Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'We will win': A doctor takes on high rates of COVID-19 among his Latino patients

Workers load eggs for packaging at a farm in Roy, Wash., on April 9, 2020.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Workers load eggs for packaging at a farm in Roy, Wash., on April 9, 2020.

Across the United States, communities of color have been over-represented in the ranks of people suffering from COVID-19.

In Washington, that's especially true of the Latino population. Latino residents account for more than a third of the state's COVID-19 cases, despite being just 13 percent of the overall population.

Yakima County, where more than half the population is Latino, has the highest rate of COVID-19 infection on the West Coast. 

That statewide trend is more than an abstract set of numbers for staff at Sea Mar Community Health Centers, a network of clinics originally founded to care for immigrant farm workers in Western Washington.

It's something they deal with daily. 

About 40 percent of Sea Mar's patients are Latino, yet Latino patients account for more than 80 percent of the health group's COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Julian Perez, who works at a Sea Mar clinic in White Center, said the trend began to make sense after patients described pressure to continue working in restaurants and other service-industry roles despite the risk of contact with sick people.

"We have a large community of people from Latin America who are undocumented," Perez said. "And they really want to stay under the radar. They don't want to rock the boat and they need money to pay rent."

Perez said one patient told him her boss ordered employees to keep working in a restaurant despite the fact that many employees were coughing. The patient tested positive for COVID-19, Perez said. 

"She said, 'Please don't tell anybody. I'll be fired,'" Perez said. "And she told me that they're not the only one. She has lots of friends who are working in restaurants and they're under the same types of conditions where they're being told to work."

Perez said he reported the patient's employer to public health officials.

Perez spoke with KNKX about his efforts to drive down the rate of coronavirus infection among Spanish-speaking residents. You can hear that story above, excerpted from the KNKX podcast Transmission

Those efforts have taken Perez out of the clinic and onto the airwaves. He speaks for an hour each Wednesday on the Spanish language radio station El Rey 1360 FM, delivering a message about the dangers of the coronavirus and how to prevent infection.

Part of Perez's task is filling a gap in public health messaging he said hasn't reached some Spanish-speaking residents of Washington. He stresses the importance of social distancing, hand washing, and wearing masks.

"Entre todos, venceremos, right?" Perez said. "The message is: If we all do it, it will work. But if we don’t, it won’t."

Another part of his mission is educating Spanish-speaking workers about their rights. 

"It’s about making sure you speak up at work and make sure that you tell them that you need protections, you need masks, you need gloves, you need Plexiglas screens between you and your friends," Perez said.

"If that can't happen, there's a need for organizing," he added. "There's a need for reporting to public health. There's a need to use the voice that you have. Not all of our patients feel like they have a voice."

Perez said he tries to balance dire warnings about the seriousness of COVID-19 with messages of hope.

"At the end of the talks, I say, ‘Venceremos,'" he said. "Like, ‘We will win. We will beat this thing.’"

News Coronavirus Coveragecoronavirus
Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.