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What NGHS doctors said about COVID impact on Hispanic community
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People are tested 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

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare various racial disparities in health care, and the sizable Hispanic community in the region has been particularly hard hit, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, health officials say. 

The Northeast Georgia Health System hosted a virtual panel on Friday with three of its Hispanic physicians, who spoke about their experiences and floated solutions for better serving the region’s Hispanic population. 

According to census data, more than 29% of Hall County’s population is Hispanic. The pandemic has disproportionately affected minorities in the United States, and some research suggests that Hispanic Americans have been most vulnerable at certain stages. 

“In the early part of COVID in Northeast Georgia, it had a really disproportionate impact in our Hispanic community,” said Dr. John Delzell, vice president of medical education and incident commander at NGHS, “and a larger number of people that were being admitted and are getting sick.” 

Dr. Antonio Rios, chief of population health and a leader in the health system for more than 20 years, said in the early stages of the pandemic, the majority of folks getting tested at the Good News Clinic — a nonprofit providing free medical care to uninsured residents of Hall County — were Hispanic, roughly half of whom were testing positive for the virus. 

“I was like, ‘What is going on?’” he recalled. 

There are many reasons why the Hispanic community members were “hit so hard,” he said. Many live in multi-generational households, for instance, and are unable to properly quarantine. Many are also employed by the poultry industry and work in close-quarter conditions on the assembly line. 

Rios said the Hispanic community “would have suffered much more” if not for the swift formation of a united front led by both state and local health officials, and leaders of the poultry industry. 

“It gives me goosebumps to see how many people stepped up to the plate and really went far above and beyond to do the right things,” Dr. Rios said. 

Even as this fourth wave of the pandemic abates, the need for outreach remains in a community where many people have limited access to both material resources, such as smartphones and televisions, and the crucial medical information they transmit.

“I'm having to do much more education with my patients, and in the outpatient setting, especially in the Latin community,” said Dr. Sergio Angel, a first-generation college student and family medicine resident with NGHS. Despite wide availability, he recalled that one of his Hispanic patients was not even aware that the vaccine was available. And a Facebook campaign, for instance, is inadequate because it is never seen by such patients, he said. 

“There's only a certain community that will see that,” he said. “It’s really getting out there the nitty gritty and kind of telling people about it.” 

And sometimes Hispanic patients fall through the cracks in other ways, said Dr. Allie Angel, a first-generation college student and a second-year family medicine resident at NGHS. 

“There have been times where maybe someone part of the care team will say, ‘Well, they don't qualify for this because they don't have a green card,’” before actually checking whether that is the case. Such stereotyping used to bother her, she said, but she now relishes the opportunity to educate others. 

Dr. Rios spoke about the importance of “community activism.”

“It takes effort, and it takes a strong partnership with other community leaders to get out there,” he said. “The only way to achieve some measure of success is if we all partner together.” 

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