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Baltimore offers financial relief for immigrants affected by coronavirus

Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski, pastor of Sacred Heart Church of Jesus, speaks about the 36 parishioners they've lost to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Baltimore is stepping up its assistance to members of the Hispanic community suffering from the coronavirus, giving them priority for financial assistance, city officials announced Friday.

In April, the city founded an Emergency Relief for Immigrant Families fund, which has helped city residents affected by the pandemic who are not eligible for federal benefits due to their immigration status.

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Now, the city will give people who have tested positive for COVID-19 the highest priority for receiving aid from the fund, officials said during a news conference held Friday by Mayor Brandon Scott. The fund provides one-time payments of $400 for individuals and $800 for families. Applicants must be city residents, have tested positive for the disease and demonstrate limited access to federal benefits.

The city is hiring bilingual resource navigators to assist eligible residents with applying to the fund. The navigators will also help families through the coronavirus isolation process and provide case management to help residents get access to other benefits, such as eviction prevention and free or subsidized food.

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Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, regional director for CASA, a nonprofit coordinating a piece of the program, said Baltimore’s Hispanic immigrant residents have distanced themselves from government services during the last several years out of fear of Republican President Donald Trump’s administration. That’s created a “service gap” during the pandemic, she said.

“We knew we could not allow for community members to let fear keep them from applying for these relief efforts,” she said.

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, concerns have been raised about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Hispanic population. Between March and May in the Johns Hopkins Health System, 42.6% of Latino patients tested for COVID-19 had positive results, compared with 17.6% of Black patients and 8.8% of white patients, according to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In Baltimore, Hispanic residents make up just over 5% of the population, but they represent 15% of total cases. Death rates are also disproportionately high.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Baltimore City Health Department has offered bilingual testing and contact tracing. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs assisted with messaging and worked to get financial support for immigrant families ineligible for the CARES Act, a federal stimulus package for individuals, businesses and government agencies suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic.

This summer, the health department and the immigrant affairs office began meeting regularly in work group sessions with more than a dozen nonprofit organizations, city officials said Friday. The group is collaborating on the relief efforts rolled out this week.

CASA, which participated in the work group, will coordinate a new educational campaign to talk to Hispanics with limited English proficiency about prevention of the virus, where to get tested and how to isolate. The group will also employ “community messengers” who live in various city neighborhoods to share information about the virus.

The Catholic Charities Esperanza Center will coordinate the resource navigator program.

Matthew Dolamore, director of the Esperanza Center, said Friday that his organization has fielded 3,000 calls this year on a hotline opened during the pandemic. Half of those callers were referred to coronavirus testing, he said.

“This initiative today offers hope — hope that no family in Baltimore should ever have to be forced to choose between their health and their income,” he said.

The relief fund, which is supported by the city and donations from more than 15 foundations and private donors, has already assisted more than 2,000 families and 250 people, city officials said.

Cynthia Sanchez is among the city residents who has received services. The pandemic cost her and her husband their jobs, she said Friday, leaving little money to afford the numerous medications he takes for epilepsy.

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“Everyone in my family early on tested positive for COVID, and my husband, because of the epilepsy, suffered the worst,” she said in Spanish, a translator sharing her words. “It breaks my heart, because this virus has taken everything from us.”

Sanchez said CASA was able to provide groceries for her family for several months. Financial assistance from the relief fund paid for her husband’s medications. Sanchez thanked the city for stepping forward to financially assist the immigrant community when people did not receive federal stimulus checks.

Scott pledged to continue to address the pandemic with equity in mind, one of the goals outlined during his inaugural address.

“Equity will continue to be my guiding principle,” he said.

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