On a recent sunny morning, Ruth Romero struggled to walk on a trail at Riley Park near her home in East Chicago, Ind.
She’s been taking daily walks with her adult daughter and two grandkids most mornings before the summer heat comes on. Romero’s doing this while wearing a face mask, as Hoosiers are now required to do under a mandate that started earlier this week.
Just a few weeks ago, Romero never thought she’d be taking such a walk.
“Not like this. Not with a thing of oxygen on me,” the 55-year-old Romero said with an oxygen unit strapped to her shoulder.
Romero spent 46 days in the hospital, half of them unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator, as a result of contracting COVID-19 in April.
“I was like, ‘OK, what is going on with me?‘” Romero recalled of the day she went into the hospital. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t pick up my arms, my hands. I couldn’t talk. It was scary and crazy.”
Cases continue to rise in the working-class, mostly Latinx town
Romero lives in this small, industrial city near Lake Michigan where 58% of the nearly 30,000 residents are Latinx, the highest percentage of any city in Indiana. East Chicago is dominated by steel mills and chemical plants that have given the city a reputation for bad air quality.
And it has another distinction: it has the highest percentage of COVID-19 cases in its population — about 2.5% — of any city or town in Northwest Indiana. As of this week, East Chicago had nearly 740 cases of the virus and more than a dozen deaths. More than half the coronavirus cases in the city have been in Latinx residents.
“[The] hardest hit communities are your Hispanic and your minority communities, which are poor. They’ve got to go to work,” said East Chicago City Council President Robert Garcia.
Garcia’s assessment falls in line with an Indiana Health Disparities Task Force report that showed COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting the state’s brown and Black populations. The report listed their higher risk factors including:
- Lack of access to free testing sites
- Inability for the undocumented population to enroll in Medicaid or other insurance programs for themselves or their children
- Language barriers
In Latinx communities, there are also cultural issues. Many families have multi-generational households, making it easier for COVID-19 to spread.
Garcia, who said members of his own family have tested positive for COVID-19, compares East Chicago with nearby Gary, a majority Black city that also has seen high rates of the virus.
“When you go by population-wise, Gary is twice as big as us,” Garcia said. “We might be catching Gary [in COVID-19 cases] in a couple of months.”
The percentage of COVID-19 cases in Gary, with a population of 80,000 people, has been below 2%. As of this week, the city has reported more than 1,000 cases.
In East Chicago and nationwide, Latinix populations are showing higher rates of COVID-19 partly because many people don’t have jobs that allow them to work from home.
“Minorities in general, Hispanics in particular, are significantly more likely to be employed in essential jobs,” said Dr. Nir Menachemi, a professor at the Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.
“It’s just more challenging for them to take a day off of work when it might affect their livelihood, if they are hourly wage,” he said.
Menachemi led a recent statewide random sample study, the first of its kind in the U.S., to measure the spread of COVID-19 in Indiana’s general population. Between April 25th and May 1st, researchers tested more than 4,600 Hoosiers for viral infections and antibodies for COVID-19.
At the time of the study, it found that the virus infected about 2.8% of people in Indiana — but the rate was 8.3% in Latinos.
City’s top health official defends response
Garcia puts part of the blame for East Chicago’s COVID-19 problem on City Hall.
“I don’t think there’s been a proper response as far as educating the public,” he said.
But East Chicago Health Department Director Diana Garcia Burns defends the city’s response.
“Considering our demographics and population, and the disparities within our community, we’re not doing too bad,” Burns said.
She said the city is pushing people to wear face masks and social distance, even though many in the community want to gather for events like weddings, hot-rod car shows and quinceañeras.
“Our numbers are trending upwards, but we have more testing sites, also,” Burns said. “That doesn’t excuse the numbers going up, because you want people to be negative, but as people tend to gather and more things open, they lose that initiative to stay distant.”
Romero said she thought she had taken precautions before getting COVID-19 back in early April. One thing she failed to do was wear a mask.
Romero wishes the state’s mask mandate had been in place months ago. Nevertheless, she feels lucky to be back with her loved ones.
“When I went in, I didn’t get a chance to say bye to them. I didn’t get a chance to hug them and say I love you,” Romero said. “You don’t want to end up where I am, where I was. Like I said, just take it seriously.”
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.