Since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 transmission has disproportinately affected communities of color. In Omaha, the heart of South Omaha and the city’s Latino community, zip code 68107, continues seeing the highest rates of infection in the city.
Early on the explanation was simple–COVID-19 spread among the largely immigrant and Latino workforce early in the pandemic. But the problem’s remained so consistent in part because the underlining problems haven’t changed.
“The area we look at in red, zone 68107, is due to what we call clusters (concentrated groups) of jobs,” said Chris Rodgers, president of Douglas County’s Board of Health and a Douglas County commissioner. “Construction is one of them. Meat packers are also clustered.”
So many people have no choice but to work. And many in this area, where poverty is higher don’t have jobs where they can choose to work from home. They are the frontline workers who process food, drive buses, clean hospitals and do the work that keeps America’s systems running.
In early April, 237 positive COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Grand Island. Alarms went off in Omaha and with it concerns among the Latino population who were largely affected by the virus.
At that time, trade unions and the community insisted that whomever they considered essential workers should be protected and that business owners take safety measures such as slowing down the production line, installing separators and, in some instances, close down.
Some workers interviewed by El Perico at the time claimed that some measures were taken, and the consequences were reflected in the increase of meat price in southern Omaha and the scarcity of that protein in other sectors of the city.
Despite positive cases within the southern community, the packers did not stop. Some lucky workers were able to access paid leave if they showed a medical report saying they had COVID-19. Others had no choice but to keep working with or without symptoms.
Rodgers said that’s led to the high rate of transmission that put 68107 in a “red zone.” A person with COVID-19 comes into contact with a coworker, friend or family member and passes it along. Part of the Douglas County Health Department’s mission has been to build a track these types of infections back to the source. Rogers said been able to do that with 59% of the known cases, but a large portion are still aquired through “community spread,” meaning their source is unknown.
The Douglas County commissioner also added that a few months ago Zones 68 104 and 68 111, north of Omaha, were also red. Now it’s orange, which means positive cases have declined.
In late July, Senator Tony Vargas brought a bill to the Nebraska Legislature establishing measures to protect meat processing workers. The proposal was rejected.
The legislature’s argument was that this proposal was not well-supported and that a new bill was not necessary as Nebraska meat processing plants were already taking steps to “protect their workers, seeking guidance from infectious disease experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center on how to operate safely,” according to an article published by the Associated Press.
Additionally, business owners claimed its employees that should be held accountable as contagions like COVID-19 occurred outside of work and that it’s oftentimes because some workers live in “overcrowded homes.”
The reaction in the Hispanic community of Omaha was devastating.
“To think that they call us essential when they prove otherwise, it’s sad,” said a meatpacking plant worker, who asked to remain anonymous.
“There’s no vaccine”
Since the pandemic began, Omaha, and much of the country, has failed to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections. After a dropoff in cases in June, July saw a resurgance in cases. Cases have started to dip again amid a new mask mandate and limited back-to-school plans across Omaha, but how can we lower that figure further?
“There is no vaccine. The only way to decrease is to maintain social distance and use face masks,” Rogers said. “At the beginning of the pandemic we did not use the face masks much as they were intended for health workers. We also did not know that there was a possibility of no symptoms and carrying the virus as it was known only if you had a fever, among other symptoms.”
Remember that COVID-19 is transmitted by the airways and, in addition, that the mucous membranes are main receptors. That is why Rodger stresses that the use of face masks is necessary to protect each other.
How a person reacts to a virus contagion can vary depending on each individual’s immune system. Thus, of the 1,963 cases recorded in South Omaha, 1,658 recovered from the virus. Some are in the process of recovery, but others have left a void in the hearts of their families.
The authorities reiterate the call on the community to take the established security measures seriously. It isn’t for nothing that the use of face masks was decreed mandatory in all enclosed areas and buildings in Omaha. Additionally, the website TestNebraska.com was opened to provide facilities for COVID-19 testing to further evaluate cases.
*This article was published in the September issue of El Perico.