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Duke professors work to fight COVID-19 in local Latinx community

Duke professors are studying and identifying ways to mitigate the disproportionate spread of COVID-19 in Durham’s Latinx community. 

Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti, assistant professor of pediatric, worked with Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, associate professor in family medicine and community health, to co-found the Latinx Advocacy Teams and Interdisciplinary Network for COVID-19 (Latin-19). The initiative is a multidisciplinary coalition of healthcare providers, researchers, social workers and community members who serve the Spanish-speaking and immigrant populations of Durham, Orange and Chatham counties. 

The coalition seeks to develop strategies to reduce the Latinx population’s vulnerability to COVID-19. The organization wrote a public letter calling for increased regulations to keep employees safe from COVID-19 at work, expansion of Medicaid eligibility to include all North Carolinians and inclusion of additional demographic data on North Carolina’s COVID-19 dashboard. 

“We organized and worked on public service announcements, multiple presentations to Spanish media as well as multi-sector collaboration with national governmental organizations, journalists and the city of Durham,” Martinez-Bianchi said. “We joined task force groups for the city, the county and the state.”

Although Latinx individuals account for only 14 percent of Durham County’s population, they represented nearly 63 percent of COVID-19 cases in the county as of June 26. The trend is consistent with the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the Latinx community across the country.

According to Rosa Gonzalez-Guarda, associate professor at the School of Nursing, most positive cases come from people working in construction and hospitality, industries in which many essential employees are Latinx.

According to Maradiaga Panayotti, the virus could spread among family members living in multigenerational homes or people getting together for family occasions, like Mother’s Day or graduations. To alleviate this risk, she said, the importance of access to protective face masks and testing for all patients cannot be understated. 

“It’s really important to be careful with the wording, to not suggest that just because you have a large Latinx family, COVID-19 could spread or blame it as if Latinx parents are putting their kids at risk,” Maradiaga Panayotti said. “The key part is, when people get together and aren’t socially distant, to wear face masks.”

Duke has launched several programs like Latin-19 in conjunction with local community organizations. A partnership with the Lincoln Community Health Center has helped provide care and allow more patients to be tested. Additionally, the University has also launched the Pandemic Response Network, which provides follow-ups for people and connects them to resources needed in the face of COVID-19.

According to Gonzalez-Guarda, it’s concerning that people are not seeking care when they need it—not only because of hurdles related to immigration and trust issues, but also due to fear of financial strain. Whether it be medical bills they will have to pay or inability to go back to work following diagnosis, the Latinx community’s economic consequences related to COVID-19 are steep. 

“A lot of the members of the Latinx community have difficulty accessing medical services through health insurance,” said Ivan Kohar Parra, executive director and lead organizer of the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations. 

“Because a majority of members of the Latinx community don’t have that financial access, this sometimes makes them less likely to seek the necessary treatment for COVID,” Parra said.

A proposal written by Duke Family Medicine has called for the development of community-based mobile testing for COVID-19 in Durham County. This initiative was developed because the messages about the importance of social distancing have little impact to someone who cannot social distance because of their work and their home situation. Language presents another barrier, although recent efforts have been made to make sure social distancing messages are also communicated in Spanish. 

“If it’s someone that [a Latinx person] knows in their Latinx network that is a healthcare provider—someone that they trust or someone in their community that they go to for advice or a social service agency—those messages will be better received,” Gonzalez-Guarda said. “That message is more likely to be received versus a distant figure, for example a government leader that they may have never known about until now.”

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