Community advocates seek action to target hot spots in Sussex County

GEORGETOWN — The alarming spike in coronavirus cases in the heart of Sussex County has spurred calls for heightened awareness, increased preventive measures and state response through COVID-19 relief for immigrants.

As the greater Millsboro area joined the Georgetown ZIP code as downstate “hot spots” in the coronavirus spread, Safe Communities Coalition Monday reached out to Gov. Carney to take immediate action “to protect, serve, and provide relief for immigrants in Delaware impacted by the coronavirus crisis.”

“We need to make sure that there is a level of accountability and transparency. We can do outreach but if we don’t have the resources to offer what we already know are needed then we fall short,” said Dalissy Washington, co-coordinator of the Safe Communities Coalition during a teleconference Tuesday. “Protection for workers, making sure that their rights are protected is also imperative. So, responding or reacting to now a positive case isn’t sufficient. We’re asking, what can we do today and how are we going to move forward?”

Speakers at the teleconference included Gov. John Carney, Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-long and some cabinet secretaries.

“We know on the federal level there is disparity. For a fact, the stimulus does apply even for United states citizens who have family members who are undocumented. We already know that,” Ms. Washington said. “In Delaware, we need a disaster relief fund. That is what we are asking, that communication with the different departments, and benefits that may be available to our undocumented population are taken into account.”

Gov. Carney said during the teleconference, “We’re doing everything possible to address the concerns of every community in our state, particularly communities who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Most importantly those include our senior citizens that are the most vulnerable, and we’ve ramped up efforts to protect them in conjunction with the nursing home industry.”

DEMA staff members fold handkerchiefs to be used for masks.

“The same is true in other industries that continue to work. We are putting all the resources that the state government has into addressing the response pandemic which is paralleled in our lifetimes. Nobody on the phone has ever been through this before. The last pandemic we had was 1918. We are in uncharted territory or waters each and every day doing everything we can with all hands on deck right now to address the outbreaks in communities in Sussex County.”

Gov. Carney said state stimulus checks are unlikely in Delaware, where law requires a balanced budget. “Therefore, with the loss of almost a half a billion dollars in revenue all our programs are going to be stressed and certainly under review,” he said.

Ms. Washington responded on the call: “We know there is a deficit with funding. But there is no way we are going to get out of the economic strain if we are not addressing the most vulnerable populations, that are actually serving us and helping us thrive.”
Cultural challenges
That vulnerable population in Sussex includes Hispanic and Haitian communities and immigrants to downstate Delaware.
They make up a sizeable portion of the workforce in Delaware and Sussex County, filling vital roles in the poultry industry, landscaping and construction.

So while they are working in essential roles and at risk for transmitting and contracting the virus, they may be challenged with hearing the message of prevention and applying it.

Ecuadorian native Kevin Andrade, whose Voice Radio Network includes two Spanish stations, Maxima and LaRaza, said communication and cultural challenges create hurdles especially in Milford, Georgetown, Millsboro, Seaford and Laurel, where there is a large concentration of Hispanic and Haitian residents.

“It is so expensive to afford a single family house with $300-a-week salary. So many of these people, they have no choice but to live together, two or three families in one house. That is one of the issues. Unfortunately, two or three or four people out of that house working in crowded places, obviously makes it more difficult to maintain the social or physical distance and as well as to be protected from not getting the virus.

“That is one of the main concerns, the overcrowding in some communities,” said Mr. Andrade. “And No. 2, obviously, there is thousands of Hispanic and Haitian workers who are in the chicken plants, on farms. They are part of the construction industry. They are part of the landscaping industry and many others that are essential at this moment. So, obviously they are exposed.”

Gov. Carney addressed that issue in the conference call.

“The issue is really more coming and going from the plant and to home, and within the communities when they go home. As we all know they live in very dense neighborhoods in houses with lots of folks. That is my bigger concern, and that is frankly why we need to partner with all of you to get the word out about these conditions that are dangerous with respect to the spread of the virus,” he said, adding that appropriate social distancing measures and sanitizing at home and work are critical messages.
Another is getting a person who tests positive for COVID-19 to take the appropriate steps to isolate.

“… When we have a positive test, it’s going to be important that that person isolate … so that they don’t spread the virus to family members and others with whom they come into contact,” Gov. Carney said. “Encouraging them to go and stay at a hotel … is going to be an important part of it. For obvious reasons they are going to be nervous about doing so; they are not going to be home with family and friends.”

Mr. Andrade said he was happy to hear plans for Christiana Care to offer drive-thru testing Wednesday at Delaware Technical Community College in Georgetown and the start of testing 6,000 people on Thursday at chicken plants in Sussex County.

Hand sanitizer is another item to be included in bags to be distributed in Sussex County.

And, he noted Delaware Secretary of Labor Cerron Cade’s announcement that subcontractors and independent workers can qualify for unemployment.

“That’s good news,” Mr. Andrade said. “But the government, they didn’t say anything about what is the plan honestly to drop the number of cases, other than testing people. They are saying to people to keep the distance and follow the emergency, but nobody is enforcing.”

He cited high case rises in recent days and said he expects more.

“I don’t see any strong message from the government,” he said, adding that cultural differences may hinder acceptance.

“The same message directed to one group of people is not going to get the same results in the other group of people. In fact, if you say to a regular American family: ‘Keep your distance. You can go out and maybe you go to the park, get fresh air and go back home.’ American people, most of the people are going to do what the government says,” said Mr. Andrade. “But for Latinos, we are very social. We are family-oriented. So, for us, it’s, ‘Oh, let’s go to the park. Let’s get together uncles, cousins and friends, family, brothers, sisters. Let’s go to the park and have some barbecue and play some soccer.’ Unfortunately, the same message delivered to different ethnicities or a group of people probably can take a different direction. That is one of the issues that I am seeing happening in Sussex.”

“They (state officials) are not doing anything extra. They say, ‘We are communicating in Spanish with the people,’” Mr. Andrade said. “Like who? Sixty or maybe 70 percent of the Georgetown community is Latino. They put up five billboards around the city, all in English.”

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, whose 37th District encompasses the Georgetown area, said she is concerned with the spike in positive cases and COVID-19 spread.

“I had a conversation with a health care provider/nurse practitioner (Sunday) and we were talking about what we are seeing in the community, which some of us had forecasted and were trying to get attention to two or three weeks ago to what we saw; what we thought might be happening.”
“There is a very strong culture that believes in work, work, work. And if they are not getting the right information about not working, they are going to work,” she said. “There are issues here at work where the poultry industry needs to keep open and needs to keep the lines. I understand that. But at some point — if people can’t make a decision for themselves, that when they are sick, or when they are placing others at risk — what do we need to do? What we have here is where social determinants are a real factor.”
Poultry industry precautions
Delmarva’s chicken industry officials said they have taken precautionary steps and preventive measures to stem the virus spread.
“The health and safety of people within our chicken community, including processing plant employees, is of the utmost importance,” said James Fisher, spokesman for Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. “Chicken producers and processors are making significant efforts to protect employees from coronavirus (COVID-19), while continuing to replenish the food supply our nation depends on.”

Catherine Bassett, spokeswoman for Mountaire Farms, said her company has been in regular communication with the state health department, which has visited facilities twice.

“We are working with them to share our best practices so they can benefit other manufacturing facilities. And we’re educating our employees about what they can do once they leave our facilities to stay safe and prevent the spread of the virus.”

Gov. Carney in the stakeholders call Tuesday noted that public health workers have been visiting poultry plants. “I have seen photographs of the measures they are taking to protect the workers. Some, not all, have installed plastic shields in between individual workers.”

Division of Public Health Joint Information Center spokeswoman Stacey Hoffman, in response to questions about what is being done for the poultry industry and specifically Hispanic workers, wrote in an email Monday that “individuals from the Division of Public Health, DEMA, and the Department of Agriculture [are] working with the poultry industry as they identify positive cases of COVID-19 in their facilities to ensure that they have adequate infection control measures in place.”

“Additionally, we are working with trusted community partners and stakeholders to develop and provide educational materials on COVID-19 for the Spanish speaking population.”

At the onset of COVID-19 in mid-March, Rep. Briggs said she went on air with Mr. Andrade to “stress to his listeners about the importance of social distancing, of hand washing and following these precautions — because it looked like the community wasn’t taking it very seriously.”

“What’s different in Georgetown — the increase in numbers— is not from a long-term care facility. It’s not necessarily in a correctional facility. It’s in the community,” said Rep. Briggs King. “And this requires a different response and what can we expect next. What are they going to do to tighten down or try to prevent this spread?”

While Mr. Andrade said he has used his radio stations to promote information, not everyone believes the threat or embraces precautions. And some may speak a different dialect of Spanish, so they don’t understand even his message, he said, noting language variations from Spain and Guatemala.“So, the communication is a little bit difficult when you have such diversity in one small town,” he said.

“We’ve been talking and talking and talking. Some of the people in my own community, they are against my efforts. Some of the people, they say, ‘Oh no, this is just a fluke. It’s just scaring the community. We need to work. We cannot stay home,’” said Mr. Andrade.Rep. Briggs King said she expressed frustration with communication last week and reiterated the coalition of support from her peers, Georgetown Mayor Bill West and state Sen. Brian Pettyjohn.

“We know this community. We know the issues. I certainly have been a very loud voice in advocating,” she said, noting that she wondered how organizers communicated last Saturday’s virus screening at St. Michael’s Church for the Latino community.

“I have also spoken with La Esperanza, First State Community Action and others that are familiar faces in the workforce in the Georgetown and related areas. We hear different things. There is nothing coming out official,” she said.

Mr. Andrade said at this point in the virus response, “we shouldn’t have these issues. But at the same time, I think that the government did not also reach out to these minority groups … except at our own resources, meaning radio and local social media.

“Hopefully, the state of Delaware, our Governor, is going to take a little more stronger measures in order to address this. Because the longer we wait, the longer it is going to be, the opportunity to open our state to regular business at least with social or physical distance and masks. It is difficult. Our community has a lot of needs, but I believe at this moment we need to get together, be united, work together with the government agencies, and support of the neighbors.”

Rep. Briggs King echoed that sentiment.

“We’re in the middle of this right now, this hotspot,” she said. “So, we need to find a way to cool it off, but we need (the state) to help us do that.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.