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Talbot to 'clamp down' on virus spread among immigrants


EASTON — Talbot County's Hispanic population, while making up only 7% of the county, has seen a disproportionately high number of coronavirus infections when compared to other ethnicities — leaving local health leaders clinging to better communication to tame the spread. 

County Health Officer Dr. Fredia Wadley said in a press release Friday, July 17, 19.5% of Talbot's confirmed cases have occurred among Black people, 28.7% among Hispanics, 35.2% among whites and 3.1% among "other ethnicities." The remaining 13.5% of cases were unidentified because race data were not collected at some test sites. 

These data are significant against the backdrop of the county's population breakdown by ethnicity, which shows that white people make up 83% of the county, while Black and Hispanic people make up roughly 12% and 7%, respectively. 

Wadley said she's not surprised the majority of Talbot's infections have occurred among white people because "we are the biggest number." But when she looks at the infection numbers among minority populations, she said, "they're relatively high for the percentage of the population they make up."

"That would make them disproportionately hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic," Wadley said. 

The health officer attributed the high case count among the county's immigrant population, specifically, to those individuals being "very much out in front, working, sometimes traveling together to a job, sometimes living more to a household than others."

In response to the increasing infections, Wadley said her department partnered with the Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center, an organization that assists limited-English-speaking immigrants with societal integration, in order to "communicate directly to the county's immigrant community."

She said her department also plans to "begin visiting Hispanic churches to better communicate methods for slowing the spread of the virus." 

ChesMRC's Executive Director Matthew Peters, who has been helping surrounding counties with contact tracing efforts, said in a phone interview with The Star Democrat on Tuesday, July 21, he's "very concerned" about the implications of the virus's continued spread among immigrants.

Peters said his organization received a total of $65,000 from Talbot and Caroline counties — which came from the federal government's Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds — to help their respective health departments better inform immigrants about preventative measures and reactive resources. 

The money went toward establishing a hotline for clients to call and get connected to a Haitian Creole- or Spanish-speaking ChesMRC staff member, who, Peters said, can help answer any questions callers might have about the virus — such as where, when and how often they should get tested, and what to do if they test positive for the virus. 

"If you’re having a language issue, you can go ahead and call that and we can right away provide an interpretive service over the phone," he said. 

The ChesMRC director said while his organization will serve residents of all Eastern Shore counties in Maryland, his staff's main focus will be on helping the immigrant populations of Talbot and Caroline counties during the pandemic. 

"Right now, my staff and myself, we’re really just becoming experts on Caroline and Talbot, so that’s what we’ll focus on," he said, adding his staff has an "inside track and deep knowledge" of the two jurisdictions. 

Peters acknowledged that one of the biggest issues contributing to the virus's spread among his clients, many of whom he said are not United States citizens, is a general lack of job security. 

"Race aside, we just kind of look at our society, and people with those low-income, no-benefits jobs, have no job security. They don’t have contracts, they don’t have unions, no paid days off or sick days off," he said. "If they do get sick and can’t come to work, they’re at a much higher risk of not having a job when they come back."

Plus, Peters said, now that more businesses are reopening, immigrants are "the first ones in" — performing physical labor in the agriculture, landscaping, hospitality, construction, cleaning and restaurant industries. 

"They don’t have the luxury of jobs where they can stay home, work remotely and still get an income," he said. "Most of our families, if they’re not out doing physical labor, they’re not getting an income." 

As for whether recent infections can be linked to any specific industry or workplace that employs immigrants within Talbot, Caroline and Queen Anne's counties, Peters said "it’s kind of across the board, from fast food joints to small businesses, to little construction crews — you name it."

"As we’ve opened up, it’s harder for us to pinpoint things because they’re all over the map now — but we do treat each one like a little outbreak," he said. "So if we know a couple guys in a crew have it, we have to treat that whole small business as an outbreak."

Peters said it's "tough" to work with local small businesses, many of which have been waiting for their time to reopen, only to find out that one or more of their employees contracted the virus.

"A lot of the small businesses I talk to say, ‘Well, we were doing the right thing. We got everyone tested. We’ve been practicing social distancing,’ and then it still ends up that a couple people tested positive, and then they have to shut down for two weeks," he said. "Those are not easy conversations to have with business owners while they’re struggling with so many other things."

Despite his concerns regarding an overall "uncertainty" surrounding messaging from federal, state and local health officials, Peters said he hopes his organization can streamline communication with Talbot and Caroline's vulnerable populations. 

"Everyone’s struggling to make sure communications are getting out. We’re just making sure it’s a two-way lane," he said. "We’re excited to start working more in Talbot and Caroline counties and share our experiences from Queen Anne’s County." 

"As things start to reopen, especially now with schools, we’re going to have to really kick it into high gear to make sure communication is back-and-forth because there are going to be a lot of questions from everybody, not just in other languages," Peters said. 

Talbot County, he said, won't be able to determine whether his organization's and the local health department's "clamping down" on virus hotspots will have an impact on the virus's spread for at least a couple of weeks.

"We hope it does, but you really won’t know if all that effort has paid off until two or three weeks from now," Peters said.

As of Tuesday, Talbot recorded 265 coronavirus infections and four related deaths, state data show. Of the county's 265 confirmed infections, 214 occurred among Easton residents, 12 among Trappe residents and 18 among St. Michaels residents.

The locations of the remaining 21 cases were not disclosed because the state zip code data exclude cases in zip codes with fewer than seven cases.

Those in need of ChesMRC's services should call 1-877-772-9832. 

'Emotional ballast in a dystopian time'

EASTON — In these uncertain times, a group of citizen activists are trying to bring the power of creativity to help those in need. They have installed four colorful “Hopeful” signs around Easton.

“I love them. They give me hope,” said Suzy Moore of the Avalon Theatre.

According to the website of the Dock Street Foundation which sponsors the signs, the foundation’s “goal is to raise $100,000 with all proceeds going to Mid-Shore/Covid-19 Fund for those non-profits directly (affecting) health, homelessness and hunger in our community.”

The artist who made the signs is renowned sculptor and painter Charlie Hewitt. He was excited to get out of a museum context and have his art live in the community.

“It is a public statement that needs people to see it to bring it to life,” he said. On May 31, 2019, Hewitt unveiled his 24-foot-long HOPEFUL creation in Portland, Maine, on top of a non-profit artist-run studio and gallery.

In collaboration with Jim Kempner Fine Arts in New York City and with the support of local donors, Dock Street Foundation obtained signs made by Hewitt.

The signs in Easton will remain in high visibility areas in Easton until the threat of the virus is under control. Eventually, the signs will be sold or auctioned, with the proceeds going to support the foundation’s and Hewitt’s work.

Kathy Bosin of the Dock Street Foundation said, “We hope the signs will serve as a reminder to help the people in our community with the most need: The homeless and the hungry.”

“The town was really cooperative,” said Dock Street Foundation Founder Richard Marks, “I approached (Easton Town Council President) Megan Cook and Mayor Willey and they loved the idea. The right people show up with the right ideas.”

“Robbie Gill over at the Y, really inspires me as a great believer in doing the right thing. People have showed up to grow the project. In the future maybe it will involve kids doing poetry or essays,” Marks said.

“I am incredibly optimistic that we ... will come out of this smarter, wiser and closer as a community,” said Marks, who calls himself an “igniter in chief.”

“I am really good at getting things started,” Marks said. “Thank goodness there are other people involved who can finish. Amy is right there with me at Dock Street.” Marks’ wife Amy Haines is a philanthropist and owner of Out of the Fire restaurant in Easton.

“We want to be not just hopeful but helpful in our community,” Marks said.

For Hewitt, creating the Hopeful 2020 signs is itself a hopeful outlet for his skills and perspective.

“It reminds me of when I was a kid and excited to get out in the world,” he said. “I chose a retro vibe, roadside attraction. Unique, not like all the corporate signs we see over and over. I wanted American culture and automobile culture. To travel and have adventure.”

He also had some thoughts about our current COVID-19 world. “We are going through the wilderness right now. We can make it out if we know our goal. I wanted to make something positive. It is a lark. Emotional ballast in a dystopian time. Grab something positive.” he said.

“And I make friends when I put up the signs,” he said.

Governor announces $2.3 million in eviction prevention grants

CENTREVILLE — Governor Larry Hogan Monday, July 20, announced eight counties will receive more than $2.3 million in the first round of Maryland Eviction Prevention Partnership grants. Five of them are on the Eastern Shore.

“These awards reinforce my administration’s strong support for ensuring Marylanders stay safe and secure in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hogan said in a news release. “We are dedicated to assisting counties in their efforts to prevent eviction during these tough economic times.”

Locally, Queen Anne’s County received $80,000, Kent County received $84,246; and Cecil received $100,000. On the Lower Shore, Wicomico was awarded $1 million, while Somerset received $100,000.

Other counties receiving first-round grants include Frederick County with $722,129, Charles County with $200,000 and Allegany County with $55,000.

The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development will administer the grants, funded by the federal Community Development Block Grant program. The $2.3 million distribution is the first wave of funding in the Hogan Administration’s promised $30 million program to prevent evictions across the state. These efforts, combined with the additional $30 million in efforts of local governments, represent more than $60 million dedicated to providing rental assistance for Marylanders.

Mike Clark, executive director of Queen Anne’s County Housing and Family Services, said when they knew the stay on evictions was going to be lifted, Cindi Boone from his office contacted landlords directly to tell them if they had tenants behind on their rent, there were funds available to help. Prior to the Eviction Prevention Partnership Grants, they had received some CARES Act funding.

“We were able to catch quite a few people up,” Clark said. The office estimated the first funds would help 63 families; with the new grant, they’ll be able to help more, he said.

Michelle Marshall, officer coordinator, sent a letter to the courts July 10 about available housing assistance.

“Currently, we have programs that can assist tenants who are in rental arrears. Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic we are able to assist households with income levels from 0-80% of the Area Median Income Limits set forth by HUD. We encourage any tenant in Queen Anne’s County to contact our office to be screened in order to determine which of our programs will work best for that client, as many cases are so different,” she wrote. “During their time with us, we will also be able to offer other resources that we are aware of that may assist the client into becoming more self-sustainable and help them move forward in a positive direction.”

She said Tuesday that the new grant funds are expected to help an additional 22 families with emergency rental assistance.

The Housing Services office is located at 104 Powell Street, Centreville; the phone number is 410-758-3977. During the current state of emergency, most business is being done over the phone, but appointments are available if needed.

Queen Anne’s County actually received a little more than the $80,000 mentioned in the governor’s release, Clark said, explaining it was a two-part grant. The other part of the grant provides funding to help provide a safe place for people with COVID-19 who need to isolate and have no where else to go. These funds help pay for a hotel room during the person’s quarantine.

The national CDBG program was enacted into law by Congress as part of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. For 45 years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program has supported community redevelopment, affordable housing, and the expansion of economic opportunities, principally for persons of low and moderate income. The program is a vital resource for Maryland’s counties, cities, and towns in their efforts to provide critical services to their residents.