Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Northern Virginia, A Grassroots Push To Help Latinos Combat Coronavirus


Latino households across the country are really feeling the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, and it's been especially hard on their medical and economic health. That's because language barriers and immigration status can make it harder to access health care or unemployment benefits. From WAMU's 1A program, correspondent Sasha-Ann Simons shares the stories of Northern Virginia families on the front lines of the pandemic.


SASHA-ANN SIMONS, BYLINE: On this spring day at Four Mile Run Park in Alexandria, the greenery isn't filled with parents and their children enjoying the fresh air. The park is kid-free. Instead, grown-ups in masks stand waiting in two lines - what's now a makeshift coronavirus testing site. And cars are also driving through.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SIMONS: A worker from Neighborhood Health, a chain of medical clinics in Northern Virginia, asks a woman driving a crowded silver minivan to present her ID, keeping the windows up. Neighborhood Health patients are mostly low-income or uninsured. Fifty percent are Latino. Doctors say that community is the hardest hit with COVID-19 in this area.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SIMONS: The patient is told to pull over to the second parking space. And on the other side of the lot, medical assistant Jessica Alvarenga calls the next walk-up patient to her booth.

JESSICA ALVARENGA: The next walk-up can come up.

SIMONS: The man approaches and sits down in front of Alvarenga on the other side of a large divider. She asks for his name and then explains how the test will work.

ALVARENGA: (Speaking Spanish).

SIMONS: So far, Neighborhood Health has tested hundreds of patients for COVID-19, and more than half came back positive. Of those results, 88% belong to Latino patients. Many struggle to isolate themselves even when they've tested positive. The patients, hailing mostly from Central America, often work low-paying jobs deemed essential, sometimes with no protective gear. Dr Basim Khan is the executive director of Neighborhood Health.

BASIM KHAN: Because they have this illness, they're - you know, they're obviously not able to work. They're struggling to keep food on the table. So it's been a really stressful and challenging situation for a lot of our patients who have tested positive.

SIMONS: And Dr. Khan says many of his patients live in crowded conditions at home.


SIMONS: Courtney Rigell-van Schagen talks to many of them. She works at Neighborhood Health. Together, we call patient Silsa Catalan (ph).

COURTNEY RIGELL-VAN SCHAGEN: Hi, Silsa. (Speaking Spanish).

SILSA CATALAN: (Speaking Spanish).

SIMONS: Catalan is 47 and says she's fairly healthy. She contracted coronavirus in March and spread it to her entire family of four. Catalan, her husband and two adult sons share a one-bedroom apartment.

CATALAN: (Through interpreter) I went working without gloves, without a mask. On the 25 of March, I started to feel like I had a fever, and I started shaking. And I didn't pay too much attention, so I kept working

SIMONS: Catalan says her bones and throat were aching, but she worked at a well-known craft store through the pain. And though most of the coronavirus symptoms are gone, the Guatemalan native has something else on her mind - how is she going to pay the rent for May? So Catalan's social worker has offered to help. Riggle van-Schagen translates.

RIGELL-VAN SCHAGEN: She just needs my pay stubs. But I haven't been working, so (unintelligible) they don't have any pay stubs to show.

SIMONS: And Catalan is not alone. According to a recent Washington Post-Ipsos survey, 20% of Latinos say they've been laid off or furloughed since the outbreak began, nearly double the rate of whites. African Americans and Latinos are also dying of COVID-19 at the highest rates. Dr. Khan's team is providing families with food and other support, but he says testing rates for minority communities are low, and more tests are needed.

KHAN: First of all, it's just the right thing to do. But second is, it reduces the likelihood of broader spread.

SIMONS: As businesses across the country reopen, Dr. Khan is urging government officials to focus on the communities most impacted with more aggressive testing.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha-Ann Simons in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sasha-Ann Simons