DES MOINES — Betty Andrews is reminded these days of a well-known saying in the black community.
When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia.
That phrase has become all too accurate during the global coronavirus pandemic, across the U.S. and in Iowa. Minority communities are bearing a disproportionate burden of COVID-19.
Latino Iowans make up just 6% of the state’s population but 23% of confirmed cases. Black Iowans make up just 4% of the state’s population but 13% of confirmed cases.
Those figures are according to U.S. Census and state public health data.
“We tend to take on a large brunt of what’s happening,” said Andrews, who serves as president of the Iowa and Nebraska branch of the NAACP.
Outbreaks at food processing plants, where high shares of minority workers are employed, and a variety of socioeconomic factors are causing higher infection rates in minority communities, experts and advocates say.
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In Iowa, the food processing plant outbreaks are the primary driver of spikes in the Latino infection rates. Outbreaks have occurred in at least a half-dozen plants throughout Iowa and just across the state’s borders, leading to hundreds of infections. Many plants — including Tyson in Waterloo — shut down to disinfect work areas and take steps to protect workers from further outbreaks. Some are back online.
Typically, employees at food processing plants work in close proximity along production lines. Such conditions are ripe for spread of the virus, which is highly contagious, especially when people are gathered close together indoors.
More than a third of animal slaughtering and processing workers in the U.S. are Latino, according to federal statistics.
“It has nothing to do with DNA,” said Joe Henry, political director for the Iowa chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “It has everything to do with these buildings that are sweatshops. They’re incubators for the virus. It’s a death march for these workers every day going into these buildings.”
Top officials at the companies that operate food processing plants say they are taking steps to protect the safety of their workers, and Gov. Kim Reynolds has said those leaders have assured her of the same. Companies say they have slowed production to allow workers to stand farther apart, installed barriers between workers, and staggered shifts and breaks so fewer workers are gathered at the same time.
But workers privately continue to share concerns about working conditions.
“We need a coalition of Iowans to speak up about this,” Henry said. “We need to fight for the rights of these workers, for their safety and health and higher wages.”
The black community was vulnerable before the coronavirus hit, making its impact, Andrews said. Black Americans have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, for example, according to federal statistics. Such health issues make individuals susceptible to the virus’ worst complications. Black Americans also experience higher rates of poverty, which also is tied to poorer health.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports other factors may include minority Americans living in densely populated areas and multi-generational homes, and a higher share of minorities in jails and prisons, all places where the virus can more rapidly spread.
“A number of social reasons exist because of the dynamics of our country prior to this situation, and obviously we as Americans generally need to do a better job taking care of our health,” Andrews said. “And that is exacerbated when you have communities that are poor, which communities of color tend to be.”
In minority communities, when a person contracts the virus the problems only multiply, advocates said. Getting tested and getting proper health care can be challenges.
Minority Iowans report difficulty getting tested, and some — especially those living in poverty — who become infected may not get proper care because they can’t afford it or don’t have a primary care doctor.
“When you’re talking about the communities that have access to less financial resources, that means they also have less access to consistent health care,” Andrews said. “So (they’re) not necessarily being able to communicate that (health care concern) initially because they don’t necessarily have a relationship with a provider.”
The CDC’s first recommendation for public health officials to address the disparate impact is to “ensure that communications about COVID-19 and its impact on different population groups is frequent, clear, transparent, and credible.”
The NAACP in early April requested the state public health department report the racial and ethnic breakdowns of coronavirus cases. The state has been reporting those numbers.
But the state does not report the racial and ethnic breakdowns of coronavirus-related deaths, making it impossible for the public to know whether minority Iowans are dying at a higher rate than their neighbors.
Nor is the state reporting the racial and ethnic breakdowns of coronavirus testing, making it impossible for the public to know to what degree minority communities are being tested.
State officials said last week they may start reporting the breakdowns in virus-related deaths once they have sufficient data. They have not made a similar pledge about the testing numbers.