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Some blame cultural differences and health inequities for the high rate of COVID-19 cases in the Hispanic community

 Sarah Rueda with her grandmother, Blanca Valencia, and her grandfather, Marino Valencia at a family gathering in their home on July 18, 2020. Her grandmother passed away six months later after contracting COVID.
Sarah Rueda
Sarah Rueda with her grandmother, Blanca Valencia, and her grandfather, Marino Valencia, at a family gathering in their home on July 18, 2020. Her grandmother passed away six months later after contracting COVID-19.

Shipping and receiving inspector Sarah Rueda only left her house for work during the pandemic. When she returned to her family's home in Lee County, she would immediately wash her hands and take a shower.

She always returned to a full house. If her family wasn’t watching the horror movies that her grandmother loved, then classic Spanish music was filling the air.

While her home was always full of love, her family struggled with the fear that she or one of her working family members might bring the virus home.

Despite Rueda and her family’s precautions, in January of last year, after being hospitalized, her grandmother passed away from COVID-19. Rueda and other family members also contracted COVID-19 in early 2021, but they recovered.

Rueda says her grandmother, Blanca Valencia, was the family matriarch; the glue that kept them together. To this day, the family keeps her grandmother’s door closed to avoid reminders of their painful loss.

“It was someone in the family who gave her COVID,” Rueda said. “We don’t know who and it’s kind of an unspoken topic.”

Like many Hispanic families, Rueda lives in a multigenerational household, which increases the risk of accidentally spreading the virus to older family members.

Currently the leading demographic for COVID cases in Florida is Hispanics/Latinos, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC says Hispanics account for 24% of COVID cases, yet only 18% of the total population.

“There are many people in our community that for financial reasons or work arrangements live together in close quarters, which facilitates the spread of COVID,” Mayra E. Vargas-Rivera, the Director of Community Outreach at Healthcare Network of SWFL, said.

There is a cultural aspect to this transmission of the virus.

“Hispanic families tend to be bigger and have a lot of generations of one family that live in one household,” Hispanic resident of Lee County Lilliam Roman said. “There’s three, four, or five generations under one roof.”

Multigenerational households are common because they maintain Hispanic culture. Older generations pass experiences and stories to the new generations in the household.

This type of living arrangement also provides families with a better sense of community. Hispanic culture typically thrives on community, whereas American culture values individualism.

Multigenerational households are a cultural reason COVID is running rampant through the Hispanic community. In Lee County, there are 10,442 Hispanic multigenerational households, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

While cultural aspects contribute to higher rates of transmission, some in the Hispanic community believe the true culprit may be inequity.

“The main reason this is happening is because COVID-19 is worsening inequities that had already existed and are making it even harder for Latino communities to achieve good health,” said Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, leader of the Salud America program,

Salud America is a national program devoted to improving the health of Latinos.

The Hispanic/Latino community has faced inequities for decades. Now, Dr. Ramirez and others believe COVID has amplified the inequitable access to quality healthcare.

“Latinos may be distrustful of a COVID-19 vaccine because of targeted misinformation and experiences with implicit bias and discrimination in the doctor’s office,” Dr. Ramirez said.

Mayra Vargas-Rivera of the Healthcare Network said there is a lot of misinformation out there on social media, resulting in many people being scared of getting the vaccine.

“Whenever you have questions about COVID or the vaccines, get informed by a qualified health professional and follow professional guidelines based on science- not hearsay,” Vargas-Rivera said. “Also do not let your guard down and continue to wear masks, maintain social distancing, and wash your hands often.”

As of late May 2021, 67% of unvaccinated adults had heard at least one COVID vaccine myth and either believed it to be true or were not sure. That study was published by the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation. KFF describes itself as a non-partisan source for national healthcare information.

Puerto Rican resident of Lee County Angelica Carire is skeptical about the COVID vaccine.

“People with the vaccine are getting just as sick as those who don’t,” Carire said. “I think the media is creating miscommunication.”

Carire acknowledged that misinformation is affecting a huge part of the Hispanic community.

“Some don’t have much access to information,” Carire said. “Part of the problem is that if someone already has a misconception of the care they need, they may feel like they’re putting themselves at risk by seeking help.”

Other members of the community, like Lilliam Roman, a senior pharmacy technician, agree with Carire when it comes to lack of access.

“Access to medical doctors and information is the most important,” Roman said. “Not everyone has insurance, not everyone goes to the doctor, and not everyone has the right information about COVID testing and vaccinations.”

A significant misconception among unvaccinated Latinos is that getting vaccinated will cost them money, with 52% believing it will. This information comes from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The U.S. government has provided vaccines free of charge. Health insurance is not required to get the vaccine.

Roman said money and access to medical aid and information would benefit the Hispanic community.

Dr. Ramirez of Salud America said that the Hispanic/Latino community needs clear language to fight misinformation.

She suggests using messages tailored to the health literacy levels of the target audience, removing difficult biological or chemical terms from messages, and explaining terms that have technical meanings.

“Dismissing people’s concerns, even if rooted in misinformation or conspiracy, may invalidate or upset your audience,” Dr, Ramirez said. “It is better to avoid passing judgement and be a helpful source that can answer questions and concerns about a COVID-19 vaccine.”

The team at Salud America created the Latino COVID-19 Vaccine “Change of Heart” Bilingual Storytelling Campaign. The campaign, also in Spanish, shares the stories of real Latinos who overcame misinformation, got the vaccine, reconnected with family, and are helping end the pandemic.

“We want our families to be able to get back together," Dr. Ramirez said. "We want to be able to do our jobs and go to school safely. We want things to get back to normal as much as possible. The best way to achieve what we want is to get the vaccine and booster shots right when they are available because they are safe, effective, and free.”