Latinos in El Paso at Risk from COVID-19

According to data from the Department of State Health Services, as of May 28, the state of Texas has 59,776 confirmed positive cases and 1,601 deaths due to COVID-19. Texas has the eighth highest number of cases in the country. El Paso has 2,569 positive confirmed cases and 72 deaths; El Paso ranks number five in the state for the highest number of confirmed cases.

In El Paso, although 83% of the population is of Latin origin, 89% of COVID-19 cases are among Latin individuals, compared to the white population that is comprised of 9%, but only 7% of COVID-19 cases. Similarly, African Americans make up 4% of El Paso and 2% of confirmed cases. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Latin communities in El Paso, is similar to that in other parts of Texas, and especially border cities. In Dallas, although 41.7% of the population is of Latin origin, 34% or 3,141 of COVID-19 cases are among Latin individuals. However, notably, in Dallas, 46% of confirmed positive cases do not have race or ethnicity reported. We question how many of those unreported cases are Latin individuals.

Similarly, across the country in Arlington, Virginia, 51% of COVID-19 cases are among Latin individuals, while only 15% of the population is of Latin origin. This disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Latin communities has been excluded from the larger conversation. Latinos have received little attention during this pandemic despite their vulnerability to COVID-19. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge and discuss these disparities in El Paso and other majority Latino populations to suppress the spread of the virus.  

We hypothesize that the disproportionate rate of minorities working in essential positions and with preexisting medical conditions are two explanations that account for the increased  exposure of minorities and racial disparities regarding COVID-19. Notably, the Latin community is an integral part of the labor force. In 2018, 17% of the national labor force was comprised of documented Latin workers. This number does not account for another estimated 5.1% of the labor force that is made up of undocumented Latin American workers. Furthermore, the CDC reports that in 2020, at least 25% of the Latin population in the U.S. is employed within the service industry, including hospitality, transportation/travel, delivery, food, healthcare, and education services. Many of these sectors require continued work throughout the public health crisis and put workers at increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

There are reports of essential workers in El Paso only being tested when specific criteria is met. Marisa Saenz reports that Dr. Ocaranza with El Paso Health Authority believes that each city is different and the health authorities are tailoring the tests specifically to what they see in El Paso. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2019, El Paso Metropolitan Statistical Area comprised of the following essential occupations:

HealthcareFood PreparationEducationConstructionProductionTransportation
12.4%10.5%7.5%3.7%4.7%8.7%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2019

The CDC reported many pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of severe illnesses and hospitalization related to COVID-19: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, serious heart conditions, cancer, diabetes, as well as people 65 years and older. In El Paso, hypertension and diabetes are the leading pre-existing conditions reported among deaths due to COVID-19. At the time of death, 50.8% of patients had diabetes and 64.9% of patients had hypertension; 15% of confirmed cases of COVID-19 were 65 and older, although those 65 and older only make up 12% of El Paso’s population. According to the data from the Department of State of Health Services, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes are common morbidities that may place El Pasoans at a higher risk of experiencing serious complications from COVID-19.

Disease Prevalence among El Pasoans in 2018

High Blood PressureHigh CholesterolDiabetesCancerAsthmaHeart Disease
31.5%26.9%15.4%5.2%4.3%4.4%

Source: Texas Department of State Health Services (Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System) 2018

The Texas Department of State Health Services provided limited data on health conditions relating to COVID-19 and especially limited data on Hispanic health conditions, specifically in El Paso. However, a recent report  analyzed health disparities among Hispanics in El Paso that suggested that Latin people in El Paso have comorbidities that may make them more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. We find that a significant percentage of the Hispanic population in El Paso in 2011 had at least one underlying condition that deemed them at higher risk of suffering from serve illness or death by COVID-19. Currently, among positive confirmed cases in El Paso, 32% of patients had one or more comorbidities; 49.15% had at least one; 29.1% had two; and 21.75% had three or more. Additionally, there are high poverty levels and low levels of healthcare coverage for Latin people in El Paso. During the pandemic, 24% of El Pasoans do not have health insurance and 33% of positive confirmed cases of COVID-19 did not have health insurance. This is concerning due to a high prevalence of comorbidities among El Pasoans.

The first step to ensure El Paso recovers from this difficult time is expanding Medicaid. Due to COVID-19 related layoffs, 382,000 are expected to be uninsured and not qualified for Medicare in the state. If Texas makes the right decision of expanding Medicaid, not only will 1.1 million low income Texans, including El Pasoans, be eligible for health coverage, but the state could receive an estimated 100 billion in federal funding. Thus, it is important to acknowledge communities of color, such as El Paso, may face structural inequalities, racism, residential segregation, poverty, and access to quality health care that increases their risk of infection. This, alongside the United States’ history of inadequately addressing the needs of underserved communities, we can expect that communities of color may have a difficult time recovering from this pandemic. We will not know the disparities in morality and incidences until all data is reviewed and analyzed. However, it is clear that with high numbers of essential workers, people without health insurance and people with underlying conditions, alongside Gov. Greg Abbott continuing to reopen the state, El Paso should be prepared to provide financial support and conduct extensive community-based health education and outreach to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and prevent more deaths.

Deziree Jackson, Abby Ferdinando, Carina Cione, Jhamiel Prince, Sarah McCarthy, Ernesto Castañeda, and Emma Vetter are affiliated with the Department of Sociology at American University in Washington, DC. This is part of a series of press releases connected to our report on COVID-19 in El Paso regarding an ongoing data analyses of detailed health data gathered in 2011.