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How Latino residents in Dallas’ hardest hit ZIP code are weathering COVID-19This article has
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The ZIP code has "the perfect storm of conditions that promote the spread of coronavirus," according to Dr. Elba Garcia, the Dallas County commissioner for District 4.

Ofelia Faz-Garza lives in a neighborhood of small homes, their porches spilling over with potted plants. The houses, some with ornate fountains out front and children playing in back, hide one of Dallas’ worst outbreaks of COVID-19.

As of this week, Faz-Garza’s 75211 ZIP code in South Oak Cliff had the largest number of active COVID-19 cases in Dallas County and one of the area’s highest per capita rates.

She and her husband, Hector Garza, have only had two outings with their three young daughters in the past four months. She has sewn face masks using Star Wars fabric, commanded everyone to wash hands often in their one bathroom and upped her kitchen game with more nutritious meals.

Then, when family members in Texas came down with COVID-19, exposing her parents, she hauled her mother and father to a testing site in her white sports vehicle. To her relief, they tested negative. “It’s a scare having family members come down with COVID,” said Faz-Garza, an arts educator.

But something worries her about other Latinos: Many continue to gather in large groups, and not enough of them are wearing masks. “The message,” she said, “isn’t clicking.”

As COVID-19 cases soar, the 75211 ZIP code illustrates broader patterns playing out across North Texas. The area is 84% Latino. In Dallas County, more than 60% of those infected are Latinos, though the group comprises only 41% of the population. Texas leads the nation in the most uninsured residents. In Dallas County, those most likely to lack health insurance are Latinos — leading many of them to delay medical care.

“75211 has the perfect storm of conditions and factors that promote the spread of coronavirus,” said Dr. Elba Garcia, the Dallas County commissioner for District 4, which includes the area. She cites high housing density, multigenerational households where the sick can’t easily isolate themselves, and a fear of seeking medical care.

“A lot of my constituents are undocumented,” Garcia said. “They are afraid of having any contact with any governmental agencies, and that includes medical care.”

The area is also home to many essential workers in fields like construction and health care. Essential workers make up more than 80% of all hospitalized cases in the county.

These workers weren’t able to stay home as much as those in more affluent areas of the city. Statistics from the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation show the stay-at-home rate in 75211 increased by 11 percentage points during the lockdown, compared with 20 percentage points in parts of Preston Hollow.

As of Friday, the area also had Dallas County’s fifth highest per capita rate at 191 per 10,000 residents. The rate was 60% greater than Dallas County’s average of 120 per 10,000.

Soaring positivity rates

Dr. Sharon Davis is chief medical officer of Los Barrios Unidos Community Clinic, a nonprofit that serves patients regardless of their ability to pay. In mid-June, she hosted a state-sponsored mobile testing unit in her clinic on South Oak Cliff’s West Illinois Avenue.

A medical worker conducts COVID-19 testing at the mobile drive-through site at Los Barrios Unidos Health Center in Dallas, June 11, 2020. Ben Torres/Special Contributor
A medical worker conducts COVID-19 testing at the mobile drive-through site at Los Barrios Unidos Health Center in Dallas, June 11, 2020. Ben Torres/Special Contributor(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

Nearly 200 people came through the site in two days, and at least 44 tested positive. “You’re looking at over a 20% positivity rate in the community, so that’s striking,” she said. Across the county, Dallas’ positivity rate for patients with symptoms who visit hospitals has soared from around 10% in late May to 30.5%, according to data released Friday.

Davis said the state’s early reopening led to confusion among her patients. Even as daily case reports in Dallas County climbed from the mid-200s into the 400s in June, people visited stores, increased their grocery shopping and gathered with friends and family.

Perhaps, she thought, COVID-19 fatigue had set in. “Maybe the numbers are just so overwhelming that they don’t know how to react anymore,” she said. “It’s like, after multiple traumas, they are just numb to it.”

She also said COVID-19 symptoms can be easy to miss. She’s seen patients test positive after complaining of allergy symptoms such as a scratchy throat and sniffles. Others have a few days of diarrhea and no fever.

Other times, the virus hits hard and fast. One patient arrived at work at a doctor’s office recently feeling fine, Davis said. By midday, she had a fever of 102. She went home and discovered that her parents, too, had fevers. Within 24 hours, all five members of her household were sick with COVID-19, and her parents were admitted to the hospital.

Dr. Sharon Davis, Los Barrios Unidos Community Clinic's medical director, poses for a portrait outside the LBU Clinic on June 25, 2020 in Dallas. Oak Cliff's 75211 ZIP code is predominantly Latino and has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Dallas County. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)
Dr. Sharon Davis, Los Barrios Unidos Community Clinic's medical director, poses for a portrait outside the LBU Clinic on June 25, 2020 in Dallas. Oak Cliff's 75211 ZIP code is predominantly Latino and has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Dallas County. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Keeping COVID-19 from spreading through households is one of Davis’ major challenges. Nationally, about 10% of Latinos live in multigenerational households, compared with 4.5% of whites, according to U.S. Census data.

Davis advises families to isolate sick relatives as much as possible and clean bathrooms with a bleach solution or other disinfectant. Because steam may make virus particles linger longer in the air, she recommends leaving bathrooms empty, with the exhaust fan running, for at least two hours after a COVID-19-positive family member showers.

Educating neighbors

As case counts have continued to rise — 75211 saw more than 200 new cases in the past two weeks — residents are educating one another about the disease.

Faz-Garza joined Dallas artist Giovanni Valderas, who also resides in 75211, to do a bilingual presentation on Facebook about the new coronavirus. In Spanish and English, they emphasized safe distancing and washing hands. Valderas finished by telling viewers, “We are resilient. We will persevere.”

Faz-Gaza employed a Mayan saying on communal care: “Tú eres mi otro yo y yo soy tú.”

It means: “You are me and I am you.”

Her husband, Hector, a home inspector, still goes out to work. But he says he’s cautious “almost to an extreme.” When clients show up masked, he always compliments them. “I say thank you for being extra careful,” he said.

If they aren’t wearing masks, “I try not to push boundaries,” he said. “They look at you like you are sort of rude if you question them.” And when Garza returns home, he said he heads for the laundry room immediately to wash what he’s worn that day.

On a humid Saturday morning, Ramiro Luna-Hinojosa and his team met at Oak Cliff’s Martin Weiss Park, where children once pedaled freely and laughter mixed with the occasional crows of roosters.

Ramiro Luna-Hinojosa (right) speaks to members of Somos Tejas at Martin Weiss Park before they go door to door in the Oak Cliff neighborhood educating people on COVID-19, the census and voting on June 27, 2020, in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)
Ramiro Luna-Hinojosa (right) speaks to members of Somos Tejas at Martin Weiss Park before they go door to door in the Oak Cliff neighborhood educating people on COVID-19, the census and voting on June 27, 2020, in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)(Juan Figueroa / Staff photographer)

They knocked on doors to educate people about the threat of the coronavirus. His team is part of Somos Tejas, a group focused on civic participation. The group includes a business consultant and an assistant principal at a high school. Nearly all have ties to 75211. All come prepared with hand sanitizer, N-95 face masks and a social distancing strategy if someone answers the door.

“This is not just a ZIP code,” Luna-Hinojosa said through his white mask. “These are our neighbors, family and loved ones. It is our responsibility to take care of them.”

They walked up to small houses with vinyl siding and occasional brick work. Some residents said they worked in construction, from concrete work to carpentry.

Jesus Muñoz was among them. He wore a blue disposable mask when he met the Somos Tejas team outside his mother’s home. He was exposed to the coronavirus by a sibling’s friend. He had just been tested. A few days later, his test would come back negative.

“A lot of people are careless,” Muñoz said. “They don’t take the virus seriously.” And news reports about how deadly the virus can be are confusing, when compared to what some politicians say, he said.

“We are at a time,” he said, “when everyone is very selfish.”

Down the street, Basilio Gomez said many Latinos are also very social. “But I always work with a mask,” said the construction worker, whose company has a contract with Amazon.

Christina Rodriguez, an assistant high school principal, was eager to help Somos Tejas. “The Latino population is really doing essential jobs,” she said. Meat plant laborers, restaurant workers, carpenters, plumbers — all have bought houses in 75211.

But “even if you wear masks,” Rodriguez said, “there are mistakes that are made. People slip up.”

Striking an entire family

The coronavirus took a 75211 resident named Erika and her family by surprise. Ten family members became infected after one sister went to what she thought would be a small dinner party.

When she arrived, there were many more at the table. But Texas had just begun to reopen its economy in May and she thought she would be fine. Three days later, Erika’s sister had symptoms. And she began spreading it to other family members in 75211.

Erika asked that her full name not be used to protect family members who don’t have U.S. citizenship yet. She lost 20 pounds from the illness, but she didn’t have to be hospitalized. Her husband wasn’t so lucky. He was infected and grew fatigued and short of breath. In mid-June, he was hospitalized with pneumonia and COVID-19. A week later, he was released.

Everyone in Erika’s household quickly got the coronavirus so they didn’t isolate themselves at their house. But they kept cleaning and disinfecting.

The emotional burden grew for the children. One evening, Erika’s 7-year-old son asked an aunt, “If my mom and dad die, will you please be my mom?” Erika’s 9-year-old son, trying to be strong, told her, “I know I can never be your husband, but I can help you take care of my brothers.”

Then the boy wept.

Staff reporter Holly K. Hacker contributed to this story.

Dianne Solis. Dianne covers immigration and social justice issues. The award-winning writer is a Wall Street Journal alum and a former foreign correspondent who was based in Mexico. She was a Nieman fellow at Harvard and holds journalism degrees from Northwestern University and Cal State University, Fresno.

dsolis@dallasnews.com /dianne.solis.5 @disolis

Anna Kuchment. Anna Kuchment covers science for The Dallas Morning News and for Scientific American, where she is a contributing editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at Scientific American and as a staff reporter, writer and editor at Newsweek magazine. She holds a Master of Science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

akuchment@dallasnews.com @akuchment

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