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‘This is stopping right here:’ State leaders, Latino community address COVID-19 spread in Hall
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Medical workers tested people for the COVID-19 virus Friday, May 15, 2020, in the parking lot of the Flor de Jalisco supermarket. State leaders spent time at the site in Gainesville’s largely Latino business district on Atlanta Highway as they sought to learn more about the area’s unique issues with and reaction to COVID-19. - photo by Scott Rogers

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State leaders Friday spent time at a local poultry plant and in Gainesville’s largely Latino business district on Atlanta Highway as they sought to learn more about the area’s unique issues with and reaction to COVID-19.

Hall County was declared a hot spot in April, with a disproportionate number of coronavirus cases being documented in the Latino community.

Some 60% of Hall County patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 identify as Hispanic/Latino, according to data provided May 13 by Northeast Georgia Health System.

The 2019 census projections estimate a 29% Latino population in Hall County.

Hall County positive cases

  • 60%: Hispanic/Latino
  • 25%: White/Caucasian
  • 5%: African American/Black
  • 10%: Other/Unknown

NGHS service area positive cases

  • 43%: Hispanic/Latino
  • 38%: White/Caucasian
  • 13%: Other/Unknown
  • 6%: African American/Black

Source: Northeast Georgia Health System

On Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp said during his visit to Gainesville that Hall County’s cases are continuing to flatten.

Leaders in the Latino and health community have worked on education and testing efforts.

Norma Hernandez, president of the Northeast Latino Chamber of Commerce, has spearheaded a Gainesville Against COVID-19 task force involving Hall County Latino leaders and local medical professionals.

The task force Friday was helping with free testing at a drive-thru event at La Flor de Jalisco on Atlanta Highway. 

“We are taking charge. This is stopping right here,” Hernandez said Friday in the shopping center.

‘Moving the needle on testing’

Kemp made multiple stops around Gainesville Friday, moving between Fieldale Farms, the La Flor de Jalisco testing site and the medical pods at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

“The state’s response with the Department of Community Health and a lot of other partners has really been moving the needle on testing,” Kemp said while addressing media outside of La Flor de Jalisco. “We’ve now done over 300,000 tests in the state of Georgia.”

Hernandez said 500 people had been tested outside La Flor de Jalisco as of 1 p.m. The preliminary number for the whole event Friday was more than 800 tested.

“If we do 1,000, I’m going to be happy,” she said Friday morning.

Kemp said he spoke with Vice President Mike Pence Thursday about sending testing supplies able to test 2% of the state population. According to Kemp’s office, 2.85% of the total Georgia population had been tested as of Friday, May 15.

“I want to encourage all people in the community that (would) like to get tested: Come get a test,” Kemp said.

Tests are being provided by the Department of Public Health as well as local medical offices. DPH and the nonprofit Good News Clinics have provided a few free testing events.

District 2 Public Health Director Dr. Pamela Logan said there is an expected turnaround time of five days for the tests. DPH will contact each person, regardless of positive or negative results.

Georgia Insurance Commissioner John King lauded the work by Hernandez and Latinos Conservative Organization President Art Gallegos Jr., “who are the center of gravity of this great event.”

“This is a communitywide effort to reduce the numbers in this community, and it’s only possible with local leaders taking the lead in this,” King said.

At least 25-30 businesses such as taxi services and grocery stores have adopted a “no mask, no service” policy. King said the method will be wise in hot spots “where we have to really get in there and communicate clearly with the community.”

Hernandez said they are working with local taxi companies to get a “fogging” service, where a disinfectant solution is sprayed. Funding has come from DPH, local businesses and community donors for the task force’s efforts.

“It’s time for us to stop sugar-coating things and really call things for what it is. We are in a crisis but we are handling it. People are coming together. Our community is united,” Gallegos said. 

Yinet Dominguez, a mother of two, said she wanted to get tested Friday to make sure her family is protected.

“I work outside. Most of the time I could get exposed and I don’t know,” said Dominguez, who works in roofing.


Taking safety precautions home

Following a visit to a Fieldale Farms poultry plant in Gainesville, Kemp said the area’s concentration of such plants may have played a role in the spread of COVID-19 in the Latino community. He said that with a high amount of Latino poultry workers living in the same communities, a single positive case from a plant employee could have greatly exacerbated the spread of the virus. 

Kemp said a recently increased emphasis on having poultry plant workers bring precautionary measures home with them has been the industry’s latest focus. 

“They’re educating their employees, their company nurses, to make sure that they realize you don’t just wear your mask when you’re at work,” he said. “You need to wear it in your neighborhood if you’re around people that are outside. If you have the symptoms, separate yourself. All of those best practices are now making it to the neighborhood.”

Measures taken by Fieldale Farms include increased sanitation in both the workplace and common break areas as well as regular temperature checks for all employees and visitors. Kemp said he was also given a gown and headnet to wear while inside the facility, and that plexiglass dividers had been constructed in work areas and break areas.  

King, who joined Kemp on the visit to the plant, said the tour was “transformational” for him, as he observed multiple nationalities of plant workers whose communities have not been hit as hard by COVID-19. 

He echoed Kemp’s belief that bringing the message to the communities themselves is the most important aspect of the fight against the virus, saying that Latino poultry plant employees should teach preventative measures they learn at work to their families and neighbors.

“Whatever the safety precautions you’re doing here at work, take them home,” he said.

According to DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam, 388 of an estimated 16,500 poultry plant workers in the state of Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 30. 

John Wright, Fieldale Farms vice president of operations, said the Gainesville plant has had 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 11 of those already recovered and returned to work and the other six still considered active cases. Fieldale Farms has had 200 positive cases among 5,000 total workers across plants in six counties in North Georgia, and Wright said “over 75% of that number” have already recovered and returned to work.

Georgia Poultry Federation president Mike Giles said via email that most plants have reported between 40% and 70% of their employees who have fallen ill have already recovered and been cleared to return to work, a number he said he expects to increase as time passes. 

“We’ve seen a lot of problems around the country in the protein marketplace, and we’re just really appreciative of the proactive steps that the industry has taken to help us be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Kemp said. 

Times reporter Nathan Berg contributed.

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Gov. Brian Kemp visits Fieldale in Gainesville Friday, May 15, 2020. for a tour of the chicken processing plant. - photo by Scott Rogers
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