On Wednesday, Mayor Tom Barrett announced that the 53215 ZIP code on Milwaukee’s south side is one of three areas in the city with a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases. The area has more Latinos than any other ZIP code in Wisconsin.
Up until now, it’s been reported that the local African American population is bearing the brunt of COVID-19. By some estimates, black residents make up 80% of COVID-19 related deaths in a county where they only constitute 26% of the population.
Health experts, including Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik, have attributed the numbers to historic, economic, and environmental factors that put black people at higher risk of chronic conditions such as asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. These medical conditions can sharply increase a person’s likelihood of dying from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Studies by the United Health Foundation show that Latinos face comparable risks. Both communities experience rates of hypertension and diabetes higher than Wisconsin’s white population.
Barrett’s announcement that a disproportionate number of cases have cropped up on Milwaukee’s south side, begs the question: Will Milwaukee’s Latinos face a similar fate to many of its black residents? Dr. Stephanie Rivera Berruz, a professor at Marquette who studies race and systemic oppression, says yes.
“We should anticipate that the Latino community will be disproportionately affected by virtue of the fact that they have disproportionate access to health care, similar types of comorbidity factors, as well as socioeconomic conditions, all also foiled by the added dimensions of people that are undocumented and just share general distrust with the healthcare establishment,” Rivera Berruz says.
Rivera Berruz says studies also show that the types of employment prevalent in the Wisconsin Latino community puts them at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
“Employment is highly concentrated in food preparation and serving, building and grounds cleaning, and maintenance occupations, most of which tend to be considered essential. So we’re talking about a population that probably does not have the privilege of staying at home,” she says.
“We’re talking about a population that probably does not have the privilege of staying at home.” – Dr. Stephanie Rivera Berruz
Another risk factor: Latinos in Wisconsin tend to have larger households and family sizes than their white counterparts, according to a University of Wisconsin study. Latinos are much more likely to be sharing living quarters with multiple people, making it hard to limit the spread of illness within a household.
“You have large groups of people, extended family networks, living under the same household, working together in some way, shape or form to economically survive. What we have here is points and nodes of contact for disease spread within one household that doesn’t exactly have the option of staying at home in the ways in which the state has mandated,” says Rivera Berruz.
One of the keys to controlling the disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin’s Latino community is expanded testing so positive cases can be tracked in the community, says Barrett. However, the mayor says the availability of testing is nowhere close to where it needs to be.
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