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COVID-19 NC: First Wave, Disproportionate Rates Among Latinos & Strike Team Tactics

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Every Friday,  BPR's Helen Chickering talks with NC Health News Founding Editor Rose Hoban.  This week they discuss the latest COVID-19 metrics amid a swell of new cases and hospitalizations, factors around the disproportionate number of cases among Latino communities and the strike team tactic created by a WNC assisted living facility as it tackled an outbreak among residents and staff.

HC: The NC coronavirus task force news briefing just wrapped up. You and I both were on that call listening. As we heard about the continued rise in COVID-19 cases, now over 41,000 across the state, this exchange between a reporter and Health Secretary Dr. Cohen really stood out, seemed to be the headlines

Reporter: Dr Cohen, do you believe we're in the middle of a second wave right now?  Over the past week, have your fears of a second wave escalated.

Dr. Mandy Cohen:  So, I think this is our first wave. When I look at the numbers, we took early and aggressive action to flatten the curve. And we did that

So Dr. Mandy Cohen was asked whether we're seeing a second wave and she was saying that we  did such a good job at kind of flattening the curve back in April and May that we didn't have that initial surge, like say New York did or Washington State. We just, we flattened the curve. But this first wave is like, it's been growing. I’m trying to think of surfer analogy and I'm just falling short, but it's just been growing slowly. And now we're seeing that we've got about 10% positive cases and were at 812 hospitalizations Thursday

HC: Phase two, getting close to what's supposed to be the start of phase three. There's even been talk about a phase 2.5, lots of questions about whether that would happen or not.

Last week the governor was getting a lot of pressure about bars and restaurants and gyms and things like that. And he's so he started, he was teasing a little, he was, you know, like teasing in the sense of like, Hey, well maybe we'll do this 2.5 6and we can open up a little bit before June 26th. But he deflected those questions about whether we would do a 2.5 before we do phase three. It feels to me like that's a no.   

HC: A flag that continues to be raised here in North Carolina - and we're seeing it in Western North Carolina - is the disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases among communities of color.  NC Health news has been following the story and this week has a report focusing on the high number of cases among Latino communities.

Latinos do have a disproportionately high number of positive tests. A lot of them are essential workers, so they do things like they work in grocery stores, they work in construction. And then of course you have folks who are working at meat processing plants. And we did a two-part story on that late last month in May. So, you know, there's been I think it's something along the lines of 43% of cases among people who identify as Hispanic. But what's interesting is they do not make up a large number of the deaths. Latinos are only making up around 7% of deaths. And I did ask what was behind that to the head pulmonologist at UNC hospital. And he said that part of it is likely because as a population in North Carolina Latinos tend to be younger. So, they haven't accumulated as many preexisting conditions because they're not old enough to have had them. The flip side of that is Latinos are more likely to live in multigenerational households. So, if there is a younger worker who brings home the coronavirus, they might be living with their Abuelita (grandmother) who then could come down with the disease. You know, that's kind of what's happening in the Latino community. But a lot of these folks are just getting sick because they just go to work.

HC:  Another story we both continue to follow is outbreaks in congregate living facilities. And NC Health News had a reporter here in Western North Carolina covering that topic.

Her name is Hannah Critchfield and she teamed up with Tommy Goldsmith who's has been covering aging for us for years. And they did a story about a nursing home in Hendersonville that had a big outbreak.

HC: You are talking about Cherry Springs Village in Hendersonville. I think the first cases came out in April and your report focused on a strike team assembled by the facility.

The strike team idea was to bring in extra hands because this was not a skilled nursing facility. There was a nurse who would come in weekly. I think it was, but this place had folks who were living there who might need a little bit of help. So they, they set up a decontamination tent outside so that like when workers were leaving, they were able to take off their clothes,  their personal protective equipment before they went home so that they weren't taking the virus out with them. The chief medical officer for the group was involved. A local EMS was involved.   So, it really got some extra bodies into the facility to help bring the outbreak under control.

HC: That brings up a question about testing in these facilities. So, we heard today, Dr. Cohen talk about how they are trying to facilitate regular testing in nursing homes. In Buncombe County Medical director, Dr. Jennifer Mullendore has been calling for this for a long time – for staff who may not have coverage for testing. 

Yeah, that's a big issue. A lot of those workers, they're making 13, maybe 14 bucks an hour, and many of them are not, don't have healthcare coverage. Now I will, this is a plug. You know, one thing to know is that the States federally qualified health center or community health centers, they have money from the, from the feds, from the CARES Act that can cover testing. So, there are places to get free testing and those CHCs are the places to access it. So, it's, it's really a big deal to be able to access free testing. And that's something that those folks should know.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.
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