As part of its COVID-19 Grand Rounds series, AIDS Foundation Chicago hosted an Oct. 26 panel featuring LGBTQ+ Latinx healthcare providers sharing how the pandemic has impacted their personal and professional lives.
Panelists included Howard Brown Health President/CEO David Munar, Esperanza Health Centers community health advocate Luis Lira and Erie Family Health Center community health nurse Monica Ortiz. Each spoke about how COVID-19 fundamentally changed his or her life. Some survived the virus themselves while treating Latinx patients who were also infected.
The Latinx community has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The Chicago Department of Public Health reports Latinx people make up 35% of the city's COVID-19 cases and 32% of deaths while representing only 28% of the population.
This disparity is one reason why sharing the stories of Latinx healthcare providers is important, Munar said.
"The big message here is that as a community, Latinx people have the lowest rates of insurance of any racial or ethnic group and have some of the highest health disparities," Munar said. "We're categorically more vulnerable to issues like COVID and we see it in the numbers."
Munar said he "immediately" saw the virus' "enormous impact on the Latinx community." Munar witnessed LGBTQ+ Latinx people facing insurmountable debt without support systems after surviving COVID-19.
"We saw people in line, sick and suspecting they had COVID, and they were more concerned about losing their job than about COVID," Munar said. "The enormous impact of the virus really was cross currents with immigration, lack of insurance, poverty, overcrowded housing. All of these things we talk about in terms of healthcare equity converged in a predictable way around the pandemic."
Ortiz spoke about how, after just three weeks of working as a nurse in an assisted living facility in March 2020, she caught COVID-19 and was out for three weeks. When she returned to the facility, she said it was an environment she'd never experienced, and she faced increased anxiety while managing severely ill patients.
"As nurses, we're caregivers, but we really were these patients' families," Ortiz said. "They were not able to see their families. We were the last people they would see when they passed. That was a really hard reality, but on the other hand, it gave me a lot of gratification knowing that I was where I was supposed to be."
Lira was also infected with COVID-19 early in the pandemic. He explained how drastically it impacted his life, forcing him to take a leave from work that caused financial stress. His recovery was long. For some time, he couldn't speak and didn't know if he would again.
Lira urged healthcare workers to be aware of how they treat their LGBTQ patients and consider putting their staff through yearly sensitivity training. He explained that, while he was in the hospital battling COVID-19, his doctors would frequently ask if he wanted to confer with his wife instead of acknowledging he has a husband.
"A lot of people have a hard time adjusting to people referring to people with their different pronouns or different partners, but something as simple as that allows people to feel more welcome and access healthcare in a more humane way," Lira said.
Munar emphasized the importance of helping LGBTQ people navigate the complex healthcare system since they might not have family support.
"As LGBTQ people of color, we're more susceptible to institutional harm," Munar said. "If you have a friend, spouse, ally or advocate communicating with doctors on your behalf, that makes a huge difference."
Now that the healthcare system is more equipped to manage COVID-19 than it was in the early days of the pandemic, Ortiz stressed the importance of addressing the larger systemic issues plaguing Latinx people trying to access healthcare even before the pandemic.
"We still need to go to the doctor frequently, we still need more specialists and it's still really hard to get those types of resources," Ortiz said.
Although the medical community has more information about COVID-19, Lira said he's still struggling to help Latinx people get accurate information about vaccines. He said he's heard from lots of Latinx people who are suspicious of institutions they've come to distrust pushing vaccination so heavily.
"There's still that fear and distrust of the healthcare community Latinos have, and some of them aren't getting vaccinated," Lira said. "We've had to lay people off at Esperanza because they refuse to get vaccinated."
Project VIDA and AIDS Foundation of Chicago are launching the VIDA task force, which is designed to address healthcare disparities for LGBTQ+ people of color. The task force is seeking membersspecifically community leaders who address issues facing the Latinx community to attend monthly meetings with the goal of assessing and improving the community's access to healthcare.
For more information, visit almachicago.org .