“People were evicted there,” Espinoza said, her right index finger pointing to an apartment complex in front of her.
“She now has lingering symptoms of Covid,” she continued, flicking her finger slightly to the left.
Her finger moved up. “He spent last Christmas and New Year hiding in a basement because he caught the virus, thinking he was going to die. He even called his children to say goodbye,” she said.
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit in March 2020, thousands of frontline workers like Espinoza’s neighbors became essential — caring for the sick, cleaning schools, packing and distributing supplies, picking produce and processing food that reached the tables of millions of Americans. As they worked, often in close quarters and without sufficient personal protective equipment, the coronavirus ran rampant, turning their communities into hotspots for the deadly virus.
Now, nearly two and a half years later, hot spots like Langley Park in Prince George’s County or areas around poultry processing plants on the East Coast are still suffering from the economic and health effects.
“The situation here is that we haven’t been able to recover,” said Espinoza, 55, who despite her diabetes — which puts her at higher risk of complications from the coronavirus — has risked her health to took care of sick neighbors.
During the first wave of the coronavirus, the 20783 zip code, which includes the Langley Park neighborhood where Espinoza has lived for more than two decades, had the highest infection rate in the state: 2,671 cases as of August 2020.
The coronavirus is still a problem in the area – as of Thursday there have been 9,173 cases in ZIP code 20783, according to Maryland Department of Health records — but cases are likely undercounted as many contract the coronavirus more than once but do not seek medical attention or testing. Seventy percent of the zip code’s population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, but some neighbors said they are still hesitant or afraid to get a second dose or a booster.
Families in these areas have long endured health and economic disparities, which is why advocates like Michelle LaRue, senior manager of health and science at CASA de Maryland, saw an urgent need to reach the community directly at the start of the pandemic to diminished hit. A network of volunteer health promoters, or promotoras, led community outreach initiatives to provide information about coronavirus vaccines and food pantries, along with assistance with applications for rental assistance and health benefits.
Despite those efforts, advocates and families said the long-standing cases have worsened since the pandemic began — many are unemployed or have had their hours reduced, and more are facing housing instability. With gas prices rising, it has become more difficult to afford food and access to health care continues to be a challenge.
“We’re going to have the longest and slowest recovery phase of the pandemic,” LaRue said. “Other sectors of the community did quite well. If you had your own transportation, if you had a job that allowed you to telecommute, if you were already financially stable, I think people weathered the storm a lot better. Our communities didn’t have many of those luxuries and still don’t.”
Robust coronavirus relief programs, such as direct cash payments, eviction protection, extended unemployment and sick leave prevented many people from falling further into poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an institute that analyzes the impact of federal and state government budget policies. As the pandemic has dragged into its third year, however, these benefits have expired or will do so. And many families can never access these benefits because of their immigration status.
This is the case for Nidia Navarro, who lost her job cleaning houses at the start of the pandemic.
First, work was scarce until non-existent, she said. Because Navarro is undocumented, she was ineligible for unemployment benefits, and her loss of income meant less money for food, clothes and school supplies for her three children and to buy medicine to treat her diabetes. her.
“We stop buying medicine to pay for electricity,” said Navarro, who is uninsured.
Life for Navarro and her family has been a never-ending battle ever since. Earlier this year, Navarro’s husband, Carlos Gomez, was diagnosed with kidney failure. Navarro is taking care of her — he’s on dialysis three times a week and has passed out walking up the stairs — and she hasn’t been able to go back to work. Now both are unemployed.
“We’re worried about paying the rent this month,” Navarro said on the last day of July. “How are we going to pay?”
Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), incoming chairwoman of the state House Health and Government Operations Committee, said in an interview that she is working to find solutions to expand health care for the uninsured. , including 4 percent of Maryland residents, she said are undocumented.
During this year’s legislative session, Peña-Melnyk introduced legislation to expand Medicaid to immigrants regardless of their immigration status, but the bill did not make it out of committee. Another bill she wrote, allowing undocumented pregnant women access to Medicaid, was successful.
“I had to decide what the priority would be,” Peña-Melnyk said. “We’ll try again next year.”
In Prince George’s County, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program designed to help families who have not rented has received no new applications since December. County officials said the application portal was closed to address the large number of applications they received.
“If additional funding is made available to us by our state and federal partners, we will evaluate whether the portal can be reopened to new applicants,” Jose C. Sousa, assistant deputy chief administrative officer for economic development, said in an email.
As of May, about 14 percent of Maryland renters were in default; of them, half are unemployed and 82 percent is low income, according to a Maryland Food Bank Report released last month.
On a recent Saturday morning in Princess Anne in Somerset County, a coalition of community organizations, volunteers and local health officials came together to support a particularly vulnerable population living in the more remote areas of the east and lower coasts. : food processing workers.
“Is it difficult to schedule or find an appointment to get a vaccine?” Ricardo Ortiz, an activist at the migrant rights organization Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), asked a poultry worker.
Among the options offered, Rosalva Rojas, of Guerrero, Mexico, who works in a chicken plant at Mountaire Farms, replied, “Totally agree.”
Meat processing workers were critical of preventing disruptions in the food supply chain during the worst days of the pandemic. But the plants themselves became hotspots for the virus, as workers stood elbow-to-elbow chopping, deboning and packaging chicken, meat and crab.
In May 2020, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) notified poultry workers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore had recorded 279 cases, placing Salisbury on the East Coast on the national list of coronavirus hotspots. The communal work, lack of protective equipment and inadequate ventilation at work became key factors in the spread of the virus that put these workers at high risk, advocates said.
In came community organizations, volunteers and local health departments together to form the Lower Coast Vulnerable Population Task Force to address health disparities and connect residents with critical services in the area. The coalition has held events three weekends a month in Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset counties to collect health data, provide vaccinations, coronavirus tests, rental assistance, food and translation services to low-income residents, including poultry and farm workers who are mostly foreigners.–born and speak languages other than English.
“While Covid may be spread out compared to what it was two years ago, the problems are not,” said Richard Hutson, bilingual program and outreach coordinator at Tri Community Mediation, a nonprofit that is part of the task force.
Advocates said they are concerned about the lack of updated workplace health regulations and the lack of policies guaranteeing paid sick leave for those who continue to get sick with the coronavirus. In June of Marylanders Coalition to Protect Food and Farm Workers called on the Hogan administration to properly track coronavirus case data for the poultry industry and seasonal migrant food and farm workers.
“The current data collection masks infections in the meat and poultry processing industry, which nationally has been a hot spot for Covid-19,” said Leila Borrero-Krouse, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Community Outreach Support Committee. CATA Farm Workers in Maryland.
A Maryland, Virginia and Delaware survey released in December assessing poultry, seafood and meat workers during the pandemic showed that roughly 1 in every 6 workers surveyed reported being diagnosed with or suspected of having the coronavirus between March 2020 and the first week of May 2021. Immigrant and migrant workers were eight times more likely than US-born workers to have been diagnosed with — or suspected of contracting — the virus during that time, according to the report “Breaking Down the Facts” sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of the workers reported working less than six feet from other people.
While community efforts have proven successful, community health care initiatives face ongoing financial uncertainty, advocates said. CDM, which is part of the task force, has a five-year cooperative agreement with the CDC to assess workplace hazards and concerns during the pandemic in this area, but funding is not necessarily guaranteed, said Julia Coburn, CDM. director of health initiatives.
“There was an influx of funding for Covid during the pandemic and a lot of it is starting to run out,” Coburn said. “We’re in a great position to continue to do this work long-term, but we won’t be able to do that if there’s no funding.”
In these three counties, fully vaccinated rates remain below statewide rates, and transmission of the coronavirus since early August remains high. “Our country has moved on from the virus, but the virus has not moved on from us,” said Amy Liebman, director of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Migrant Clinic Network.
“We have increasing rates of domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, gaps in immunization for children and adults. We have a long Covid that we barely understand,” said Denise Smith, executive director at the National Association of Community Health Workers. “This is a perfect storm and communities are going to suffer.”