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Crowded houses: Impact of coronavirus on a Latino family

With the number of Latinos affected by coronavirus making up 75 percent of the cases in Sonoma County, it’s not surprising that some of those cases are in the Sonoma Valley. While east county -- Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Sonoma -- has as of June 23 only 7 percent of the county’s total of 935 cases, that number looks bigger when you break it down: 65 people in east county have contracted coronavirus, and the pattern suggests that most of them are Latinos.

One local Latina woman -- referred to in this story as Miranda; she declined to use her real name -- spoke to the Index-Tribune about COVID in the Latino community.

“I don't know anyone personally that has it. I only hear rumors and I hear people talking that someone has it, but I personally don't know anyone,” said Miranda, a Springs resident.

No one, that is, except her daughter and herself.

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La Luz Center’s family services program supports Sonoma Valley families from early childhood through adulthood. To send your support, visit their donation page, laluzcenter.org/donation-form

Miranda, 42, had been working in the restaurant industry, but all the restaurants closed on March 18 with the shelter-in-place order. So to keep some money coming into the household, she took up the offer of a friend who suggested she help with a housecleaning job. Miranda spent two hours, at $20 an hour, to clean a San Francisco couple’s weekend home off Grove Street.

Two days later, she came down with symptoms.

“It was a Friday and I started having a headache, cough, and body aches,” she said. “Every time I coughed, I had throat pain. I had headache, chills, sweats, body ache –and I couldn’t smell or taste anything.”

Two days after that, her 17-year-old daughter (the middle in a family of three children) also came down with symptoms, though she never complained of body aches. They were tested at the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center, which at the time was testing symptomatic people – their public testing program didn’t begin until May 20. Up until that time, said Cheryl Johnson, CEO of the SVCHC, they tested 130 symptomatic people, of whom eight were positive - three from Sonoma Valley.

The tests for Miranda and her daughter came up positive. The county requested that the rest of the family get tested too, but since they had no symptoms they had to go to the county health lab on Chanate Road in Santa Rosa for their tests. The rest of the family were negative.

The family of five lives in a 3-bedroom duplex in the Boyes Hot Springs area near Highway 12, and while they don’t suffer from the same over-crowded conditions that many face in the Latino community, it’s still always a struggle.

The Miranda’s family apartment rents for $2,600, and they were fortunate that the father did not fall ill, too, and was still able to go to his job in permaculture. During their period of quarantine, he slept on the porch and for the most part lived in his car, so he could continue working.

“If there’s anything in our Latino community that’s important, it’s having a place to live,” said Patricia Galindo, client services coordinator at the nonprofit La Luz Center, which serves and advocates for the Sonoma Valley Latino community. (Galindo served as translator for the Index-Tribune’s conversation with Miranda.)

“People talk about Latinos not paying attention to taking care of themselves right now, but it's not because we're being stubborn. It's not because we don't want to listen. It's because we have to pay bills,” said Miranda. “We have to pay our rent. We have to pay many things. We have so many bills.

“So it's not because we don't want to listen to the warnings about not socializing – we're not staying at home because we have many bills to pay, and we don't have the same advantages that other people have,” said Miranda, referring to disability and unemployment insurance or other government assistance.

’Forty dollars for 15 days of misery!’ Lucia Miranda

Many Latino families – though not Miranda’s family – double-up on rentals so their combined income can meet the household bills. It’s the overcrowded homes that probably present the greatest liability for Sonoma’s families in the health crisis.

According to the county’s Fair Housing Survey neighborhood profiles, the Agua Caliente/Fetters neighborhood is 69 percent Latino – among the highest in the county. “The neighborhood has a much higher rate of households who rent than the County at large,” reads the 2019 report. “Households in the neighborhood have a slightly higher rate of overcrowding, substandard living conditions, and face a higher cost burden than the County at large - especially renters.”

But that’s not the only factor: Latinos work at a disproportionate number in “frontline services,” such as food, agriculture, health care and maintenance, and domestic work. “What I suspect is, a lot of folks in the Latinx community are the ones who’ve been out, working in our essential workplaces,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer.

“The cases start outside of the household, then the person doesn’t know that they have COVID yet, then they go back in the household with large families living in crowded conditions… then there’s widespread transmission within the household, including the kids – which is why we see 97 percent of the child cases are in the Latinx community,” said Mase in her June 12 press briefing.

Mase was clear that the families themselves were not to blame. “Poverty. Housing. Immunization. Access to medical care. Ability to provide outreach with cultural relatively, and case management for these groups. All these things have to be addressed. It will take a lot more time to address the underlying inequities, but right now we’re going to start by dealing with the emergency situation.”

Health care is at the top of the list for Latino families. As Miranda said, “If we were given the opportunity to be able to buy into insurance, I'm sure that most people would buy insurance. We get all these other deductions from our check, why can't we get the deduction to go toward health insurance? We don't want things for free.”

Both mother and daughter have fully recovered; the elder daughter works in health care for a private physician, and with the father’s income they are getting by. But ironically, one of their biggest obstacles is their community’s unconscious denial of the coronavirus, and a skeptical attitude toward what it can be like to fall ill with COVID.

“Some people are treating it like leprosy, and some people are laughing at it, calling it a ‘government thing’,” said Galindo. Some of that might be protective denial, that they need to work so badly to make their rent they can’t afford to believe they might get sick.

Miranda is convinced she got sick cleaning that second home in west Sonoma: she fell ill two days after doing the job, and hadn’t been anywhere else since March 18. But the woman whose house it was refused to pay her, taking offense when Miranda told her she contracted the virus from her.

She still hasn’t been paid the $40 she is owed, said Miranda, who also heard that the homeowner on Grove Street had tested positive for coronavirus, though she couldn’t confirm it.

“Forty dollars for 15 days of misery!” said Miranda with a laugh.

According to Galindo, even one of Miranda’s cousins said to her, “What’s the matter, can’t you take it? How bad can it be?”

“It seems like they don’t believe it until it happens to them,” said Galindo.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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