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2 neighborhoods were hit hard by the virus. Officials admit being unprepared.

Updated August 6, 2020 - 4:34 pm

Amid a growing number of COVID-19 cases in two Latino neighborhoods, health officials say they weren’t fully prepared to curb the disease’s spread when the outbreak began in March.

Now, Latinos account for 1 in 4 local coronavirus cases, a greater share than that of any other racial or ethnic group in the Las Vegas Valley.

Officials said they are attempting to make up lost ground with increased testing opportunities in Latino neighborhoods and expanded Spanish-language public health outreach. They’re also partnering with community leaders in hopes of overcoming long-standing mistrust between immigrant families and government agencies.

“People are scared to go to a clinic, for one reason or another. … As a result of that, they go without treatment,” said Guy Girardin, president of Puentes, a Las Vegas nonprofit working to connect Latinos with health and social services. “It’s kind of this snowballing effect.”

Neighborhoods with the valley’s greatest concentration of Latino residents have also seen the region’s highest infection rates. The hardest-hit are ZIP codes 89110 and 89030, located near each other in east Las Vegas and the city of North Las Vegas, respectively.

Las Vegas City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, who represents the city’s predominantly Latino east side, said many residents are low-wage essential workers who “don’t have the luxury to work remotely.” Fears of becoming sick are often outweighed by the necessity to continue working to pay for rent and groceries.

Since Nevada allowed casinos to reopen in early June, the official tally of cases in 89110 and 89030 has increased more than sevenfold. As of Aug. 7, more than 4,600 residents had tested positive throughout the pandemic.

“The whole concept of COVID-19 testing is really a moot point for a lot of people,” Girardin said. “They basically see it as that ‘I might test positive, but I’ve got no choice. I have got to go to work to support my family.’ That may at the onset seem selfish, but it’s reality.”

Once a person is infected, he or she can unknowingly bring the disease home to large, multigenerational households, where it can be difficult for family members to self-isolate.

Angie Leyva, a Latina mom of four who shares her Las Vegas home with her 63-year-old mother, saw all but one of her family members catch COVID-19 within a month. While the family’s symptoms have been mild, the school first-aid safety assistant said knowing that her children and mother probably became infected at home has been distressing.

“We haven’t gone to big parties. The kids would barely go out,” she said. “It’s hard to know how or who passed it on to us, but it only took one for all of us to get it.”

Response falls short

The Southern Nevada Health District, the government agency leading the valley’s fight against the novel coronavirus, has been working to address shortcomings in its pandemic response in Latino communities.

After elected officials raised concerns about a lack of testing sites in east Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, the district last month hosted weekend testing at five middle schools in and around the area. Health officials collected specimens from more than 5,000 people.

The health district also erected a permanent testing site at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on Washington Avenue, which serves a large Latino congregation. More than 5,000 people have been tested at the site since it began operations in late April.

But testing is only one part of the problem, said acting Chief Health Officer Dr. Fermin Leguen. Efforts to contact Latinos who test positive for COVID-19 have been hamstrung because not enough health district employees speak Spanish.

Leguen said he had directed his staff to use part of $6 million in new federal grant monies to hire more bilingual disease investigators, whose duty it is to ask infected people to isolate themselves and help track down their close contacts.

Health district employees who do not speak Spanish are also using an over-the-phone interpreting service to survey Spanish speakers. Clark County has also loaned 10 of its staff members to the health district to focus on outreach to the Latino community.

“The agency is not much in the demographics of this community,” said Leguen, a Cuba native who took the health district’s helm in the fall. “It is something we have to make an effort to address.”

The lack of preparedness became more apparent as cases surged in ZIP codes 89030 and 89110. Both neighborhoods have a population that is about two-thirds or more Latino, double that of the county as a whole.

The spike among Latinos led county and city officials to create a government-led coalition of health experts, community leaders and Spanish-language media outlets to better educate people on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The initiative, titled “Está en Tus Manos” (“It’s in Your Hands”), was launched in late June and aims to connect with Latinos where they are, whether that be at a neighborhood supermarket, their church or through their school.

The efforts appear to be working, Diaz, the Las Vegas councilwoman, said. Before the campaign, she would shop at a Hispanic grocery store in her neighborhood and see only about one-third of customers wearing face masks. Today, virtually everyone is participating.

“We have to be aware there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach in terms of reaching folks,” she said. “I think in this circumstance there has to be a level of trust for people to take in and internalize the information and take heed.”

Changes in business

At one longtime Latino institution in the 89030 ZIP code, adapting to the new normal has taken time.

Customers and vendors at Broadacres Marketplace must have their temperature taken before entering the 50-acre outdoor market in North Las Vegas. President and CEO Greg Danz said he’s hired extra security guards to enforce mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing rules. Anyone who refuses to comply is escorted off the property.

“It’s been a big learning curve,” Danz said. “I think the community is getting it. Is it perfect? Probably not, but we’re definitely working with everyone to improve.”

While Danz said he’s unaware of any Broadacres employees or vendors who have contracted COVID-19, the novel coronavirus has taken a measurable toll on the market.

The venue’s pavilion, typically filled with live music and dancing, has lain quiet since Broadacres reopened in May. Thousands fewer customers are coming in each weekend compared with this time last year, and Danz said about one-fifth of vendors have either temporarily suspended their operations or walked away altogether.

Before the pandemic, shop owner Luis Arturo Cordoba Reyes made his living at Broadacres selling soccer jerseys, toys and games of foosball — $5 for 20 balls — across from carnival rides owned and operated by his parents.

Business is so slow now that he’s started also working at a local restaurant to support his own family. The 26-year-old fears that job could end without warning if there’s an outbreak among the staff.

“I don’t even come on Saturdays because when I would come, it would be too hot and (I would) only get $5,” he said of vending at Broadacres. “That’s not worth my time.”

‘Faults in our system’

On Monday, Gov. Steve Sisolak acknowledged that the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on minority communities that face disparities in access to health care, food and job opportunities.

“I think it has pointed out some of the frailties and the faults in our system,” he said. “And we’re going to do everything we can to fix this, not just for the pandemic but as we move forward and permanently.”

Indeed, median household incomes in the 89110 and 89030 ZIP codes were among the lowest in the valley before the pandemic crippled Southern Nevada’s tourism-driven economy. The accompanying layoffs by service industry employers have left many people in the area struggling to make ends meet.

“There’s a lot of anger right now. A lot of fear. A lot of anxiety,” said the Rev. Rafael Pereira of All Saints’ Episcopal Church. “How am I going to pay my bills? How am I going to pay my rent?”

The church typically conducts two Spanish-language services on Sundays. Now, priests preach to a camera in an unoccupied church, illuminated by softbox lighting as congregants watch on a Facebook livestream video.

Being unable to gather at church has made an already strenuous time even more difficult, Pereira said. He’s spent a lot of time in recent weeks counseling families whose members have lost work.

Stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Latino communities will remain elusive until their economic uncertainty is addressed in some fashion, Girardin said.

In late July, Puentes collaborated with dozens of other providers to hold a resources fair at the Mater Academy school campus in the 89110 ZIP code. By the time the event began, shortly after 8 a.m., hundreds of vehicles had already lined neighborhood streets, with the earliest having left home before the sun had begun to rise.

Volunteers handed out not only fresh foods but also back-to-school supplies and pages of Spanish-language instructions on how to apply for social services and help paying for rent, utilities and health care.

Puentes has also launched a program to deliver groceries and cleaning supplies to homes that need to isolate because a family member has tested positive for the virus. More than 100 households are receiving support.

“You can’t deal with a pandemic without dealing with all communities,” Girardin said. “And if community spread continues to happen in vulnerable populations, ultimately it’s just going to spread into the other communities.”

Contact Jannelle Calderon at jcalderon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @NewsyJan on Twitter. Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Davidson is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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