COVID-19 hits Chirilagua hard

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Neighborhood Health organized the city's first community testing sight in Casa Chirilagua. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

It started with a headache and a little bit of a sore throat. It was late March and Silsa Ortiz de Catalan thought her allergies were kicking in.

Three days later, on March 28, de Catalan started feeling worse. Her headache and sore throat persisted, and now she had the chills. Two days later, she had a fever. By the time de Catalan tested positive for COVID-19 on April 8, her two children were starting to show the same symptoms.

“We were all having the same symptoms, and we were all positive,” de Catalan said through a translator. “I was really frustrated and sad, and it was frightening. And our symptoms just kept on getting worse and worse throughout the process. I was really concerned because one of my children has asthma and all three of us were positive.”

De Catalan’s story is one of many in the Chirilagua neighborhood that, unfortunately, share the same symptoms: illness, job loss, economic anxiety.

Community spread

A largely low-income, Hispanic neighborhood, Chirilagua, a nickname for Arlandria, has experienced community spread of the virus on a greater level than most other neighborhoods in the city and areas of the state.

Ethnicity and zip code data released by the Virginia Department of Health paint a bleak picture for some of the city’s most vulnerable populations, including the Hispanic and Latino residents of Chirilagua.

In Alexandria, 59 percent of reported COVID-19 cases, 728 of the city’s cases identified by ethnicity, were associated with Hispanic or Latino residents, while 41 percent, 505 reported cases, were identified as non-Hispanic or Latino, according to May 20 VDH data.

The two zip codes entirely within the City of Alexandria with the highest positive test rates are 22305 and 22304, which have the highest populations of Hispanic and Latino residents in the city.

Hispanic or Latino residents make up about 36.4 percent of the 22305 zip code, which includes Arlandria/Chirilagua and the northern part of Potomac Yard, according to zip-codes.com. Almost half of the 922 people tested in this zip code, 47.3 percent, tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 19, according to VDH zip code data.

The 22304 zip code has a positivity rate of 25.4 percent. But Hispanic or Latino residents make up a much smaller percentage, 12.6 percent, of 22304’s total population even though there are more total Hispanic or Latino residents in 22304: 6,794 Hispanic or Latino residents reside in 22304, according to zip-codes.com, out of a total population of 54,003, according to zip code data released by VDH. In zip code 22305, there are 5,861 Hispanic or Latinos out of 16,095 total residents. 

Image/Lyvi Sieg

Preexisting conditions

While Chirilagua’s numbers are not representative of the city’s entire Hispanic or Latino population, nor the zip code’s entire resident population, the data paints a disastrous picture for a community that was already on the receiving end of inequitable policies, Ingris Moran, lead organizer for Tenants and Workers United, said.

“… It was no surprise to us because we know that those communities, such as ours, there are immigrants that are uninsured, there’s the [community] members that don’t have access to quality and affordable healthcare,” Moran said.

In Chirilagua, the virus has exacerbated many of the underlying anxieties that Hispanic and low-income residents were already feeling and revealed socioeconomic problems that existed well before the pandemic.

“Ultimately, the reasons that these patients are at greater risk are because of underlying economic issues,” Dr. Basim Khan, executive director of Neighborhood Health, said. “They live in crowded conditions because of the cost of living in Northern Virginia. A lot of times they work low-income jobs that reduces their economic security and means it’s more difficult for them to take time off work or they don’t get paid leave. They have to rely on public transport.”

Chirilagua residents like de Catalan, who worked as a cleaner, were given the nearly impossible choice between employment and economic security or health and safety.

A worker at Neighborhood Health’s community testing site. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

When de Catalan first started experiencing her symptoms, she told her boss that she would need to self-isolate at home. Her symptoms – and her childrens’ symptoms – got worse, to the point that she started to imagine a parent’s worst nightmare.

“We were all throwing up. This had never happened before. I have two children, one is 16 and one is 19, and I was thinking, ‘If something happens to me, what will happen to them?’” de Catalan said.

After she tested positive, de Catalan’s employer gave her two weeks of leave and told that she would have to come back after those two weeks or else she would lose her job. The doctors told de Catalan that she would need at least 40 days to fully recover. She heeded their advice and decided she was better served staying home to recover.

(Read more: Alexandria faces unemployment spike)

“I think that’s my responsibility, is to not go to work and infect other people but to be completely healthy rather than to go back and infect others,” de Catalan said. “That’s my responsibility and I’m not an irresponsible person.”

Employment and financial insecurity are constant sources of anxiety and fear for Chirilagua residents, Adriana Gomez Schellhaas, executive director of community organization Casa Chirilagua, said.

“How am I going to pay my rent?’ and “How am I going to pay my bills?” are common questions that Schellhaas has been hearing from the families she talks with on a daily basis. The avenues of income assistance that are open to other furloughed workers are not available for many Chirilagua residents, due to their immigration status.

“Many of these families don’t have an additional source of any kind of income, whether it is being able to apply for unemployment or a stimulus check,” Schellhaas said.

For residents that work as cleaners, construction workers and grocery store clerks, stepping out the door and going to work is a risk.

Youthful resistance

Although Hispanic and Latino residents account for a disproportionately high number of Alexandria’s cases, the working age of many Chirilagua residents may account for that ethnic group’s relatively low hospitalization and death rates.

“What’s different in our community … is there’s not a huge elderly population in Chirilagua,” Schellhaas said. “There’s a lot of young adults, a lot of children, but I don’t see a lot of older people in the community.”

Although it encompasses more than just Chirilagua, the median age of zip code 22305 is 32.8, which is the lowest of the five zip codes entirely inside Alexandria’s city limits. The Alexandria zip code with the next-lowest median age is 22304, at 35.2, according to zip-codes.com. By comparison, the city-wide median age is 36.4, while Virginia’s median age is 38.3, according to datausa.io.

While the total number of hospitalizations is high among Hispanic or Latino residents, their hospitalization rate per case is just over half as high as that of non-Hispanic or Latino residents.

The 74 hospitalizations among Alexandria’s Hispanic or Latino residents make up 45 percent of the city’s 164 reported hospitalizations with an ethnic identity, while the city’s non-Hispanic population makes up 55 percent, according to the VDH. 

Image/Lyvi Sieg

For Hispanic or Latino residents in Alexandria, those 74 hospitalizations comprise 10 percent of the 728 cases in that community. For non-Hispanic or Latino residents in Alexandria, there is an 18 percent hospitalization rate. Statewide, the hospitalization rate for Hispanic or Latino residents per case is 12 percent, while the statewide non-Hispanic or Latino hospitalization rate is 20 percent.

The contrast between the death rates by ethnicity in both Alexandria and Virginia is even more stark, as non-Hispanic or Latinos are dying at around 7.5 times the rate of Hispanic or Latino residents.

The death rate per Hispanic or Latino case in Alexandria is .69 percent, or five deaths out of 728 cases. For non-Hispanic or Latino residents, the death rate is 5.2 percent in Alexandria, or 26 deaths out of 505 diagnosed cases. 

Image/Lyvi Sieg

The death rate by ethnicity statewide shows an almost identical gap. In Virginia, there’s an .86 percent statewide death rate per case for Hispanic or Latino residents, and a 6.54 percent death rate for non-Hispanic or Latino residents.

Silver linings

The situation is perilous for those who were already on the margins, but community organizations have been stepping up to help those living in Chirilagua.

Casa Chirilagua created a special fund to pay bills and rent on behalf of families in the community, which provides “a band aid solution,” Schellhaas said. Donations can made by going to Casa Chirilagua’s website: http://casachirilagua.org/helping-during-covid-19.

In lieu of monetary donations, Casa Chirilagua has also become an unofficial food pantry, with a roomful of food and supplies at its Mount Vernon Avenue headquarters.

In response to the community spread in Chirilagua, Neighborhood Health, a local health clinic that predominantly serves low-income, underinsured and uninsured residents of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County, launched the city’s first community testing site on Saturday. 

At Neighborhood Health, Khan has witnessed the scope of the virus’ spread firsthand and said that its own testing efforts have revealed a similar disproportionate impact on the city’s low-income and Hispanic populations.

Neighborhood Health serves 30,000 patients – around 90 percent of whom are Hispanic, according to Khan – and has provided free COVID-19 tests to 1,400 people. More than 50 percent of those tests have come back positive, Khan said.

Working with community partners – Casa Chirilagua, Community Lodgings and Tenants and Workers United – and with support from the city, Neighborhood Health identified people in the community and scheduled 300 testing appointments for Saturday. The aim was to open up testing to anyone and everyone in Chirilagua, including those who may be asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

“Up to half of transmission happens from asymptomatic people, so it’s important to identify those people so they can isolate, otherwise, they’re spreading it to more people,” Khan said.

By the end of Saturday, Neighborhood Health had collected 236 test samples and, along with the Alexandria Health Department, will provide guidance to those that test positive. Khan said he hopes this is only the first in a series of expanded community testing efforts.

“We want to ensure there’s more testing, not equal, more testing in low-income communities because the burden of the disease is much greater there and that’s one way you get control of it,” Khan said.

The city and AHD have also pitched in to address the needs of the Chirilagua community. 

The AHD provided personal protective equipment and 23 Medical Reserve Corps volunteers, while the city lent logistical support for the testing site’s vehicle-side testing.

The city has also made rooms at local hotels available for residents who test positive and cannot effectively self-isolate at home, although only a couple of Neighborhood Health patients have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Support is coming to Chirilagua slowly but surely. To varying degrees, the city, health department and community organizations have all come to the aid of residents in this often-ignored sliver of Alexandria. Although the virus has disrupted and destroyed lives that, in some cases, were already on the brink, it hasn’t destroyed the one thing that’s helped residents through good times and bad: their faith, in both God and one another.

“It’s a pandemic. We have to hold each other by the hand. It’s good to look for help, it’s good to have help where you can find it so we can all survive this and get through it together,” de Catalan said.

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