WATERLOO — Advocates of the area’s largest Burmese refugee organization say a large percentage of working-age refugees they serve have tested positive for coronavirus around the state.
Abigail Sui, who works at EMBARC as a program manager in Des Moines, broke the news during Black Hawk County’s weekly coronavirus briefing Thursday, saying “more than 70%” of the working-age people she serves through EMBARC have tested positive for coronavirus.
“The majority of our community members are workers at the packing plant, or have family members working” there, Sui said.
She said even with Tyson and other workplaces reopened, “many” of those from Myanmar she serves are sick and cannot return to work.
“Situations are changing really quickly, and right now we are seeing many of them testing positive,” Sui said. “Our recent data shows that more than 70% of the Burmese community members who work are testing positive.”
Asked for clarification, an EMBARC spokesperson said Sui mainly works with those living in Des Moines, and that 70% didn’t mean specifically from Waterloo.
County health director Dr. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye said that, while she could not corroborate the number in this area, the Asian population — the category those from Myanmar would fall under — is certainly over-represented in positive coronavirus cases countywide.
According to the county’s coronavirus website, 18.6% of those testing positive are of Asian descent. With 1,894 county residents testing positive as of Friday, that translates to roughly 353 people of Asian descent.
Black Hawk County’s estimated Asian population as a whole is only 2.5%, according to 2019 estimates from the U.S. Census, meaning Asian residents are 16.1% disproportionately represented among those testing positive.
Black residents, who account for 9.7% of the county’s population, are also over-represented at 27.1% of those testing positive, translating to around 513 residents.
Hispanic residents, just 4.5% of Black Hawk County, are 25.7% of those testing positive, or around 487 residents.
Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders — those from the Marshall Islands would fall under this category — are 0.4% of Black Hawk County but 2.7% of those testing positive, or around 51 residents.
Meanwhile, white residents are underrepresented in cases: They are 84.5% of Black Hawk County, but just 51.6% of those testing positive, or around 977 residents.
County officials have not released a demographic breakdown of those 37 residents that so far have died of COVID-19.
The number of non-white residents testing positive may be in large part due to the 1,031 employees of Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo testing positive, or 38% of the workforce.
Owing in part to no English-speaking requirement to obtain a job there, Tyson has historically employed a good portion of recent refugees and immigrants. These days, that includes people from countries like Myanmar, the Marshall Islands and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The exact proportion of nonwhite workers at Tyson wasn’t immediately available from a Tyson spokesperson Friday.
Advocates at EMBARC said they continued to broaden their communication and education with their refugee communities, including providing a daily news video on the latest coronavirus and immigrant-related news in several languages.
They’re also directly delivering food to their clients’ doors, helping them get sick leave or file for unemployment, and trying to reach parents with school-aged children to help them navigate online learning.
“Coming here is already a big challenge,” said EMBARC advocate Julie Molisho, who assists those from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “On top of all that, the pandemic came to add some more challenges onto our plate.”
She said things like social distancing and wearing masks “was a big challenge for us,” but noted local hospitals and the county health department have helped her get out timely and accurate information out.
“We learned how to follow the rules, how to adjust to the new pandemic,” Molisho said.
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