Latino and black Iowans make up a disproportionate amount of known COVID-19 cases, according to data the state released this week.
On Wednesday, 17.3 percent of the 1,995 Iowans confirmed to have coronavirus were Hispanic or Latino, while just 6.2 of the state’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.
And 9.2 percent of those who tested positive for COVID-19 were black Iowans, while Iowa’s population is only 4 percent black.
“It’s very unfortunate, and it’s something that we knew in the Latino and immigrant communities for some time,” said Joe Henry with the League of United Latin American Citizens in Des Moines.
He said a lot of Latinos are still going to work in food production plants, warehouses and construction sites where they can’t necessarily practice social distancing.
“We need to make sure we take care of our workers, especially those from our community, in the immigrant community,” Henry said. “Things need to be handled right now.”
Henry said LULAC has received complaints from employees, especially at meat packing plants, who say their employers are not doing enough to protect them. Two meat packing plants in Iowa have confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks, and infections have been reported at additional food processing facilities.
Henry said the state should enforce coronavirus safety measures at businesses to make sure they’re following the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19. He said the state should also do more to provide reliable information about the virus to people who don’t have English as their primary language.
Nicole Novak, an assistant research scientist at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, said Iowa’s racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 cases are consistent with those found across the country.
“Here in Iowa, our communities and our economy are set up in a way that many black and Hispanic Iowans are more likely to get exposed to the coronavirus, and many have risk factors that make it more likely to develop a severe set of COVID-19 symptoms,” Novak said.
Novak said there is no evidence that the higher prevalence of health risk factors like asthma and diabetes are because of inherent biological differences. Rather, these underlying health conditions are rooted in social inequities related to income, housing and food quality, education and racism.
“In the case of coronavirus, that can be something of a double whammy because the communities that were already suffering from health inequalities rooted in those social inequalities can also be more vulnerable to severe COVID,” Novak said.
Novak echoed Henry’s suggestions for reducing racial and ethnic coronavirus disparities in Iowa.
“I think making sure that information really saturates communities through trusted sources is super important,” Novak said.
She added employers should be held accountable for keeping workers safe, and employees should be informed of their rights and feel empowered to advocate for their own safety.
Asked about these disparities Wednesday, Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said they are still in the process of “analyzing the data.”
“We’re continuing to work on providing instructional materials in alternate languages and trying to reach out specifically to some of the businesses where some of these individuals may work,” Reisetter said.
The state did not provide race and ethnicity data for hospitalizations and deaths in Iowa.