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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 illustrate 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 the coronavirus.

Majority of COVID-19 cases found disproportionately in Lancaster County's Asian, Hispanic communities

Part of the disparity 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 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 news conference, Ricketts said 11 meatpacking workers had died of COVID-19.

WATCH NOW: Virus controlled in meatpacking plants, ag undersecretary says

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.

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

669 Tyson workers at Dakota City plant test positive for COVID-19, source says

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 virus. Among the counties, Dakota (8.5%), Colfax (6.4%), Saline (3.7%), Dawson (3.5%), Hall (2.6%), Dodge (1.9%), Douglas (1.4%) and Madison (1%) counties all have large meatpacking plants, and Platte (2.0%) and Thurston (1.2%) counties are near facilities in Colfax and Dakota counties, respectively.

Tyson reports 212 COVID-19 cases at its Madison plant

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

Though Lancaster County (0.59%) reported hundreds of cases tied to the Smithfield pork plant in Crete, it had far fewer at the Smithfield plant in Lincoln or a Smart Chicken facility in Waverly. Otoe County, too, (0.14%) had just 20 cases as of Wednesday, despite a Cargill Value Added Meats plant in Nebraska City.

Cindy Lange-Kubick: Children of Smithfield, standing for the safety of their parents and all workers

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 facility in Aurora. Facilities in Adams, Blair, Callaway and Grand Island reported spikes that all included at least one death, given that the coronavirus’s mortality rate increases by age.

At least three of the 13 COVID-19 deaths reported in Lancaster County were residents of nursing homes.

COVID-19 deaths in Lancaster County include three nursing home residents

While Nebraska is faring comparatively better than most states in terms of positivity rates and 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 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.

Worker shortage concerns loom in immigrant-heavy meatpacking

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 the state's  population, 76% of all deaths and 55% of all positive tests.

* Blacks comprise 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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Assistant city editor

John Schreier, an Omaha native and sixth-generation Nebraskan, is an assistant city editor and has worked at the Journal Star since 2017.

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