Health, economic disparities continue to affect some coronavirus hot spots


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A few yards from Isabel Espinoza’s Langley Park apartment, the area shows signs of the labors of this working-class immigrant neighborhood: Carpet-cleaning trucks sit in parking lots, corner street vendors sell fruit cups with chile and lime, and men walk into three-story brick buildings, their jeans stained with paint.

Then Espinoza pointed to the windows.

“People were evicted there,” Espinoza said, her right index finger indicating an apartment complex across from hers.

“She’s now having long covid symptoms,” she continued, moving her finger slightly to the left.

Her finger moved upward. “He spent last Christmas and New Year’s hiding in a basement because he caught the virus, thinking he was going to die. He even called his children to say goodbye,” she said.

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March 2020, thousands of front-line workers like Espinoza’s neighbors became essential — caring for the sick, cleaning schools, packing and delivering supplies, picking produce and processing food that made it to the tables of millions of Americans. As they worked, often close to others and without enough personal protective equipment, the virus spread rapidly, turning their communities into deadly hot spots.

Now, nearly 2½ years later, hot spots like Langley Park in Prince George’s County or the areas around the poultry-processing plants on the Eastern Shore are still suffering the economic and health effects.

“The situation here is that we haven’t been able to recover,” said Espinoza, 55, who despite her diabetes — which puts her at higher risk of complications from the coronavirus — has risked her own health to care for sick neighbors.

During the first coronavirus wave, the 20783 Zip code, which includes the Langley Park neighborhood where Espinoza has lived for more than two decades, had the highest infection rate in the state: 2,671 cases by August 2020.

The coronavirus is still an issue in the area — as of Thursday there have been 9,173 cases in Zip code 20783, according to Maryland Department of Health data — but cases are probably undercounted, as many fall ill more than once but don’t seek medical care or testing. Seventy percent of this Zip code’s population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, but some neighbors said they are still hesitant or fearful of getting a second dose or a booster.

Families in these areas have long endured health and economic inequities, and that is why advocates like Michelle LaRue, senior manager of health and science at CASA de Maryland, saw an urgent need to reach the community directly at the start of the pandemic to lessen the hit. A network of volunteer health promoters, or promotoras, led community outreach initiatives to provide information about vaccines and food pantries, along with help on applications for rental assistance and health benefits.

Despite these efforts, advocates and families said long-standing issues have worsened since the start of the pandemic — many people are unemployed or have had their work hours reduced, and more are facing housing instability. With high gas prices, it has become harder to afford food, and access to health care continues to be a challenge.

“We are going to have the longest and slowest recovery phase of the pandemic,” LaRue said. “Other sectors of the community fared pretty well. If you had your own transportation, if you had a job that allowed you to do remote work, if you were already economically stable, I think people weathered the storm a lot better. Our communities didn’t have a lot of those luxuries and still don’t.”

Robust coronavirus relief programs such as direct cash payments, eviction protections, unemployment expansion and sick leave kept many people from falling further into poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that analyzes the impact of federal and state government budget policies….



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