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A community gardener at work. Advocates for Hispanics, who worry about the level of health care available to that population, learned recently that three Latino gardeners had fallen ill with COVID-19. COURTESY JOSE GERMAN

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Hispanic representation has long been important to Katia Paz Goldfarb, assistant vice president for Hispanic Serving Initiatives at Montclair State University.

“For as long as I can remember, we’ve talked about it,” she said.

But when it comes to COVID-19, the Latino community is overrepresented.

“In New Jersey, although the Latino community is approximately 20 percent, the number of cases is 30 percent,” Paz Goldfarb said. 

The numbers are alarming, and make her wonder what can be done now, and what in the future.

Nationally, case rates for the Latino population are three times higher than for the white population, according to state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. Hospitalizations are nearly 4.6 times higher, and deaths more than 1.1 times higher, she said highlighting the disparity during a recent COVID debriefing.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control revealed that 45 percent of COVID deaths nationally among those under the age of 21 are from the Hispanic community, Persichilli said. 

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Katia Paz Goldfarb, assistant vice president for Hispanic Serving Initiatives at Montclair State University. COURTESY MIKE PETERS/MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY

Several factors contribute to these numbers, said Paz Goldfarb. The Latino community largely has a lower socioeconomic status than the white community. And the type of work the Latino community does is often essential service work, which brings people into contact with others all the time. 

In the food service industry, that means not only serving and preparing, but also picking up and driving, which also bring high exposure. The Latino community is represented very highly in urban settings, where population density makes community spread more prevalent, Paz Goldfarb said.

And Latino communities have a higher incidence of diabetes and heart-related issues, she said. 

“We know now that COVID-19 has a stronger impact and effect on people who have these preconditions,” she said. “When you put all of this together, it’s hard to look at.”

The Hispanic population is twice as likely to have asthma compared to the white population, Persichilli said. According to the state of New Jersey COVID dashboard as of Nov. 16, 20 percent of all mortalities in the state have been Hispanic. In Essex County, the rate of cases for Hispanic people was at 31.2 percent.

And now, there is a COVID-19 surge nationwide.

MSU recently received an $82,329 grant from the National Science Foundation to join scholars from about 30 Hispanic-serving institutions to a conference next summer. “The Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 on Hispanic Communities in the Tri-State Area” invites scholars to meet to advance their understanding of the impact of the disease.

ESSENTIAL JOBS

Jose German, a Montclair resident and head of the Northeast Earth Coalition, who was named one of the 100 most prominent Latinos in New Jersey in 2020 by the Latino Spirit

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Jose German works in the community garden. COURTESY DAVID WASMUTH

Award, said the Montclair Latino community is very visible in some ways, and not visible in others.

The 27 Latino-owned businesses spread throughout Montclair have been affected by COVID, German said.

Many in the Latino community work at essential jobs, on the front line. Many, he agreed with Paz Goldfarb, share a living space, sometimes 10 to 12 people in one home.

But what makes them particularly vulnerable is that many lack health insurance, and many are undocumented, German said.

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He has seen people in the restaurant and landscaping businesses who are renting a space to sleep. “That means the same space is rented to other people who work the evening shift,” German said. “That is not very well known, because they don’t have anybody speaking on behalf of them. I’ve visited workers, people with practically no furniture, just a mat on the floor to sleep. Imagine it with the pandemic, with people sick, living in the same room.”

Because people may not be documented, they are also marginalized, he said. People who say their customers have died said they also do not know if those deaths have been reported to the township and are counted in the township total.

Three people who are community gardeners and are undocumented have gotten sick with COVID-19, German said. 

The NEEC has four community gardens in Montclair and five others in northern New Jersey. The community gardens provide plots to families to grow food, and German teaches them how to do so.

“I come here twice a week, so I wanted to know if someone was sick,” he said. 

Many do not have insurance, and use teas and “ancestral remedies” to help, he said.

Persichilli said that her department has translated forms, educational materials and other documents, including language specifically for undocumented populations, informing them that their immigration status would not be questioned when getting tested or participating in contact tracing.

A community gardener at work. COURTESY JOSE GERMAN

GOING FORWARD

Paz Goldfarb is worried that COVID-19 will impede the progress the Latino community has made in education and the workforce. 

“We are losing momentum, and widening the gap on so many issues,” she said. 

Members of the statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce have been in touch with her, and she knows that small businesses have been affected.

Many Latino high school students are not completing applications to college, at double the statewide rate of 8 to 9 percent.

“For me, as a person who works in higher education, that’s an extremely alarming number,” Paz Goldfarb said. “We are going to do a whole program to reach out to as many school districts as possible to help the seniors.” 

Her office is also doing a series of webinar workshops in Spanish.

She is working closely with the Clara Maass Center for Excellence in Latino Health to make sure that information about eating well, washing hands and using masks goes out to the community. She also wants to make sure the community has access to masks, and to gloves if needed, for their jobs. 

The conference this coming summer for which MSU received the NSF grant will specifically study how research can be translated into strategies and policy, Paz Goldfarb said. “We want to leave not with a research paper, but with a plan for what can be done after.” 

Additional reporting by Jaimie Julia Winters