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It’s time to focus on virus surge in Santa Fe’s Southside

Nurses with Christus St. Vincent Hospital collect samples from people to be tested for COVID-19. They were collecting the samples at the old Capshaw Middle School in Santa Fe on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Almost from the beginning, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown a light on inequities in America.

Minorities have been disproportionately infected by the virus, with experts putting the blame on less access to health care exacerbating underlying health conditions; less access to fresh groceries in “food deserts”; denser living conditions; and other problems associated with poverty.

Minorities are also more likely to fill the “essential” jobs that haven’t been pared back despite pandemic closures, such as those in supermarkets, and in many health care and first responder fields, a situation that is a positive for family finances, but which puts the workers at more risk of exposure to the virus.

The disparity among COVID-19 impacts is very clear in Santa Fe. Reporting by Journal North’s Kyle Land in last Sunday’s Journal North shows there are stunning differences among Santa Fe neighborhoods when it comes to how the pandemic has played out.

In the 87507 ZIP code that encompasses areas along Airport Road on the city’s Southside, there were 136 COVID-19 cases as of the week prior to Land’s story being published. That is an infection rate of 28.04 cases per 10,000 residents in this area, which has a mostly Hispanic population (72%, according to census data) with lower incomes than the rest of Santa Fe, and which is the center of the city’s migrant population.

A mostly Midtown and Southside area, with ZIP code 87505, had 65 cases, a rate of 21.20 infections per 10,000 residents.

But only a handful of infections had been reported in Santa Fe’s most affluent neighborhoods on the north and east sides. The north’s 87506 ZIP code had just 13 cases, a rate of 9.84 per 10,000 residents, and the downtown and east side 87501 ZIP code had 19 COVID-19 infections, a rate of 11.97 per 10,000 people.

Miguel Acosta, co-director of local nonprofit Earth Care, said the high number of cases on the Southside has become a crisis all its own that hasn’t been acknowledged by city government.

But elected officials appear to be starting to pay attention. City Councilor Chris Rivera says the city has begun working on ways to provide more COVID-19 information in Spanish.

That’s an absolute must. A University of New Mexico professor recently presented the results of a statewide survey of Hispanic residents that showed that 24% said their biggest concern about the pandemic was the need for more factual information about the virus.

Rivera adds that he and County Commissioners Anna Hansen and Rudy Garcia have started discussing ways to cooperate on trying to improve infection numbers on the Southside.

One of their goals should be to promote convenient COVID-19 testing on or near Airport Road, and push for more. There now is at least one testing center in south Santa Fe, at Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center. A high-profile site smack dab on Airport Road likely would help drive up the testing numbers and is something government leaders need to advocate for.

It’s become clear during this public health crisis that when it comes to COVID-19, we’re all connected. One group’s lack of care, be it with mass gatherings or failure to mask, can increase health risks for others.

Earth Care’s Acosta makes a good argument that, in Santa Fe, there’s a link between the Southside’s bad infection numbers, and recent efforts to reopen restaurants, hotels and other businesses in the Plaza area. A lot of Santa Fe’s hospitality industry jobs are filled by Southsiders and those workers bear whatever risks there are in getting businesses up and running again.

There are no easy solutions here. Most Southsiders don’t live in large homes with plenty of separation from neighbors. Many can’t work from home. As a group, they are younger than the rest of Santa Fe and infections among the young are on the rise, possibly because young people can’t resist getting together in groups. Southsiders, like everyone else, need to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Mayor Alan Webber and the City Council have been serious in their responses to the pandemic, providing housing for the homeless in city-owned dorms and hotels, and imposing a city requirements to wear masks.

A sharp focus on the Southside neighborhoods most affected by the growing pandemic has to be the next step.