Coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affects Hispanics in Georgia

In a visit this year to Hall County, Emory University epidemiologist Jodie Guest and graduate students from the Rollins School of Public Health provided COVID-19 tests to some 450 poultry plant workers, family members and others. Photo by Jack Kearse at Emory University.

Credit: Photo by Jack Kearse at Emory University

Credit: Photo by Jack Kearse at Emory University

Emory University, Mexican consulate in Atlanta team up to offer free COVID-19 testing

Juan Carlos Lomas-Vital’s company is scrambling to keep COVID-19 out of its Braselton chicken processing plant. Face masks — plus face shields — are required for those who work inside. So are disposable plastic aprons and gloves.

Lomas-Vital, the CEO of Vital Foods, said his business has paid infected employees while they have recovered at home, an incentive to remain in quarantine and not go out looking for other work.

“You have to be working on it all the time,” Lomas-Vital said of battling the spread of the highly contagious disease.

Most of his employees are Hispanic, a group disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. About 10% of Georgia’s population is Hispanic. Yet, at least 13% of the more than 200,000 people who have tested positive for the disease in the state are Latinos, according to Georgia’s Public Health Department data, which does not identify the race or ethnicity for nearly half of the cases.

Meanwhile, at least 15% of those hospitalized for the disease in the Peach State have been Hispanic, according to the state agency’s numbers. The data does not identify the race or ethnicity for nearly a quarter of the patients.

Among the reasons for the disparity, experts say, are language barriers, difficulties navigating the public health system, testing labs requiring Social Security numbers — many immigrants don’t have them — and fear of government authorities, particularly immigration enforcement officials.

“There is a high concern because we see the numbers are spiking with Latinos,” said Javier Díaz de León, Mexico’s consul general in Atlanta.

His consulate is teaming up with Emory University to offer free testing for COVID-19 this weekend. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, the testing will be offered at the Mexican consulate in Atlanta at 1700 Chantilly Drive NE. Additional testing will be available this weekend and next weekend at predominantly Hispanic churches in Cumming and Warner Robins.

“We are going to be talking about how important it is to routinely test and to be wearing a mask and to socially isolate when possible,” said Jodie Guest, vice chairwoman of the epidemiology department at Emory, which did testing at Vital Foods’ offices this year.

Many Latinos work in Georgia’s $41 billion poultry industry, which directly employs 45,591 people and is responsible for about 15% of the nation’s poultry production. As of May, 509 poultry workers at 14 facilities across the state had tested positive for the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Nationwide, 17,358 cases have been confirmed among meat and poultry workers during the same time frame. More than 90 have died from the disease, including two in North Georgia.

Vital Foods is routinely checking the temperatures of its employees as they show up for work and keeping tabs on rival plants, which employ relatives. During the spring, between 40 and 50 of Vital Foods’ workers in Georgia tested positive, said Lomas-Vital. Most were asymptomatic. There have been no confirmed cases at the company in recent weeks, he added.

“The toughest time was at the very beginning when really nobody believed the virus,” he said. “We had to kind of push to make sure everybody followed the directions.”

Highlighting his company’s COVID-19 sick leave policy, Lomas-Vital said he could relate to workers in desperate circumstances. Before he started his business, he underwent a kidney transplant and dialysis and was “just barely making it” financially.

“At that time,” he said, “if I lost my job or if I did not work for a week, then I would not be able to buy food the next week. I know how they feel. That is why we did what we did to make sure we pay them for the time they have to be out.”

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