By Nicole Chavez, CNN
As she knocked on doors across New Jersey talking about Covid-19, Nayeli Salazar de Noguera couldn’t forget about how the virus nearly killed her grandmother last year. She knew firsthand the toll the virus took on Latinos before the Omicron variant hit the state.
“She only had a 5% chance of surviving her second intubation. We didn’t sleep for months,” said Salazar de Noguera, a 35-year-old who leads an outreach program of the New Jersey Department of Health that provides Covid-19 vaccination information to underserved communities.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus has battered the Latino community in New Jersey, disproportionally killing men under 50 and amplifying existing financial challenges. Now with state health officials reporting the highest number of Covid-19 positive cases in nearly a year, advocates and some Latinos are on high alert as the latest Covid-19 variant is now the country’s most dominant strain less than three weeks after the first case was reported in the US.
“There are families afraid of a new lockdown, they are afraid that their children would need to stay home from school again, they are afraid of what would happen if they or their spouses get sick,” said Carmen Salavarrieta, a community advocate in Plainfield who has been assisting Latino families in need during the pandemic and lately has been advising them to take the spread of the Covid-19 variants seriously.
Covid-19 cases in the state have been rapidly climbing, with Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli telling reporters on Monday that the surge in cases is “most likely” due to the Delta and Omicron variants. On Wednesday, the state’s Department of Health reported 9,711 new positive PCR Covid-19 detection tests, an increase of 42% over the previous day’s numbers. The stark spike surpasses the previous one-day record of 6,922 cases set on January 13.
Nearly 40% of Covid-19 victims of 18-49 years are Latino men
The pandemic has left a significant number of children in New Jersey mourning their fathers and large families without their patriarchs.
More than 4,900 Latinos or Hispanic people have died of Covid-19 complications in the state since the start of the pandemic, according to data from the health department. At least 455 Latino or Hispanic men aged 18-49 who have died of Covid-19 in the state. That’s about 37% of confirmed Covid-19 deaths in New Jersey in the same age range.
When New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy addressed the rising cases of Covid-19 in a news conference earlier this week, he spoke about a 57-year-old Latino restaurant owner in Passaic and a 72-year-old chef from Peru who worked as a newspaper carrier in Englewood. Both men died of Covid-19 complications last year.
In Plainfield, Salavarrieta and a group of volunteers with her nonprofit Angels for Action are often providing aid to the families who lost fathers, uncles and grandfathers — many who were the primary breadwinners in their households.
Salvarrieta said these families have been forced to mourn while struggling to make ends meet. Many women suddenly became widows and are now scrambling as the sole financial support of their families.
In the past year, a number of families had to leave their homes or apartments because they can’t afford to pay rent. Instead, mothers and several children are are leasing single rooms in apartments or homes, Salavarrieta said.
“The (Latino) community has long been vulnerable and Covid-19 exacerbated many of their needs,” Salavarrieta said.
Why some are still hesitant to take the vaccine
Salazar de Noguera says she couldn’t sleep for months as she anxiously waited to hear whether her grandmother Belem Rodriguez would come back home. Last year, the 77-year-old was hospitalized for several months after getting sick with Covid-19, and put on a ventilator multiple times.
“My heart, liver and lungs were severely damaged. My body didn’t have life,” Rodriguez recalls.
But the family didn’t lose hope and Rodriguez’s body slowly started to heal and eventually she regained consciousness.
“That day, I first noticed there was a woman (in the room), maybe a nurse. I didn’t know what was happening but she said ‘mami, mami’ (mommy, mommy)… that woman was my daughter and I didn’t recognize her right away,” Rodriguez tells CNN.
When Rodriguez was transferred to a rehab facility, she couldn’t move most of her body, talk or eat. Neither could she see most of her family members due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Rodriguez says she fought against her own body and through the pain because she wanted to go home and reunite with her family. She was able to return home and hug them again in March — nearly a year after she was first hospitalized.
“The love to my children, to my grandchildren helped me have the strength. I couldn’t give up,” she said.
Rodriguez relentlessness inspired Salazar de Noguera to lead hundreds of volunteers who have spent months door-to-door talking to people about the Covid-19 vaccine and testing at laundry mats, bodegas, restaurants, hardware stores, bus stations, and churches.
As the volunteers talked to Latinos in Hudson, Essex, Bergen, Union and Middle Essex counties, where Salazar de Noguera says approximately 65% of Latinos in the state reside, they are often confronting widespread vaccine hesitancy.
“At the beginning of this program, we were facing structural barriers. People couldn’t get to the vaccines because of lack of transportation or conflicting work schedules. Now we’re going into those cultural and deep-seated beliefs that many times come from countries of origin, the lack of confidence in government and the lack of utilization of health services,” Salazar de Noguera said.
“It doesn’t matter what generation you are. You could even be a third-generation US-born (Latino) and those beliefs get to the younger generations,” she added.
Data from the New Jersey Department of Health shows that about 6.2 million residents are fully vaccinated. Of the population of fully vaccinated in the state, 17% are Latinos. However, Latinos only make up 9% of the people who have received a third dose of the vaccine or booster shot, despite making up 21% of the state’s population.
Latinos and Black people living in New Jersey counties severely affected by the pandemic remain wary of Covid-19 vaccines even after their communities bore the brunt of the pandemic’s consequences, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Researchers who spoke with 111 participants in Essex, Middlesex, Passaic, and Union counties found that to help eliminate vaccine skepticism among Latinos and Black people officials need to address the remaining unknowns about new vaccines.
“Rather than investing in marketing campaigns to sell vaccines to reluctant consumers, transparent information, including what is yet unknown, is needed so that members of these communities can make informed decisions,” the study’s authors wrote.
That’s what Salazar de Noguera says her team has been focusing on. Instead of arguing or debating with people who have doubts about the Covid-19 vaccine, they are listening and trying to find ways to build confidence, she says.
But her team still has a long way to go, she says.
“I think the fear of government and the fear of our pharmaceutical companies is unfortunately, still far worse than death in some instances,” she said.
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CNN’s Priya Krishnakumar contributed to this report.