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Coronavirus struck Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. Will Latinos strike back with their votes?

Slowly, the strength that drained from Irene Morales’ body in her summer battle with Covid-19 is returning. What she won’t get back are her brother, her sister, her father and her aunt, all taken as the coronavirus has swept through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

The erasure of Morales’ family and Covid-19’s ruthlessness also wiped away her indecision about the presidential candidates. Her vote will pay respect to her family; she’ll be voting for Joe Biden, she said.

Speaking of President Donald Trump, Morales, 75, of Rio Grande City in Starr County, said: “It’s a little disappointing when I hear him say: ‘Don’t be afraid of Covid. Nothing has happened.’ Well, thank God. How lucky for him that he didn’t suffer. … Why have so many other people died? This the true Covid.”

Texas opened early voting Tuesday. Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs announced 16.9 million people had registered to vote—up 1.8 million from 2016, as of the latest numbers. In the four Rio Grande Valley counties — Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy —registrations are up at least a combined 76,770.

But the numbers looming large in this part of the state are those that tell the story of the toll of the coronavirus.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

The four core counties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley had logged nearly 70,000 coronavirus cases by Monday; nearly 3,000 people had died. Nearby Webb County, home to Laredo, and Zapata County, both on the border, added more than 14,700 more cases and 303 more deaths.

“There is not one person in Hidalgo County that hasn’t been affected by this horrible virus,” Hidalgo County Democratic chair Norma Ramirez said. That includes her. The virus killed Sergio Muñoz Sr., a former state legislator who was the county party’s vice chair, in July.

IMAGE: Irene Morales (Courtesy Irene Morales)
IMAGE: Irene Morales (Courtesy Irene Morales)

For Democrats to tip the election in Texas — the last Democratic presidential nominee to win the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976 — they’ll need improved turnout and more voters from the state’s almost all-Latino lower Rio Grande Valley and parts of South Texas. The counties are Democratic strongholds.

Community groups working to register and turn out voters, mostly through phone calls and texts, but also with some door-to-door work, say the virus’ devastation has become a motivator. They said Latinos are recognizing not only that their community has been devastated by the disease, but also that the years of inequities they have put up with worsened the impact of the coronavirus in the region.

Unemployment numbers here rose to levels not recorded since before 2000. Vehicle and foot traffic on the international bridges — the area’s economic engine — has been curtailed, hitting the border cities’ retail sectors that profit from Mexican shoppers.

The area already is far poorer than other parts of the state. It contends with high prevalences of diabetes and obesity, and about 30 percent of adults in three of the counties don’t have health insurance.

Colorado one of just six states where Latinos are more likely to die prematurely than white residents

Colorado has a reputation as a healthy place to live, but that doesn’t seem to benefit the state’s Hispanic residents, who are more likely to die of causes that could have been treated or prevented.

In all but six states, Hispanic Americans are less likely to die of potentially preventable causes than white Americans, according to a Denver Post analysis of data from the Commonwealth Fund’s state health system scorecard.

In Colorado, however, Hispanic residents are about 20% more likely than white residents to die of treatable conditions, such as asthma attacks, diabetes complications, appendicitis or certain cancers. Deaths of people older than 75 aren’t included in the data.

The information was collected before the pandemic, so it doesn’t reflect COVID-19’s disproportionate hit on communities of color.

Colorado’s Hispanic population is more likely to be uninsured and to go without health care, but that’s also true of the rest of the country, including states where they’re less likely to die prematurely.

There’s no one explanation for the disparity in deaths, experts say, with factors including a history of discrimination, Colorado’s high cost of living and unequal access to quality jobs, education and housing playing a role.

Colorado’s white population has one of the lowest rates of premature death in the country, but that doesn’t fully explain the gap. Some other states, like Minnesota and Massachusetts, have lower-than-average rates of preventable deaths for both their white and Hispanic populations. In Colorado, the Hispanic population actually has more preventable deaths than the national average.

The things that make Colorado a healthy place, like the abundant opportunities for outdoor exercise, aren’t equally available to people who work lower-paying jobs and don’t have the money or free time to enjoy them, said Patricia Valverde, a faculty member at the Colorado School of Public Health’s Latino Research and Policy Center. And who works in low-wage jobs, which also tend to be more dangerous and may not offer health insurance, isn’t random, she said.

Denver was a center of a civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s because of widespread discrimination against Latinos in education and other parts of public life, Valverde said. While much has improved since then, people who were discriminated against in school were less able to pursue higher education, which then reduced how much they earned later in life and what opportunities they could give their children — all of which contributes to worse health, she said.

“With each generation, their economic opportunities increase, but you’re already starting behind,” she said.

Some parts of the state, like many of the southern counties, have high rates of premature deaths for all ethnic groups, according to data from the Colorado Health Institute. Others, like Denver and Mesa counties, have relatively low rates for white residents, but high ones for Hispanics.

In Denver, predominantly Latino neighborhoods tend to have less access to healthy food and more pollution, said Emily Cervantes, program manager for public policy research and analysis at the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy

Covid causing ‘historic decimation’ of Latinos, expert says

A global health expert said Wednesday that the coronavirus is causing “the historic decimation” of the Latino community, ravaging generations of loved ones in Hispanic families.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, spoke at a virtual Congressional Hispanic Caucus briefing Wednesday, when he read off descriptions of people who died on Aug. 13 in Houston alone.

“Hispanic male, Hispanic male, Hispanic male, black male, Hispanic male, black male, Hispanic male, Hispanic female, black female, black male, Hispanic, Hispanic, Hispanic, Hispanic, Hispanic, Hispanic” Hotez said, adding that many are people in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

“This virus is taking away a whole generation of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, you know, who are young kids, teenage kids. And it occurred to me that what we’re seeing really is the historic decimation among the Hispanic community by the virus,” he said.

Hotez contacted other medical officials in Texas and found that the pattern is similar in other cities. He added that the pattern also applies to the Latino population in other parts of the country, particularly in the southern U.S.

Before Hotez spoke at the briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said that hospitalizations among Latinos as of Sept. 19 were 359 per 100,000 compared to 78 in whites. Deaths related to Covid-19 are 61 per 100,000 in the Latino population compared to 40 in whites, and Latinos represent 45 percent of deaths of people younger than 21, Fauci said.

Fauci said the country can begin to address this “extraordinary problem” now by making sure the community gets adequate testing and immediate access to care. But he said this is not a one-shot resolution.

“This must now reset and re-shine a light on this disparity related to social determinants of health that are experienced by the Latinx community — the fact that they have a higher incidence of co-morbidities, which put you at risk,” Fauci said.

“That’s something that you do not fix in a month or a year. It’s something that requires a decades-long commitment to change those social determinants, which make that community more susceptible to diabetes, to obesity, to hypertension, to kidney disease,” he said. “We need to look at what we need to do now to make this to be an enduring and burning lesson of a challenge that we have for the Latino community.”

Fauci also urged the Latino congressional members on the call to get their Latino constituents to consider enrolling in vaccination trials so they can be proven to be safe in everyone, including African Americans and Latinos.

“We need to get a diverse representation of the population in the clinical trials,” he said.

Fauci said he believes there will be an “answer” by the end of the year or beginning of next year on whether one of five potential vaccines is safe and effective. “We only will know after the tests are over, so anyone who