Uncertainty in Hispanic community after three COVID-19 cases reported at Abbyland Foods

Published: May. 28, 2020 at 6:36 PM CDT
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After three employees tested positive for COVID-19 at Abbyland Foods this week, where a large number of Hispanic community members are employed, community advocate and liaison Tony Gonzalez says online racist rhetoric is stoking community fears and many employees are reporting temporary layoffs. Abbyland Foods did not respond to repeated emails and phonecalls requesting information about temporary layoffs or plant closures after positive cases were announced on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez says he is hearing from many worried employees. “Many of them are the sole breadwinner in the house, and there’s no other resources they’re receiving, no other source of income, so they’re wondering, ‘What do we do now? We have no money, we’ve got suddenly told not to come to work.’” It’s unclear how many might be impacted by job uncertainties, but Gonzalez—based off reports from multiple employees—estimates dozens are impacted.

The Hispanic community in Abbotsford faces uncertainty as across the state, Spanish speaking communities are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. According to data updated daily on

33% of all positive cases as of May 28 are of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity—despite them only representing between 6 and 7% of the total Wisconsin population.

The disparity can be attributed to several factors including underlying health conditions and poor access to health care, according to Family Health/La Clinical medical director Dr. Cheston Price. After three years as chief medical officer for the rural health organization Family Health, Dr. Price is currently overseeing its mobile unit for Migrant and Seasonal Ag Workers. The unit is currently focused on conducting testing and providing care and information to both employees and employers at farms and food plants around the state, where migrant and seasonal workers are a large percentage of essential food workers.

“It is not right,” Dr. Price said of the disparity between case numbers and population size. “There are measures that can correct it—education and awareness are a big part of that.”

Poor access to information is one of the most significant issues Gonzalez is tackling for communities in Marathon and Clark Counties. A well-known figure among Hispanic circles in north central Wisconsin, he is now assisting the Marathon County Health Department as a community liaison and contact tracer.

“We need to get the word out to them so we can prevent anything from coming up to the levels that it’s coming up right now,” Gonzalez said.

He recently secured funding and is organizing teams through the Wausau-based Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) to get information about prevention and care to the Spanish-speaking communities in the area. Language barriers and poor internet access are just some of the barriers they’re dealing with, he says. His teams are working to connect people who may be under quarantine with groceries and other resources, and he’s urging the community to contact him or their health department if affected.

Dr. Price says that the foremost fear he hears from the employees cared for at the mobile unit is losing their job. “Many of them rely on summer employment—that’s their income for the year,” he noted. By and large, he says employers and employees alike at the farms and food plants they have visited—including every major county in north central Wisconsin, he noted—have been receptive to the guidance provided.