South Bay Communities Brace For Another Surge Of Coronavirus Cases
At a food donation stall outside a Sherman Heights home, an elderly man sifts through bags of dried black beans, rice and onions.
“Un poco de lemoncito, las pelas y woo!" he said. Onions, he said, are delicious when they’re peeled and coupled with a squeeze of lemon.
He was speaking to the food stall volunteer and Sherman Heights resident, Araceli Mauricio.
Mauricio said many like this man have relied on these food stalls that expanded across the South Bay region when the pandemic started.
“A lot of people who come here appreciate this help, because they lost their jobs,” Mauricio said in Spanish.
Unemployment rates in places such as National City and Chula Vista are nearly double that of Del Mar and Poway, according to state data.
It's not just unemployment that’s surging, however. Compared to those northern suburbs, Imperial Beach and Chula Vista have on average three times the coronavirus case rate, according to county data.
Mauricio said there are a lot of reasons why the spread could be so high. She said a lot of people don’t like wearing masks but they still like having gatherings. And there’s more.
“They are worried about rent and food. And they are afraid to go to the clinic. They said, 'If I go to the clinic they will put something else on me,’” she said in Spanish.
People are too worried about paying their rents or putting food on the table for their children, she said. And while people in the community are concerned about their health, they’re scared that going to the clinic could lead to them missing a paycheck.
Coronavirus cases are rising across San Diego, but the larger increases are centered in the South Bay. Latinos account for 60% of all cases, but they are just a third of the population in San Diego county.
Juggling between poverty and health
Christian Ramirez, the policy director of the SEIU United Service Workers West union, walked to the top of Grant Hill in Sherman Heights for a clear view of the urban landscape.
“These are the hardest hit zip codes of COVID-19 positive cases in the entire county: Chula Vista, National City, the southern part of the city of San Diego,” Ramirez said. “And of course, here in a historic barrios, COVID-19 has been relentless since the pandemic began in March, and the ensuing economic crisis has also devastated these communities.”
The community has a lot of essential workers in businesses like grocery stores, he said. Those types of stores keep the economy running, and workers are at high risk for contracting coronavirus. And the community lacks enough Spanish-language information on preventing coronavirus spread.
Those factors, he said, are part of a larger problem contributing to coronavirus cases here: A historical lack of health care resources in low-income Latino communities.
“These are working class communities, but these are also communities that historically have been neglected," Ramirez said. "Not far from here is an abandoned hospital.”
He’s referred to the San Diego General Hospital, which shut down in 1991.
“When you have a population of folks who have been left to fend for themselves without adequate services, then this happens," he said. "The pandemic just grabs hold and spreads."
The Dartmouth Atlas of Healthcare Project found that 87% of the region's 7,000 hospital beds are in the city of San Diego and cities north of San Diego, leaving fewer than 900 total beds in South Bay cities.
People in south San Diego County have always figured out a way to persevere, Ramirez said. With the dual health and economic burden of the pandemic, however, people have to juggle poverty and their health.
“We're telling communities, get out there and work, provide for us. But if you get sick, well, good luck to you," he said. "There's nothing for you. We're creating a recipe for disaster.”
Putting financial assistance into the coronavirus response
Greg Cox, the outgoing county supervisor for District 1, which covers South Bay, said the COVID-19 spread is high in this region because of the concentration of essential workers. County officials also say cross border traffic may contribute to higher rates.
Officials have reached out in Spanish and increased access to testing, he said.
“I think I've worked very closely with the South County elected officials, the mayors of Chula Vista, National City and Imperial Beach," Cox said. "And we've got over 50 testing sites on some days when you had as many as sixty three different testing sites.”
The county has tried to offer assistance for rent and food, but that more can be done, he said.
“I think we're doing everything we can. Can we do more? Yeah, we can. And we're trying to find out what the greatest level of assistance we can make at this point to make sure everybody gets the support that they need in order for us to get through this pandemic,” Cox said.
Incoming County Supervisor Nora Vargas said that assistance must include practical solutions like financial help.
“It means people have better opportunities to access, for instance, Calfresh. It means being able to advocate so that the government can continue to provide the EBT emergency card so that people can have that access to that food right now,” she said.
“How do we make sure that people have housing during this transition? And if they need to stay at the hotels, so that they can actually be quarantined and they can make sure that they are still healthy.”
Vargas was an executive with Planned Parenthood for 20 years. And she will be the first Latina woman to hold that country supervisor seat. She said it’s important for county leaders to build trust so people go to a community health center or get a COVID-19 test.
“It's not just an email and a text, right?" Vargas said. "It's actually getting out there in the community and having conversations and finding out what it is that is preventing people.”
People in the South Bay who are worried about feeding their families won’t be able to focus on their health care, especially if those healthcare resources are scarce or untrustworthy, she said.
“We need to make sure that they understand that they're going to be safe and that it's confidential,” Vargas said. “And they're going to get resources that they need without dire consequences.”