be corrected overnight,” Wallace said. “I'm not sure that we could have had any one thing that could have corrected it.”
He’s clear that he’s not saying efforts to mitigate the disproportionate spread of COVID in Hispanic communities aren’t happening, are hopeless or shouldn’t be expanded.
“You can point fingers around a complex system all the time,” Wallace said. “The problem is, and we all know it, when you look at political will and institutional willingness to change, that can move very slowly and in a different path to get there (compared to) folks who can say ‘we work here on the ground, we see it. We know what some of the solutions are.'”
"When you look at political will and institutional willingness to change, that can move very slowly and in a different path to get there (compared to) folks who can say ‘we work here on the ground, we see it. We know what some of the solutions are.'”
Likewise, looking back, Erika Cardenas isn’t sure her family could have avoided getting sick. But she doesn’t see her family-filled home as a “risk factor.” Money is not the primary reason they’re all living together, she said.
“We like living together, I guess. Us Hispanic, we try to stay together as long as possible,” she said. “We have been living with my aunt since they moved to the U.S.”
Cardenas says the virus spreading through their home hasn’t changed just how comforting of an environment it is for her. Her family has mostly recovered from mild symptoms; a few have even been able to get back to work. But, they’re all worried about playing any part in further spread of the coronavirus in their community.
“I am really sad,” she said, thinking about the growing cases in her community. “I just want to tell everybody to be safe. And like everybody, we are exposed to the virus, so just be safe and try not to go out a lot, I guess.”
This is part one of KUNC's series, "Over-Infected, Under-Resourced: COVID-19 Hits Colorado Latinos Hard." Click here for more stories.