CORONAVIRUS

Iowa blacks and Latinos bear lopsided coronavirus rates

COVID-19 shines light on long-standing health care gaps, experts say

A sign for livestock entrance at a Tyson Foods processing plant is seen, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Columbus Junction,
A sign for livestock entrance at a Tyson Foods processing plant is seen, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Columbus Junction, Iowa. Tyson, Cargill and other major meat processing companies say they are adopting several measures: taking the temperature of everyone entering plants, adding clear plastic shields between work stations and erecting tents to allow workers to spread out more at lunch. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)
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Confirmed cases of coronavirus are disproportionately high among black and Latino Iowans, according to state demographic data released for the first time this week.

About 17 percent of the 1,995 Iowans with confirmed cases of COVID-19 are Hispanic or Latino, and 9 percent are black or African-American. Yet Latinos make up only 6 percent of the state’s population and blacks make up only about 3 percent of it, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The overrepresentation of Latino Iowans stems from outbreaks in several of the state’s meat packing plants. On Tuesday, 86 new cases were reported in connection with the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Louisa County, and the Iowa Premium beef plant in Tama closed Monday after several employees tested positive for the virus.

Most of the workers in high-density work areas like food processing factories are Latino, said Joe Henry, political director of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa.

“People need to realize Latinos and immigrants are doing the heavy lifting right now,” he said. “We’re feeding the country, and we’re not being treated with any type of safety that would be provided to health care workers and others.”

Food processing businesses remain open in Iowa as essential services, and Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday during a news conference that officials are in “constant contact” with several facilities in Iowa.

“This is an essential infrastructure. This is about feeding not only Iowans but the world,” Reynolds said. “They know that they have a responsibility to take care of their employees. They, for the most part, are trying to be proactive in providing the right kind of protective gear, doing assessments on the front end, doing temperature scans.”

An additional 900 tests were sent Wednesday to Tyson Foods, she said.

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It is publicly unknown just how many black and Latino Iowans have been tested for COVID-19. Amy McCoy, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Health, declined to provide to The Gazette the raw numbers the state used to determine the percentages of Iowans, by race and ethnicity, who have been tested.

Without that data, it’s not possible to know for sure whether black and Latino Iowans are being tested at higher or lower rates than other Iowans.

“It’s high,” Dedric Doolin, president of Cedar Rapids’ NAACP chapter, said of the disproportionate positive results. “And it could be higher — because who is getting tested?”

‘Magnifying glass’

Health Department Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said Wednesday black and Latino Iowans are more likely to be working in businesses that have remained open, to have underlying health conditions making them more susceptible to the virus, and to be living in households with multiple people.

Iowa is “consistent with what we’ve seen across the country in terms of increased rates” among some racial subgroups, she said.

The unequal impact on racial minorities should not come as a surprise, said David Williams, a professor of public health, African and African American studies and sociology at Harvard University.

“Racial inequities exist not only for COVID-19, but for almost every disease,” Williams said Wednesday during a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation teleconference with reporters. “COVID-19 has not created these inequities in health, it is simply becoming a magnifying glass that helps us to see some long-standing shortfalls in health that have existed for minority populations.”

The racial inequities in any state’s or city’s coronavirus caseload, he said, are not the fault of those communities but are an indicator of “long-standing social policies that have created pervasive social and economic disparities” in the nation.

In Cedar Rapids, Doolin said he advocated with the NAACP for the state to provide a racial breakdown of Iowa’s cases, which it began to make public this week at coronavirus.iowa.gov.

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“From our vantage point, we know that health issues have disproportionately impacted the African-American community,” he said, noting rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart conditions.

Access to health care is also a barrier, he said, and research has shown racial and ethnic minorities have higher rates of chronic disease and premature death.

“Sometimes people get turned away from services because of how they look,” Doolin said. “People don’t realize that — there are a lot of good people who work in health care, but not everyone who works in the health care field is a good person.”

Matter of inches

At LULAC, Henry said he’s heard from an employee at the JBS meat processing plant in Marshalltown whose doctor refused to see him because of his risk of exposure while at work.

“For the state that feeds the world with corn and pork, we’re also becoming the state that’s going to poison itself because of a lack of health and safety guidelines,” Henry said.

LULAC filed an Iowa Workforce Development OSHA complaint against JBS that asked the state to provide guidance for all meat packing plants in the state after hearing employees still were working shoulder-to-shoulder on conveyor lines, put in groups of more than 100 in lunchrooms and not provided other safety measures.

In a letter to Iowa OSHA in response, a safety manager at the pork plant said the complaint was “without merit,” and said Swift Pork Company-Marshalltown has implemented a screening program for employees, increased cleaning and sanitization practices and set up a tent outside to provide more space for breaks.

Henry said LULAC has asked the state to translate all state publications into Spanish to help inform workers and to increase staffing of the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration office — so it can make spot checks at high-density processing factories.

“Those are not hard things to do, but it does mean some employers might be upset,” he said. “ ... OSHA here in Iowa is so watered down we’re just a ticking time bomb.”

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The pandemic has exposed existing workplace safety and health conditions, Henry said, and he’s hopeful plants will follow the grocery industry in implementing clear social distancing measures — such as stickers on floors that indicate 6 feet of distance.

“You’re lucky if you get 6 inches in a meat processing plant,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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