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Fighting Omicron

Latinos face far too many barriers.

By Noreen Sugrue, Director of Research, Latino Policy Forum 

The best defense against any COVID variant, including Omicron, is getting the vaccine and any booster shot. 

The boosters, like the initial shots, are free. However, appointments for both the first round of vaccines and then the booster can be difficult to secure, with many places requiring that you have access to the Internet and have time to spend “shopping for an appointment.” In some cases, you must have a “My Chart” account or be a patient of the hospital or health center, or answer questions about health insurance status that are off-putting to many who work in the gig or cash economies, are immigrants, or live in mixed-status families. In addition, the hours of operation at many places often are not compatible with or convenient for people who work swing shifts, midnights, or multiple jobs. The language barrier for many is insurmountable as there has been a long-standing dearth of bilingual healthcare providers that’s exacerbated by the pandemic. So, while for the most part there are enough free vaccines, the road to full vaccination is still difficult for many Latinos. 

In Illinois, for example, these difficulties have resulted in the rates of Latinos receiving the initial vaccine and the booster being far lower than is optimal, especially given the heightened risk of infection due to occupational exposure, crowded living arrangements (including in some cases multigenerational living conditions), and the high proportion of Latinos who are under the age of five and therefore not vaccine eligible. As of January 6, 2022, only 27 percent of Latinos in Illinois have received a booster shot; and the rate for whites in Illinois receiving the booster is 78 percent higher than that for Latinos. This means that Latinos are at a heightened risk for infection from COVID-19, be it an original infection, a breakthrough, or reinfection. This situation exacerbates the risk of further community and familial spread. 

The Number of Cases is Staggering

Latinos are seeing a significant, even alarming, increase in cases. For example, between December 28, 2021, and January 7, 2022, there was a 15 percent increase of newly diagnosed cases among Latinos under the age of 20. And as the number of cases increases, even if many of them are mild, there will be an increased number of children admitted to the hospital, which in turn contributes to the fact that the health care system is becoming overwhelmed.

It’s especially problematic when taking into consideration that 20 percent of Latino children in Illinois are living in poverty—a situation making it unlikely that there are family resources that can be used to have regular at-home testing; these families also are unlikely to have the money necessary to seek early medical intervention. Latinos have the lowest rates of participation in publicly funded social safety net programs, without which resources to combat COVID are constrained.

The structural factors that from the earliest days of the pandemic have led the Latino community to be disproportionately impacted by COVID are still present, only now with a highly transmissible form of the virus. This form is spreading like “wildfire” considering the relatively low rates of vaccine protection generally, and specifically among younger persons. Omicron, therefore, is promising to further negatively impact the Latino community.

Latinos need public officials and business leaders to step up and ensure that they have the necessary medical care as well as the housing, food, educational, and general economic support required to weather this latest COVID storm.

The needs of the Latino community require immediate action—no community can withstand for long a 15 percent increase in cases among their young in less than two weeks. If Omicron’s threat to further damage the Latino community comes to pass, the cascading economic consequences will reverberate throughout the economy and the impact will hit everyone.