Hispanic coalition pens open 'Letter to the Chelan-Douglas Health District Board'

We are experiencing very difficult times right now. It is understandable that we want to have a sense of normalcy especially as we see other counties in our state enter Phase 2. But, as we seek solutions to address economic shortcomings in our region, we should recognize it will take a collective effort for our community to stand strong in the face of this pandemic.

As the Chelan-Douglas Health District clearly recognized in the 1.5 Phase proposal, the Latinx community, “which makes up at least a third of our population, suffers a much higher rate of known COVID-19 infection than the general population.” We could look at economic disparities and cultural customs to explain these numbers, however, we cannot ignore the systemic factors that leave our poor, Latinx – and Native American – communities behind. The pandemic has clearly magnified unjust practices and policies currently in place.

The current transmission rate in Chelan and Douglas counties is the second highest in Washington State and continues to show an upward trend. These numbers are driven by the cases reported from the agricultural industry. The public only knows about COVID-19 cases reported when outbreaks spiked, but there are many more cases in this industry. According to the Washington Department of Health, “outbreaks in agricultural settings can threaten the health of workers, their families, and their communities, as well as the food supply and economic recovery for Washington State and beyond.”

Agricultural businesses have been responsible for following state law and federal guidelines to help prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. However, we continue to see disproportionally high numbers of COVID-19 cases in agricultural workers.

Currently, the Chelan-Douglas Health District is preparing a proposal to move beyond phase 1. The proposal would include language that separates the numbers of COVID-19 positive cases reported in group housing from the general community when reporting and evaluating cases. Although the local health care system regularly tests residents in group living spaces, reporting the number of positive cases in the community that has been hit the hardest, separately from the rest of us is harmful to our neighbors working in agriculture and is harmful to the entire community. 

Each harvest season, our state grows by 20,000 seasonal workers, many coming to our region and increasing the number of people shopping at stores and eating at restaurants. If agricultural businesses do not revise and implement meaningful changes to COVID-19 plans and policies, how will employers ensure that our community will be kept safe? We pride ourselves in being an agricultural community, it is time we care about every member of this community.

It takes leadership that is held accountable to comply with necessary health regulations that are in place for the safety of the community.

The responsibility must start with the Health District Board. Employers should coordinate efforts with the Health District to regularly provide and revise culturally-sensitive education about safety practices as recommended by the CDC and required by the State. The number of cases in agricultural workers demonstrates that current COVID-19 plans or policies require third-party oversight and need to be modified to ensure agricultural businesses are protecting workers. The Health District also needs to monitor compliance frequently and enforce the consequences for noncompliance. As it currently stands, workers are responsible for reporting health and safety concerns to the Department of Labor & Industries through a hotline. Many workers fear repercussions and prefer not to file reports.

We can stop the transmission of COVID-19 through contact tracing, which identifies people who have been in contact with COVID-19 positive patients. It appears the Health District has not deployed enough bilingual, bicultural contact tracers to implement regular check-ins with COVID-19 positive cases and their contacts. If these preventive measures are not in place, we can expect COVID-19 cases to skyrocket.

We cannot ignore the clear conflict of interest in the board that governs the Chelan-Douglas Health District. Three of the eight board members are elected officials who appeared as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Governor Inslee. We need transparency from our elected officials and voices that speak up for the safety of our community.

If we move too quickly back to “business as usual”, we will knowingly widen the gap that already exists in health outcomes for the marginalized in our communities. If we continue to suppress the voices of the ones most affected by inequalities in our systems, we will continue to create responses that do not address the actual needs of our communities. To assume that lack of access into spaces where decisions are made is equivalent to a lack of brilliance ignores systemic inequalities in place. The time is now to offer a seat at the table to other voices and ways of knowing.

Let’s not rush back to a “normal” where some thrive while many barely survive. Let’s create a new community, together.

Karina Vega-Villa, Teresa Bendito,  Immigrant & Latinx Solidarity Group; Irene Morrow, Beth Sattler, Jamie Krish, Wenatchee for Immigrant Justice; Tonantzintla Chacón, Alma, Jorge Chacón, The Community for the Advancement of Family Education; Community members: Cecilia Anguiano, Norma Gallegos, Xaxira Velasco Ponce de León, Krista Herling, Brian Herling.

Wenatchee for Immigrant Justice is a group of local residents whose mission is to promote a community of neighbors that supports immigrant rights in the Wenatchee area. Since July of 2019, it has been working through the state-wide WA Immigrant Solidarity Network to accompany immigrants to local courthouses. It advocates for just immigration policies, and it networks with established immigrant organizations to facilitate bridge-building between culturally diverse communities.

Immigrant & Latinx Solidarity Group formed to coordinate different groups including non-profit, community, and grassroot groups to respond to the needs of the immigrant and Latinx communities in our region.

 

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