The woman — who asked to be identified only by her first name, Diana, because she is undocumented — found help last month through a new Montgomery County initiative aimed at addressing the impact of the coronavirus in its Latino communities.
A caseworker from a nonprofit called Identity connected Diana with rental assistance, food assistance and clothing; she hopes to get help with her $380 gas bill and $600 Xfinity bill as well.
“My daughter, at the beginning of the pandemic, had high honors,” Diana said through an interpreter, explaining why she is determined to secure a stable Internet connection. “Now she is completely frustrated. She raises her hand, but no one sees her or calls on her.”
Identity is one of eight groups Montgomery County is partnering with in the effort dubbed Por Nuestra Salud y Bienestar, or For Our Health and Well-being. Funded primarily through the federal Cares Act, the initiative includes nearly $6 million for testing, contact tracing, case management services and a Spanish-language hotline.
“It’s about time,” said Michelle LaRue, a senior manager of health and human services at CASA, another one of the county’s partners. “Our community was the hardest hit and continues to be the hardest hit.”
The project appears to be the biggest coronavirus-related effort targeting Latinos in the Washington suburbs, according to advocates. There is a state effort concentrated in Baltimore, and Prince George’s County has worked to increase testing and contact tracing in its Latino communities. Advocates say they hope other jurisdictions will mimic what Montgomery County is doing.
The project was announced in July after Montgomery faced criticism for its response to the spread of the coronavirus among Latinos, who make up about one-fifth of county residents but had nearly three-fourths of its new coronavirus cases. About 63 percent of new infections in September were among Latinos, according to county data.
Latinos across the country have been devastated by the deadly virus, in part because many are front-line workers who cannot telecommute, which increases their risk of exposure. Many Latinos also live in crowded or multigenerational homes, which makes it a struggle to socially distance. Many are reluctant to get tested at government-run sites because of President Trump’s public charge rule, which makes it harder for immigrants to get permanent residency status if they use public assistance.
“There’s skepticism by a number of people in the community and a lack of trust,” said county council member Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large), who spearheaded the initiative alongside council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4). “So, by working through these partners in the community that have that trust, it puts us in a better position from a public health perspective.”
The project funds six new staff members for CASA’s Spanish-language phone line, which LaRue said has seen a fivefold increase in call volume during the pandemic. The partnership also hopes to test 8,000 people for the coronavirus by December, with tests offered by Mary’s Center, Proyecto Salud Clinic, Care for Your Health and Mansfield Kaseman Health Clinic.
Mary’s Center, a network of clinics serving mostly Latinos in the District and Maryland, launched its testing effort Sept. 18, swabbing 42 people in the parking lot of CentroNía, an early-education center in Takoma Park.
“We want to be visible to the community,” said Zulma Aparicio, director of operations at a Mary’s Center in Silver Spring. “We want to be available so anyone who walks in or anyone who wants it can come and have the test done.”
Dorys Contreras, 44, got tested for the first time while picking her daughter up from CentroNía, which reopened June 22 and so far has no known coronavirus cases. Contreras said she had lost her job at Marriott International’s headquarters on March 26 and wanted to get tested because she starts a new job this week.
“It’s very good for people to have the opportunity to get a free test,” Contreras said. “It’s time to be active. I just need to be careful.”
David Del Pozo, a program manager for the Latino Health Initiative of Montgomery County who is overseeing the project’s testing efforts, said the aim is to set up testing sites wherever the Latino community is.
“If that takes us to a parking lot in Langley Park or to a church in Gaithersburg or to a recreation center in Midcounty, we will go there,” Del Pozo said.
Identity’s caseworkers were helping county residents secure rental assistance even before the launch of the new initiative.
They began connecting people with additional services Aug. 3 and had received 762 referrals by the end of last week. Most callers are directed to food, housing, testing and health-care services. Case managers aim to contact people and get them aid within a week of receiving their names, program director Nora Morales said. But people have been calling the hotline back repeatedly, too worried to wait.
“A lot of people, you can hear the desperation in their voices,” Morales said. “Many of them are sobbing by the time they’re talking to us. It’s really heartbreaking.”
One woman who contacted the nonprofit lost her job at Georgetown Cupcake in April, then moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom with her two school-age sons.
She was called back when the store reopened in June for online-only orders. But after two weeks, her body started to ache, she felt tired and she had a sore throat. She tested positive for the coronavirus. After recovering, she found work cleaning houses twice a week. Identity is providing her housing and food assistance.
“The caseworker was very welcoming and started saying yes to everything I needed,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is undocumented. “I felt very supported and like there was a partner that was going to walk with me through all of this.”
Similar efforts to address the spread of the coronavirus in Latino communities have taken root in neighboring Prince George’s County, advocates said, but not through one uniform project like Por Nuestra Salud y Bienestar.
Most of the weekly pop-up testing sites in Prince George’s have happened in the Latino community at Langley Park Community Center, a county government spokesman said in a statement. The majority of the county’s Latino residents live in Zip code 20783, and that area has the second-highest number of tests conducted in the county.
In Montgomery, Diana’s adult daughter tested positive for the coronavirus Thursday for the second time since the United States saw its first cases. The woman, who is 25, had been sharing a room with her two younger siblings, so the whole family was planning to get tested.
Identity said it would coordinate delivery of groceries to the family while they quarantine.