Why the leaders of East San Jose formed their own task force

Magdalena Carrasco’s frustration boiled over. More than a third of the first coronavirus deaths in Santa Clara County had gone through just four zip codes in the East San Jose community where she grew up.

She wasn’t surprised at the oversized toll on the city council she represented: while office workers stayed at home, traffic in East San Jose had barely relaxed as residents went on their shifts as cooks, cleaners, and grocery store clerks.

However, as of mid-May, the two test sites in East San Jose were only open by appointment on weekdays, and many Spanish-speaking people still didn’t know what to do if they got sick at work.

“I felt like I was screaming into the abyss,” said Carrasco. “It was like hearing echoes coming back from the Grand Canyon.”

Carrasco decided she couldn’t wait any longer. In a matter of weeks, she brought together public health leaders and nonprofits in South Bay. They too felt that neither the state nor the county’s health departments had come up with a clear plan to prevent the virus from devastating their communities.

The course of the Health and Racial Justice Task Force led by Carrasco over the next nine months shows how effective mitigation measures – prioritizing tests and making practical contact in Spanish – only came about after angry, even in a county with a large, well-established Latino community Community leaders united the politicians and forced the politicians to listen.

It was a story that played out across the Bay Area when lawyers for Latino communities urged officials to do more.

“Here we are again, a group of Latinos,” thought Dolores Alvarado, CEO of the Community Health Partnership network, during the group’s first Zoom meeting. “Here we are again, now with a deadly problem on our hands.”

Nobody needed a PowerPoint presentation to explain the problem. Members of the group began to wonder what solutions were obvious to them: making tests more accessible and asking for financial assistance for people who had lost their jobs or got sick.

Daniel Hernandez, right, fetches meat for a customer at the Lucky 7 supermarket in San Jose in January. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)

“Sometimes even though people said they heard us, we didn’t feel we were hearing,” said Reymundo Espinoza, CEO of Gardner Health Services.

Members continued their efforts to turn the Mexican Heritage Plaza on Alum Rock Avenue into a free testing site – something they suggested from the start. In April, city officials went through the well-known community center in aid of the Police Academy League Stadium, a sports complex administered by the San Jose Police Department. This site went idle for weeks after it opened, just as community leaders had predicted.

The place offered weekly free tests until August after Espinoza worked with the county to obtain pro bono test kits and laboratory processing, a “godsend” which he believes the task force has been expedited.

District and city officials attended the group’s weekly meetings and sparked relationships that had been forgotten in the chaotic early weeks of the pandemic.

11-year-old Jason Esquivel and his 5-year-old brother Juan Carlos, with the help of nurses from Gardner Health Services, take a free COVID-19 exam at a testing event in October at the School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose . (Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)

Then-president of the board of directors, Cindy Chavez, said the task force pushed her to work more closely with organizations that serve the Latinx community. “Oh, that’s right, these are our partners,” and we need to make sure we can move forward faster with information and resources, “she recalls.

Members tracked down laid-off residents and referred them to the county, which was struggling to recruit enough people, particularly Spanish speakers, to trace the contacts. Alvarado and Espinoza met with Chavez regularly to share data on their clinics’ sky-high positivity rates and the ongoing need for PPE.

By the time the group issued 30 recommendations at the end of the summer and presented them to the city council, some steps were already underway to expand the testing and targeted communication.

However, the members do not lose the fact that they had to create their own forum to get noticed.

“It won’t be before this pandemic really crosses those lines and affects the lives and lifestyles of people on the west side and suddenly it will get the attention we wanted,” Carrasco said.

Comments are closed.