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COVID-19 in Rowan County disproportionately affecting Hispanic residents

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Health disparities among communities of color have long been documented and recognized as a public health crisis, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown those disparities in a sharper contrast in Rowan County, particularly among the Hispanic population.

According to U.S. Census data, the county’s black population makes up about 16.8% of the overall population, while Hispanics make up 9.2% of the overall population. And the latest COVID-19 stats for the county show that 16.3% of the 858 cases are black individuals and 28.2% are Hispanic.

Of the 41,249 confirmed cases across the state, meanwhile, 44% of cases are among Hispanic individuals while 26% of cases are among black individuals. About 22% of the state’s population is black and Hispanics comprise about 10% of the overall population. Of the state’s total death toll of 1,092, 7% were Hispanic individuals and 34% were black individuals.

Rowan County Public Health Director Nina Oliver said those numbers are “very scary and very humbling.”

Research has shown communities of color face higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and blood pressure, putting them at even greater risk of COVID-19 complications. Black mothers are almost twice as likely to lose their infants compared to white mothers, and the black community overall experiences a higher rate of obesity, Oliver said.

Health disparities, she said, stem from the “social determinants of health.” Those determinants include heath behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and one’s physical environment. Examples of these determinants include access to safe housing, medical care, transportation and healthy food.

Currently, 15% of Rowan residents experience housing problems, 12% experience severe housing cost burden, 3% experience overcrowding and 1% experience inadequate facilities, according to the Rowan County 2019 State of the County Health Report. The report also indicates that 11% of the county’s population has limited access to healthy foods, meaning they are of low-income and do not live close to a grocery store, compared to the overall state rate of 7%.

Overall, social and economic status can play the biggest factor in overall health.

Oliver said a surge among the Hispanic community has emerged potentially because of the number of undocumented individuals who are unable to access the same health care as American citizens. And because of that, employers aren’t required to offer personal protective equipment or sick leave to those workers.

“A lot of these individuals can’t (take off work). They have to go to work. So they go to work sick,” Oliver said, noting that doing so can spread the virus further.

Additionally, it’s more common among the Hispanic community to lack individual transportation or single-family housing despite an often multi-generational living situation. This is a problem as most cases in Rowan County have surged due to community spread, Oliver said.

But addressing the health disparities is the bigger crisis, she said, emphasizing that the county needs to invest in prevention and public health because diseases are expensive and time-consuming to recover from. More often, however, money is invested in the treatment of these diseases instead.

“We have to work hard to address health disparities and work to hard to address lack of healthy equity in communities for an overall healthier Rowan.” she said.

While initiatives like the county’s Healthy Rowan has for years worked to address health disparities, she said making an impact can take many years.

A few initiatives from Healthy Rowan include “Adventure Rowan,” a program that encourages physical exercise and activity particularly among children aged 5-11 who may be at risk of obesity or have little to no access to healthy foods. Another is “Exercise is Medicine,” which is an evidence-based practice of having a doctor prescribe an individual a workout routine, making it more likely the patient will follow.

On June 4, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 143 to address the social, environmental, economic and health disparities among communities of color that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. The order directs state agencies and offices to provide targeted measures to help those communities.

The order established the “Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force,” which tasks the North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office with ensuring the equitable distribution of pandemic relief funds and directs state health officials to ensure all communities have access to testing and related health care.

The task force is named after Harris, who “dedicated her life to eliminating disparities in North Carolina” and co-founded the nonprofit “North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development,” according to a news release from state officials.

“Health inequities are the result of more than individual choice or random occurrence — they are the result of the historic and ongoing interplay of inequitable structures, policies and norms that shape lives,” said N.C. Department of Administration Secretary Machelle Sanders in a press release. “I am deeply honored to carry Andrea Harris’ torch on this new task force, as we grapple with these complex and critical issues for North Carolina.”

Rowan County currently has free testing sites. One is at the West End Plaza, located at 1935 Jake Alexander Blvd. West, and is offered every Monday in June from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.. Another is at the county health department, which is located at 1811 E. Innes St., with testing offered every Wednesday and various Fridays throughout June and July.

Additionally, Rowan County is one of seven counties in the state that has also been awarded $20,000 by the North Carolina Central University Advanced Center for COVID19 Related Disparities (ACCORD). The funding will be used to focus COVID-19 testing in underserved communities to create greater access and equity to testing and health care resources.

Cooper’s order also works to address the economic disparities by coordinating efforts to protect the food supply chain and support feeding operations at food banks and school systems. The order also calls for a coordination among state executive agencies to consider current and future policies, programs and procedures regarding environmental justice.

Raising awareness about these issues can help the community “to understand what our neighbor could be going through,” Oliver said, which provides a “more empathetic and sympathetic outlook.”

“It’s time to create equity and equality for all people of color,” she said.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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