Testing Lags In Latino Communities Hit Hardest By COVID-19 In Chicago

COVID-19 testing outside Project Vida in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood
Project Vida and Howard Brown Health have teamed up to provide free COVID-19 tests in tents just outside the offices of Project Vida in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. More than 600 individuals have been tested there with 57% of them testing positive for COVID-19. María Inés Zamudio / WBEZ News
COVID-19 testing outside Project Vida in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood
Project Vida and Howard Brown Health have teamed up to provide free COVID-19 tests in tents just outside the offices of Project Vida in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. More than 600 individuals have been tested there with 57% of them testing positive for COVID-19. María Inés Zamudio / WBEZ News

Testing Lags In Latino Communities Hit Hardest By COVID-19 In Chicago

Lucila Gallardo stood in line outside Project Vida, in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, this past Saturday morning. She was patiently waiting to be tested for COVID-19.

Gallardo’s husband, with the help of a cane, was standing in front of her. And her daughter needed to be tested, too. The family went to two other COVID-19 testing locations earlier that morning, but they were turned away because those sites were at capacity.

Gallardo said she was lucky her family was not turned away from this new COVID-19 test site located in a tent outside Project Vida. The AIDS prevention organization partnered with Howard Brown Health to provide free tests to this community.

“When we got there, the man behind me was told to come back another day,” Gallardo said in Spanish. “I told the woman next to me we’re very fortunate. God sent us a sliver of hope by helping us make the decision to come here. It wasn’t a sliver of hope, God illuminated us.”

Gallardo lives with her husband in Pilsen, but they moved in temporarily with her daughter who lives in Cicero. They didn’t have symptoms, but her daughter works in the office of a warehouse where a COVID-19 case was reported.

Gallardo and her husband are at risk. She’s 62 years old, and her husband is 74. He has a history of medical complications that include open heart surgery and recent knee surgery.

“I got worried,” she said. “We don’t share the same bathroom or bedroom but regardless, it is necessary to get tested.”

In the last few weeks, 614 people have been tested at this location. And about 57% of them tested positive, said Jerome Montgomery, executive director of Project Vida.

In Cook County, the ZIP codes most impacted by COVID-19 are not among those receiving the highest rates of testing, according to a WBEZ analysis of data from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the U.S. Census Bureau. And those ZIP codes are in Latino neighborhoods, which possess the highest and fastest-growing rates of COVID-19 in Cook County.

This test site is located in the 60623 ZIP code that includes most of Chicago’s Little Village and North Lawndale communities. As of Monday, the 60623 ZIP code ranked first in both the rate of confirmed cases (38.09 per 1,000 residents) and the percentage of confirmed cases of the total tested (46.6%) among Cook County ZIP codes, according to the WBEZ analysis. 

But that same ZIP code lags in COVID-19 testing. The ZIP code ranked 50th in Cook County in the total tested per 1,000 residents, according to the analysis.

In fact, the five ZIP codes that rank among the county’s top 10 for both the rate of confirmed cases per 1,000 residents and the percentage of confirmed cases among the total tested are all mostly Latino areas. Three of those ZIP codes are in Chicago and include the Little Village, Brighton Park, Hermosa and Belmont Cragin communities. The other two are located in west suburban Cicero and Stone Park. But none of these ZIP codes rank in the top 35 for COVID-19 testing per 1,000 residents.

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases have exploded in mostly Latino ZIP codes in Cook County. From April 20 to May 4, the number of confirmed cases in those areas nearly tripled — from 4,000 to 11,700, according to the WBEZ analysis. That’s twice as fast as the combined growth rate for all other ZIP codes in the county.

The need for more testing in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood was clear last Saturday. The test site opened at 10 a.m. and, within 30 minutes, workers were already turning residents away.

“We’ve averaging about 100 tests a day, and we ended up having to turn away a significant number of individuals each day, as well,” Montgomery said.

The majority of people who tested positive for COVID-19 did not show symptoms, Montgomery said. Testing is important to identify those with the virus, so that they can be isolated and prevented from spreading it.

Montgomery said free testing is needed in this neighborhood because many immigrants are not insured or they’re underinsured.

This community faces additional challenges. Montgomery said undocumented immigrants are terrified of asking for help, if they’re sick. And many residents are still working and living in multigenerational households, which can lead to the spread of the virus.

paramedics transport woman from COVID-19 testing site in Chicago's Little Village community
Paramedics transport a woman who passed out while waiting in line to receive a COVID-19 test at a free testing site in Little Village in May. María Inés Zamudio / WBEZ News

On Saturday, another woman waiting to be tested at the Project Vida site was too weak to stand in line. Workers gave her a place to sit, but then she passed out. When health care workers checked her vitals, her oxygen levels were low. A few minutes later, firefighters arrived and an ambulance took her to the hospital.

Montgomery said that’s not uncommon. He’s had to call the ambulance multiple times.

He said we can’t afford to ignore this community. Unlike poverty and crime, COVID-19 doesn’t respect neighborhood boundaries.

“Without having access to care, that impacts everyone and not just a specific population,” he said.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.