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Latinos in Nebraska hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19, DHHS data show
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Latinos in Nebraska hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19, DHHS data show

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Data released this week by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services illustrated that COVID-19 has hit people of color -- particularly Latinos -- disproportionately hard.

Almost 60% of Nebraskans with confirmed cases identify as Hispanic, though they make up about only 11% of the state’s population. Latinos also account for more than a quarter of the state’s deaths from coronavirus.

Part of this discrepancy stems from the fact that meatpacking plants were hot spots for the spread of COVID-19, and they rely on a largely immigrant labor force.

Though Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and some public health departments declined to identify the number of positive tests connected to specific locations, some companies and health officials chose to release figures. In a late May press conference, Ricketts said 11 meatpacking workers had died of COVID-19.

Reports indicated nearly 700 cases at a Tyson beef plant in Dakota City, several hundred in both Saline and Lancaster counties from the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Crete and more than 200 at the JBS beef plant in Grand Island.

Those plants in Dakota City and Madison, along with a Cargill plant in Schuyler, closed for a time. The Crete plant also reduced its working hours after hundreds of cases were linked to those facilities.

Accordingly, the hardest-hit counties in Nebraska either contain a large packing operation or are adjacent to a county with one -- and nearly all are among those with the highest minority populations in the state.

In 10 of Nebraska’s 93 counties, more than 1% of the population has been confirmed to have the disease. Dakota (8.5%), Colfax (6.4%), Saline (3.7%), Dawson (3.5%), Hall (2.6%), Dodge (1.9%), Douglas (1.4%), Madison (1%) all have large meatpacking plants, and Platte (2.0%) and Thurston (1.2%) are near facilities in Colfax and Dakota counties, respectively.

Not all communities with such operations, however, reported high rates of positive tests.

Though Lancaster County (0.58%) reported hundreds of cases tied to the Smithfield pork plant in Crete, it had far fewer at its own Smithfield plant in Lincoln or a Smart Chicken facility in Waverly. Otoe County, too, (0.13%) had just 20 cases as of Wednesday, despite a Cargill Value Added Meats plant in Nebraska City.

And meatpacking plants aren’t the only culprit for clusters of coronavirus diagnoses and deaths.

Outbreaks at senior living facilities have crossed the state, including 13 deaths at one location in Aurora. Facilities in Adams, Blair, Callaway and Grand Island reported spikes of varying sizes that all included at least one death, given the coronavirus’ mortality rate increasing by age.

At least three of the 12 COVID-19 deaths reported in Lancaster County were residents of nursing homes.

While Nebraska is faring comparatively better than most states in terms of positivity rates and total confirmed cases and deaths, it was one of the last states to announce it would track COVID-19 numbers by race and ethnicity. Accordingly, it still has a sizable degree of uncertainty in its reporting.

The ethnicity and race of a large percentage of both cases and deaths tracked by DHHS are unknown. Nearly 18% of the more than 19,000 cases confirmed in Nebraska lack an ethnicity, and 16% don’t include a race.

The state’s reporting adheres to the 2010 Census, which listed Hispanic as an ethnicity, rather than a race. As a result, many Latinos are considered white, hence some of the overlap on the racial data.

Nebraska’s statistics, broken down by race, are as follows:

* White Nebraskans, which includes most Latinos, make up 89% of Nebraska’s population, 76% of all deaths and 55% of all positive tests.

* Blacks compose 4.8% of the population, 7.3% of deaths and 5.7% of cases.

* Natives are less than 1% of the population, 3% of deaths and 1% of cases.

* Asians and Pacific Islanders are 2.5% of the population, 5% of deaths and 5.9% of cases.

* Nebraskans of other races total 2.4% of the population, 2.9% of deaths and 8.3% of cases.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7434 or jschreier@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @JohnSchreierLJS.

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