Rate of Hispanics hospitalized with COVID-19 in Austin increasing, drawing equity concerns

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — New numbers from Austin Public Health indicate that not only are Hispanic residents being hospitalized with COVID-19 in Travis County at disproportionate rates, but the rate at which they are being hospitalized for COVID-19 continues to increase.

Austin’s Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott described these numbers as part of “concerning trends that we anticipated and that we continue to try to address through targeted interventions,  targeted media campaigns, aimed at our minority communities.”

Escott said out of the new COVID-19 hospitalizations at Austin-Travis County hospitals last week, nearly 64% of those hospitalizations were for Hispanic individuals. For comparison, July 2019 Census numbers show that 33.9% of Travis County’s population is Hispanic.

When all the Travis County hospitalizations for COVID-19 from March 11 onward are broken down by race and ethnicity and charted week by week, the percentage of hospitalizations for Hispanic individuals appears to be on an increasing trajectory.

On the week of March 11, White Non-Hispanic residents made up 50% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations in Travis County. But in each of the following weeks, the percentage of Hispanic residents hospitalized for COVID-19 in Travis County eclipsed the rate of White Non- Hispanic hospitalizations.

Austin Public Health data for COVID-19 hospitalizations by race and ethnicity in Austin-Travis County from the weeks of March 11, 2020 through the week of April, 29 2020. Courtesy Austin COVID-19 dashboard.

These numbers were added as part of a new feature Friday to the Austin COVID-19 dashboard and were presented before Travis County Commissioner’s Court on Tuesday.

“As we expected,” explained Escott as he talked with the commissioners. “We’ve had a steady increase and a persistent increase in the percentage of Hispanics hospitalized as the weeks have progressed, which far outpaced their representation in our community.”

Escott has said these numbers were “expected” because reports from around the country have indicated that people of color in many communities have been disproportionately impacted by the novel coronavirus.

In April, the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams explained that while the federal government does not think people of color are biologically or genetically predisposed to get COVID-19, that people of color are socially predisposed to coronavirus exposure and have a higher incidence of diseases that put people at risk for COVID-19.

Escott listed off multiple reasons he believes have led Austin to see this increasing rate of hospitalizations for Hispanic community members. He noted that in Austin, people of color are more likely to work in jobs where they will need to interact face-to-face with other people, which increases their risk of having the virus spread to them. Escott said that these communities also historically lack access to effective health care and have social determinants that can lead to higher rates of hospitalization. Additionally, he noted that people of color are more likely to live with multiple generations in one household, which makes the spread of the virus within a household more likely.

Escott also noted that the rate of people tested for COVID-19 at the Austin Pubic Health drive-through site who test positive is decreasing ( t is now 2.32%, a few weeks ago it was 4.8%), however 6% of the Hispanic individuals tested there tested positive. At the Austin Public Health drive-through test site, 20% of the people who signed up for testing there are Hispanic, a disproportionately low rate compared to the overall Travis County population.

Escott said the high rate of Hispanic individuals testing positive at that site “indicates that we have pockets in our community with substantially higher risk of spread and experiencing high risk of transmission.”

“And we really are focused substantially on getting that under control making sure that outreach is appropriate and enhanced over the coming weeks so that we can gain control over that transmission,” he said.

Outreach to the Hispanic community

A city spokesperson explained to KXAN that the city and county have been conducting outreach to the Hispanic community and will continue to do so. The city has provided Spanish versions of city resources on its website and in places like grocery stores and churches, created flyers explaining things such as workplace best practices for preventing COVID-19 and what to do if you’re sick), developed an Univisión town hall, conducted interviews and announcements in Spanish, provided interpreters for 311 calls, translated social media posts into Spanish, and talked with community leaders to assist in sharing information about preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“I think they’re doing their part as much as possible,” said Paul Saldaña with Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin (HABLA).

“But there doesn’t seem to be an organized effort,” he continued. “If you continue to see an increase in Latinos and Hispanics over-represented in the people who are being affected and hospitalized with COVID-19, then clearly what we’ve been doing for the last five or six weeks is not working and something needs to change.”

Saldaña explained that he is hoping to see more direct outreach to Hispanic Austinites as well as direct collaboration between local governments and the groups already working with the Hispanic community in the area.

“The Latino community stands ready to help, we’re just waiting for there to be the ask,” he said.

Additionally, Saldaña cautioned against a “one-size-fits-all” approach for reaching out to the Hispanic community.

“Our community is not monolithic, we have at least 25 subcultures of the Latino community, we are not all Mexican or Mexican American,” he said. “And so there seems to be a void in the manner in which we are publically educating the Latino community.”

He said that public health efforts will have to take into account that some Hispanic Austinites may not have access to the internet. Ccampaigns will need to be creative to reach people who can’t go online.

“We have a large immigrant, undocumented community and then there’s concern about showing up to government tested sites,” Saldaña added.

Escott acknowledged that Hispanic residents in particular may not trust some of the COVID-19 outreach efforts from local governments. He encouraged county leaders to use their platforms to make sure people are aware of the public testing enrollment process, the CommUnity Care mobile testing sites.

“There’s not any catch to it, their name doesn’t enter into a database for detection by law enforcement, there’s not some secret bill that comes later,” Escott told commissioners. “It’s health information, it only comes to Austin Public Health and we need to continue to remove some of these perceived barriers. “

Saldaña also expressed concern about reported incidents of racist or discriminatory behavior toward Hispanic construction workers in Austin following reports about the risk of COVID-19 spread on construction sites. Those instances are something Gloria Leal has heard about, as well. Leal is the president of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council 650 in Austin.

“It has been brought to my knowledge that some Hispanic construction workers when visiting their local convenience stores for lunch here were turned away…either because they are construction workers or Hispanics,” she said, noting that these workers did not report the incident because they are undocumented and feared retaliation.

Leal said that her council has “grave concerns” that reports which show high rates of Hispanic community members being hospitalized or testing positive for COVID-19 will trigger further discriminatory actions.

What she wanted to make sure that people understand is that “Hispanics are more likely to be in the essential worker category or the non-exempt category.”

“In Austin and probably in the state of Texas, it happens to be Hispanics on the front-lines,” she said.

Disproportionate impacts

Last week, KXAN reported numbers which showed that Hispanic and Black residents were both being hospitalized at disproportionate rates. 8.9% of Travis County’s population is Black and the updated numbers from Austin-Travis County for this past week show a decrease in the rate of Black residents being hospitalized at 6.2%

One caveat with the Austin-Travis County hospitalization demographic numbers is there still are many cases classified as “other” (14.1% of cases last week), which Escott explained are “data issues” which will need to be worked out in the process of comparing hospital data to epidemiology data.

When you look at the current number of confirmed Austin-Travis County cases of COVID-19 by race and ethnicity, Hispanic residents make up 51% of the cases — also a disproportionate rate.

Data showing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Austin-Travis County, broken down by race and ethnicity. Data from Austin COVID-19 Dashboard May 13, 2020.

Escott told county commissioners that to address and prevent future disparities for minority communities, Austin Public Health is increasing its testing availability and trying to spread the word about its portal which allows people with COVID-19 symptoms to get tested for free. Additionally, Escott said that APH is trying to get the word out to people who live in houses with multiple generations that they can stay at the city’s isolation hotel for free to avoid infecting other people in their household.

Research from the UT Health Science Center suggests that Travis County’s eastern crescent is the part of the Austin area most at risk for severe cases of COVID-19.

In mid-April, Central Health and CommUnityCare reopened clinics and launched mobile testing sites in the eastern crescent of the city in an effort to better support the community.

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