Santa Fe's Southside is county's COVID hot spot - Albuquerque Journal

Santa Fe’s Southside is county’s COVID hot spot

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

When Gilberto Lopez looks for information about COVID-19 in New Mexico, he goes to the Nextdoor webpage for his neighborhood, Tierra Contenta, where he and his neighbors discuss the latest developments in their local area.

Much of the discussion revolves around the recent rise in positive COVID-19 tests in their section of Santa Fe.

“We exchanged information about the pandemic and we know this ZIP code, 87507, is really high in COVID,” Lopez said.

Across the state and nation, cases of COVID-19 have been accelerating as some states have eased restrictions. In one week, cases in Santa Fe County rose 22%.

However, no part of the county or city of Santa Fe has seen as large a number of positive tests as the 87507 ZIP code, which encompasses the neighborhoods in and around Santa Fe’s Southside, an area known for its lack of health and financial equity.

As of Thursday, 87507 had 136 confirmed cases, with the next highest being 87505 at 65. The 87501 ZIP code, which includes downtown Santa Fe and the Eastside, had 19. The Southside also had the highest per capita rate of cases of any ZIP code in Santa Fe.

In comparison to the whole county, 87507 makes up 45% of all cases, even though its residents comprise just 32% of the area’s total population.

Nurses from Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center collect samples from people at the former Capshaw Middle School to be tested for COVID-19 at the hospital’s lab. The Southside of Santa Fe is where nearly half of all COVID-19 cases in the county are occurring. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The ZIP code also has a higher percentage of Hispanic residents, 72%, and a lower median household income, $53,516, compared to other parts of the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many advocates say the disproportionate number of cases in the area highlight existing inequities in the Southside and the area’s comparative lack of resources.

Miguel Acosta, co-director of local nonprofit Earth Care, regularly organizes in the Southside and said the number of cases in the area has become a crisis all its own.

“If the testing levels were what they should be, you’d probably see higher positive tests in that area,” he said, adding city officials have not publicly acknowledged the high number of cases.

Lopez said he experienced some difficulty getting tested.

He went to a medical provider to get a referral to get a test, but did not realize he needed an appointment to get a test at Christus St. Vincent hospital. He was turned away, but took the test the next day; it came back negative.

Gilberto Lopez takes a break from working in his yard at home on Santa Fe’s Southside. He initially had a hard time getting tested, like other residents in the area. He’s also been working odd jobs to make ends meet. Nearly half of all COVID-19 cases in the county are occurring in the Southside. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

At first, Lopez, a diabetic with hypertension, was not sure he wanted to get tested based on rumors he had been hearing.

“At first, I was refusing to take the test because I heard there’s not enough tests for the whole state,” he said. “But now, I feel like it’s time to get tested.”

Acosta said many in the Southside don’t have the information necessary to get a test or learn more about the pandemic, because much of it is not available in Spanish. As a result, residents often have to rely on word of mouth or news sources not based in New Mexico. Fifteen percent of Santa Feans are immigrants, many of whom live in the Southside.

“The majority of our immigrant population is getting their health information from Spanish-language TV and radio, none of which operates out of New Mexico,” Acosta said.

During a June 30 event hosted by nonprofit Somos Un Pueblo Unido on Facebook, University of New Mexico professor Gabriel Sanchez presented the results of a statewide survey of Hispanic residents.

When asked for their most pressing concern about the pandemic, 24% responded it was the need for more factual information about COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, a lot of information is not finding its way to our communities,” Sanchez said.

Local officials are beginning to take note of the information gap.

“I don’t think it’s as readily available (for Spanish speakers) as it is for English speakers,” said City Councilor Chris Rivera, who represents the Southside.

Rivera said the city has begun working on ways to increase information available to Spanish-speaking residents.

Acosta said it should have been happening from the start.

“That, I think, has been a failure on everybody’s part,” he said of the lack of information. “That’s a public health priority.”

In many states, the percentage of Hispanics contracting the virus has been on the rise. Only 16.2% of Hispanics can work from home – the lowest of any ethnic or racial classification – putting them at greater risk for exposure to the coronavirus, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Acosta said the same holds true for residents in the Southside, many of whom had to return to work after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had eased some business restrictions, before reeling some back on Thursday after a spike in cases.

“They also know the one option they have is to work and put food on the table,” he said.

Lopez, who runs a catering business, has felt the same economic pressures. All his catering events have been put on hold – “all the weddings, all the quinceañeras, all the first communions,” he said, none of which he expects to resume until December at the earliest.

“Right now, I’m just working whatever I can,” Lopez said. “Anything, even a gardener.”

As a diabetic, Lopez is at risk for some of the worst effects of the virus and he also has a family with two children. He has no health insurance and he worries about the thousands of dollars in medical bills his family could face should someone get sick.

Thoughts about the pandemic often weigh heavy on his mind. He keeps two pairs of shoes – one outside the house and one inside – to mitigate his chances of infection.

“I started filling up with anxiety,” he said. “Everything you hear, everything you see around you: no jobs, no work, no nothing. I started to feel sick.”

Twin brothers Jacob, left, and Anthony Montoya, 16, wear face masks as they walk along Jaguar Drive on the city’s Southside. The Southside of Santa Fe is where nearly half of all COVID-19 cases in the county are occurring. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

However, he said he has no choice but to work to support his family and that reopening the economy is needed to make that happen.

In Santa Fe, the temporary easing of restrictions led to an influx of out-of-state tourists, some of whom came from states with outbreaks of the virus worse than in New Mexico. Officials have said the data does not suggest tourists caused the increase, but added that getting data to prove that would be difficult.

“We wouldn’t necessarily be able to trace back that source,” said Department of Health Spokesperson David Morgan of tourists carrying the virus.

Acosta said city officials have focused too much on reopening tourist-based sectors of the economy, such as hotels and restaurants, both of which are often served by low-income workers who live in the Southside. He added that the focus on downtown has contributed to the coronavirus situation in the Southside.

“It’s an issue that they’ve contributed to greatly by ignoring and not investing,” Acosta said of the city and county.

Santa Fe County Community Services Director Rachel O’Connor said the county recognizes the disparities that exist in the Southside.

Rivera said he and County Commissioners Anna Hansen and Rudy Garcia have started discussing ways to better communicate between the two entities and improve infection numbers in the Southside.

He said, however, that individual residents need to be accountable.

“This isn’t so much a city responsibility as it is an individual responsibility,” he said. “People are the ones that have to take it seriously.”

Rivera and Lopez said they believe young people are primarily behind the recent spike in infections, as is the case in communities across the nation. The 87507 ZIP code has one of the youngest populations in the city, with a median age of 36, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While the exact cause has not been pinned down, cases have continued to rise and Lopez said he hopes more people take the pandemic seriously so those in dire economic straits, as he is, can return to work sooner.

“I have to work,” he said.

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