The line of cars stretched down Monmouth Street Friday afternoon, past the pediatric clinic, the nail salon and the Mexican bakery — all with occupants waiting to enter the white triage tent in the corner lot for a COVID-19 test.
Novant Health’s Waughtown Respiratory Assessment Center has been open for a little more than a month, and as the weeks go by, testing lines like Friday's are becoming more frequent.
This section of the city is predominantly Hispanic — Mexican bakeries, Hispanic grocery stores, florists and other Spanish-language businesses line this part of the Waughtown commercial corridor.
Of the more than 700 people who tested positive for coronavirus in Forsyth County, over half fall into the category of Hispanic or Latino, according to the county’s health department, despite Latinos making up 13% of the county’s population. Data showing coronavirus cases by zip code show the most Forsyth cases in the 27107 postal code, which contains areas with predominantly Hispanic populations, according to census data.
Census numbers show that just under half of all people who live in and around the city’s South Side and Sunnyside neighborhoods are Hispanic.
In areas that are predominantly Hispanic, according to the census data, median household income is considerably lower than the median household income for Forsyth County as a whole — sometimes by less than half.
Health officials at the state and local level have said minorities and people in lower socioeconomic classes are disproportionately more at risk of contracting the virus.
In a recent survey of Spanish-speaking immigrants in North Carolina’s metropolitan centers, nearly 24% of respondents listed access to medical care among their most urgent needs right now. Many others expressed worry about paying rent, utility bills and buying groceries.
Novant Neighborhood Engagement Partner Nora Toncel has been assigned to the Waughtown respiratory center since April 16, one day after it opened. A Spanish speaker, Toncel said she gets, on average, 15 minutes with every Hispanic patient who arrives wanting a test, and it's her job to translate for them if needed and try to connect them with vital community resources. Most importantly, Toncel tries to put their minds at ease.
“A lot of them are worried to even go home, and many come straight from work,” Toncel said. “There’s a lot of anxiety out there for sure. ... The Latino community can be very shy and nervous about asking for help.”
As of Friday, Novant was testing only symptomatic patients, which left many people in a state of limbo, as several people were sent by their employers to get tested, Toncel said. Health officials have repeatedly said a person can be asymptomatic and still have COVID-19.
“The fear is that they will go home and share any virus with their relatives, and if they choose to stay home they might lose their jobs,” Toncel said.
There is also fear of government involvement or being part of the system for some Spanish-speaking immigrants who might be undocumented in America. These fears may contribute to a perceived reluctance to get tested for the coronavirus, according to Willie Herrera, a community volunteer and member of the Winston-Salem Hispanic League Board.
“A lot of Hispanic families do not seek medical help until the very last minute because they don’t have the resources or they don’t have insurance,” Herrera said. “If they’re not here legally, they’re thinking ‘Now they know where I live, and they’re going to come get me.’”
A retired police officer and volunteer firefighter from Hempstead, New York, where the population is about 18% Latino, Herrera moved South at the urging of his wife, with the family settling in Winston-Salem. He said he is urging everyone he comes across in the Hispanic community to take the virus seriously. Herrera, 50, knows so many people from his hometown who have died from the virus that he’s stopped counting.
“I stopped counting after well over 20 people that I am friends with or acquaintances with passed away,” he said. “Information doesn’t get to (Latinos) as quick as everybody else, and I think things got very lax at the beginning. Businesses stayed open.
“I had a fireman from my fire department pass away. I have a nephew in the hospital now. He’s been there almost two weeks now. ... It’s spreading like wildfire, and it started off slow, and you didn’t hear about it in the Hispanic community. And then all of a sudden, the cases rose and it was all over.”
One of Herrera’s sisters recently died in medical care from an upper respiratory illness, but apparently not COVID-19. He said he isn’t entirely sure the cause of death is accurate. His family, like many others, couldn’t have a proper funeral and will have to wait indefinitely until they can safely gather to memorialize their dead.
At least some of the spread in the Hispanic community comes from overly full living arrangements. Apartments often meant for four people might have eight or 10 living in them, Herrera said. It’s a byproduct of low-paying jobs, a culture that prioritizes family and the need to send money to family members living in their native countries. Last week, County Health Director Joshua Swift advised people who lived in cramped conditions to wear masks in their own homes if socially distancing within the residence wasn’t possible.
However, some people still don’t have access to masks. In a survey by Siembra N.C., a Greensboro-based organization of Latino people who advocate for immigrant rights, more than 40% of the respondents reported not having access to a mask.
Alex LaComa, a student at Atkins High School, is working to install a "little free pantry" and "little free library" at the Acadia Food Forest in the city’s south side as part of his Eagle Scout project, a requirement for the Eagle Scout award. LaComa said he and his family have started giving away masks to people who come to the community garden when they’ve been out to work on the project.
“The people who did not have a mask, it’s not because they weren’t willing to wear it, it’s because they didn’t have one,” LaComa said.
As part of his project, which he anticipates will be finished by the end of May, LaComa and others plan to leave masks at the pantry with a bilingual note asking people to take and wear them.
LaComa, along with his mother, said the project started with the library idea because some research has shown children who are still struggling to read by the third grade will likely never catch up. As the coronavirus pandemic kicked into gear and people started losing their jobs, the project’s timeline got accelerated and the idea to add a pantry was born. LaComa said he anticipates building one other pantry-library combination at a yet-to-be-determined site.
Herrera, who volunteers with HOPE Winston-Salem (Helping Our People Eat), said the shortage of food may actually be exacerbating the virus’ spread in some cases, as families who have lost their jobs are having to carpool to community feeding sites in an effort to save gas money.
“One thing I’m seeing now is you’re seeing them come together and come out as groups,” Herrera said. “They’re doing this as a need but we’re telling them you need to keep your distance and respect all that’s going on and have your masks.”