Nearly 80% of Marin County COVID-19 cases are Latino, largest racial disparity in Bay Area

ByLiz Kreutz and Silvio Carrillo KGO logo
Thursday, July 23, 2020
The one neighborhood bearing the brunt of Marin County's coronavirus cases
In California, Latinos make up more than 50% of COVID-19 cases. But in Marin County, the disparity is even starker. 

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KGO) -- Across the country, communities of color are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. In California, Latinos make up more than 50% of COVID-19 cases. But in the Bay Area, specifically Marin County, the disparity is worse.

Latinos make up 16% of Marin County's population, yet currently account for nearly 80% of the county's coronavirus cases. It's the largest racial disparity of any county in the Bay Area, and part of the reason the county has landed on the state's watch list.

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Another factor is the outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, but take those numbers out of the equation and more than half of all the cases in the county are concentrated in one, 2.5 square mile neighborhood in San Rafael known as the Canal.

Nestled between some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, the Canal looks and feels a lot different than much of its neighboring communities. It's 80% Latino and largely low-income. This isn't where the multi-million dollar mansions are, rather the densely crowded apartments of the county's essential workers.

"In some ways, the virus here is sort of a truth-teller around inequities," said Marin County's Public Health Officer, Dr. Matt Willis. "We're finding that many of our essential workers -- you know our grocers, our landscapers, our construction workers -- we're seeing that there's been transmission within those settings between workers, and then also bringing it home to settings where there may be multiple people living in a single unit."

According to Dr. Willis, the Canal has a positivity rate of 20% -- a number roughly three times higher than Marin County's average.

Crisalia Calderon is an immigrant from Guatemala who works as a housekeeper and lives in a three-bedroom apartment in the Canal with nine of her family members, including two of her children with underlying health conditions. She and her husband recently contracted coronavirus. She let her clients know and stopped working.

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"I'm very concerned as cases increase, it's plausible we could get to a New York like situation in the late summer, early fall," Dr. Grant Colfax said.

"Some reacted, 'I hope you are well, you and your family,'" Calderon told us in Spanish. "And others asked, 'Why? Didn't you take care of yourself?' They wanted to know how and where we became infected.

"But we began to think. We only go to work, to get gas and buy our food. We haven't been to beaches, or places to expose ourselves, we haven't been to parties," she explained. "So, it was very difficult to find out why we were positive."

If there's one person working to bridge these inequities in the Canal it's Omar Carerra, the CEO of a small, community organization called the Canal Alliance. He partnered with Marin County to open a free biweekly, walk-up testing since that has since become the most popular in the neighborhood.

When ABC7 News recently visited the testing site, people in line said they arrived at 7 a.m. -- six hours before it officially opened. By 1 p.m., when it did open, Carerra had already started turning about 50 people away. He said he gets between 80 and 120 tests per day and it's never enough.

"There's going to be a lot of people disappointed," he said, as he went down the line telling people the news. "But it is what it is. I cannot control how many tests we do per day."

County health officials recognize the challenges in the Canal and say they are working to ramp up testing in the area. The very first pop-up testing site in Marin County was in the Canal. But the lack of tests is far from the only challenge.

"The housing conditions, in addition to being an essential worker, are the perfect combination to make the problem worse, to make this a nightmare for everyone," Carerra said. "We can keep testing people, but if we don't have a good isolation strategy and contact tracing strategy none of that will matter, because the person gets tested, but then they have to wait five to eight days to get the results."

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Calderon described her recent experience after testing positive. She said someone from the County called her and told her to isolate away from her family.

"I could not leave my children, and where was I going to go?" she asked. "I need food for my children, or to pay the rent."

Calderon said they told her, "Don't worry. Tomorrow we are going to help you."

"What did they bring me?" she said. "A potato, two squash, expired ground meat for hamburgers. What could I do with those things?"

Dr. Willis says they are working on solutions. In addition to ramping up testing in the area, they are offering income supplementation, food and housing to those who test positive.

Carerra says they are important steps, but as he has seen first-hand, not always perfect ones yet in practice.

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"So far, in Marin County, we have received the response from only one hotel that is located in Novato that really wants to support us," he said. "All the hotels in other cities in Marin have not raised their hand, 'I want to help.'"

ABC7 News asked a spokesperson from Marin County if any other hotels had offered housing but did not receive a response.

"This idea that I stay home safe and shelter myself, and I don't care about what's happening around me, that is the wrong perception of the issue," Carerra said. "What the pandemic has done to all of us has shown us that if one person in the community is not safe, nobody is going to be safe.

"So, the Canal Problems," he added. "Are Marin County problems."

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