PROVIDENCE -- Latino leaders say they were shocked to hear the state health director say that 45 percent of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Rhode Island are Latino.
But they are questioning whether that figure overstates or understates the proportion of Latinos with the coronavirus. While it’s clear Latinos make up 16 percent of the state population, they say it’s unclear what percentage of all of those who have been tested are Latino -- a key to putting the 45 percent figure in context.
“At best, this will be an over-sampling of low-level health-care workers and health aides who are mostly Latinas,” said Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, medical director for community affairs at Care New England and host of the “Nuestra Salud” radio talk show. “At worst, it is an underestimated percentage. I don’t know what is worse.”
During Thursday’s daily news conference, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said state officials are working to get “more granular data” about how the epidemic is affecting different racial and ethnic groups.
“Our preliminary numbers indicate that roughly 45 percent of our COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island are among Latino Rhode Islanders,” Alexander-Scott said. “That means they are significantly over-represented in our group of people who have tested positive.”
So what percentage of all the people tested are Latino?
“We are calculating that as well," Alexander-Scott said Friday. “We are still understanding the data. We appreciate the advocates who have reached out to get more because that is what we need to do: We need to continue to dig deeper.”
She said one thing is clear: “We know that COVID-19 does not have a predilection or a favoritism for people who are of Latino descent.”
Rodriguez said the 45 percent figure could be “an exaggerated number” if a high percentage of those tested are Latino. But if a small percentage of those tested are Latino, “then this is a real crisis” that has hit the Latino community even worse than currently understood.
State officials should have provided the context immediately so the community could make sense of the 45 percent figure, Rodriguez said.
“This has created real panic in the community,” he said. “People are thinking this is something happening to Latinos more than others. But it’s not a reflection of ethnicity -- it’s a reflection of social determinants of health.”
He said many Latinos work in lower-paid service industry jobs and health-care positions, such as home health care aides, and some are not being provided with masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment to guard against the virus.
“It’s almost certain that a lot of it is occupational,” Rodriguez said. “These individuals cannot stay home. They have to go to work.”
Marcela Betancur, executive director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, said she was “shocked” when she heard the 45 percent figure, given that 16 percent of the state is Latino. “It’s a larger percentage than I expected after just four or five weeks,” she said.
But she said the 45 percent figure might actually understate the impact because some Latinos lack health insurance or are undocumented and may not know they can get tested for free.
Betancur noted that cities with significant Latino populations have some of the highest COVID-19 totals in the state: Providence tops the list with 1,093 cases, Pawtucket is second with 380 cases, and the one-square-mile city of Central Falls is seventh with 129 cases.
Betancur, who is from Central Falls, said her father is getting tested for COVID-19, and she said 129 cases is a lot for such a small city.
The Globe has reported that Boston has what appear to be high concentrations of infection in neighborhoods home to large Black, Latino, and immigrant communities. And similar disparities have been reported in other cities across the country.
“These disparities happen because poor black and brown people live in these densely populated cities,” Betancur said. “So when we look at Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, these are highly concentrated cities where people are still working and might not be taking the right precautions.”
While many higher-income residents can work from home with laptops and Zoom conferences, many lower-income Rhode Islanders must go to work at grocery stores, factories, and restaurants, she said.
Also, Latinos tend to have a higher prevalence of pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes and heart problems, that can make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus, Betancur said. And Latinos are less likely to have health insurance than the general population both nationally and in Rhode Island, she said.
During Friday’s news conference, Alexander-Scott said, "We need to understand what is already going on in our communities that would cause certain populations to have these increased numbers.”
She said outbreaks can underscore existing inequities, including differences in the quality of education, housing, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, safe streets, and job opportunities.
“It goes back back to the messages that people have often heard me talk about: That someone’s zip code should not determine how healthy they are or how healthy the community is that they live in," Alexander-Scott said. "And right now, it does. There is work for us to do here in Rhode Island and across the country.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com