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COVID In Chicago: Staying Home Is A Privilege Many Latino Communities Can't Afford As Virus Devastates Families

CHICAGO (CBS) -- As we head into yet another holiday, health officials are reminding everyone to stay home, keep the gatherings small, and keep getting tested for COVID-19.

But for some, staying home and avoiding congregate settings is easier said than done – especially in the Latino community.

"As a street vendor, we get to know people that are in our lives every day and then we don't see them anymore," said Elizeth Arguelles, who is the niece of a COVID victim. "I know over a dozen people that have gotten sick, and unfortunately I also know more than a dozen people that have passed away."

This is the reality for so many Latinos in Chicago. Arguelles' family is one of many with another empty chair at the table ahead of Christmas.

For 15 years, her uncle, Don Lupillo, sold raspados – a type of shaved ice – in Little Village. He died weeks ago from COVID-19.

"My uncle passed away," Arguelles told CBS 2's Marissa Parra. "The next day, we had to go to work. My mom had to go and make tamales the next day that her brother passed away."

For street vendors like Arguelles and her mother – who sell tamales – and vendors like Rafael Patino – who sells nopales, a type of cactus – pushing the carts is how they survive, whether they are drenched in grief, rain, sweat, or snow.

"I work seven days a week here so I can pay my bills in rent," Patino said in Spanish.

They are working hard to survive in a deadly pandemic. It is a small glimpse of why Chicago's Latino population is, in many ways, getting hit harder than the rest.

"There's the reality that people still have to put food on the table," said University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center emergency room physician Dr. Marina Del Rios. "A day you take off is a day you don't get paid."

And the gap is only growing. There's not only more Latinos getting sick, but they are dying at an average younger age than the rest.

COVID-19 Mortality Demographics Graph
(Credit: Impact4HC)

For those who die of COVID-19, the median age at death for Latino Chicagoans is 68, but 73 for Black Chicagoans and 79 for white Chicagoans, according to city data. And a lot of that starts and ends with work.

Median Age Of COVID-19 Deaths In Chicago
Median Age Of COVID-19 Deaths In Chicago (Credit: Impact4HC)

"In Latinos, the exposure rate has largely been on the job," Dr. Del Rios said. "Meatpacking plants are still open, distribution centers are still open, restaurants."

"We are the community that has essential workers, that are unable to work from home; people that have to go out on the street to put their lives at risk to make a living," Arguelles said.

All that is to say safety and social distancing are not easily accessible for everyone.

"You're only as safe as your marginalized communities are," warned Dr. Del Rios, a member of Illinois Unidos.

"Right now, in this time with this pandemic, it's difficult to look for work," Patino said in Spanish.

"When people say, 'You should stay home,' that's talking from a place of privilege," Arguelles said. "Not everyone can stay home or work from home."

There is a variety of other factors – such as language barriers and at times, fear of getting treatment if you're undocumented.

Out of all the communities, Latinos have the lowest coronavirus testing rate in Chicago.

There is currently an effort to raise $10,000 in COVID relief for undocumented families in the Chicago area. More information is available here on the fundraiser Bless Undocumented Families for the Holidays.

A list of mobile testing sites across the state of Illinois is available here, while a list of Chicago mobile and static testing sites is available here.

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