Families and people of all ages grapple with the threat of contracting COVID-19 as the back-to-school season approaches and school districts begin to announce their reopening (or not) plans.
And while the coronavirus has sent the entire country and the entire world into a tailspin, with people across the globe trying desperately to stay safe and fight a virus we still know so little about, there’s an elevated risk for a very specific group of people in the United States: multi-generational households, and primarily Latino families.
While experts have been stressing the increased risks of COVID-19 for elderly individuals and people with compromised immune systems, they are now recognizing that families living together are also battling complicated risk factors.
Those risk factors will not become any less frequent or less dangerous as younger generations go back to school, after school activities or daycare, and bring potential germs home with them to their family members. It’s concerning, especially because many of those children may carry the coronavirus germs despite a lack of symptoms or visible signs they are ill, while the family members they infect could suffer severe symptoms due to exposure to the virus.
Seemingly simple recommendations such as social distancing and isolating from at-risk individuals may work in some scenarios but not in this situation.
For extended and multi-generational families who reside together, whether by choice or by necessity — as so many Americans have lost their jobs due to the pandemic — it’s not exactly feasible to distance when you’re living under the same roof. And for the tens of millions of Americans currently living in multigenerational homes – many of whom are Hispanic and Latino families located throughout the sunbelt states that are being hit hard by COVID – this new reality they face is extremely risky and very concerning.
For those families, following social distancing protocols can be nearly impossible, and the alarming infection rates and increased risk are looming. It’s adding insult to injury for an already at-risk community, pointing out once again the unfair and unforgiving racial disparities of COVID-19, now specifically for multi-generational households.
Multi-Generational Households are on The Rise, Especially in Latino Communities
According to Pew Research, multi-generational households are defined as homes that include “two or more adult generations, or including grandparents and grandchildren younger than 25.” This means these households almost always include the most high-risk group for the coronavirus – adults over 65 – and younger adults and children, many of whom are now preparing to return to school as the pandemic rages on.
Multi-generational households exist for many reasons: in some cases, several generations of a family live together to save money, to maximize resources, to help care for the elderly or childcare, or just because they value family culture.
And they are not exactly a new phenomenon.
Thirty years ago, in 1990, about 35.4 million people in the U.S. lived in multigenerational households. The number of these kinds of houses notably rose during and after the Great Recession of 2007-2009, largely due to financial reasons like family members losing their jobs. While growth of multi-generational homes has slowed slightly since that period, it is still more rapid than the growth before the recession. In fact, the number and share of Americans living in multigenerational family households have continued to rise to record numbers. In 2016, a record 64 million people, or 20% of the U.S. population, lived with multiple generations under one roof, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of census data.
These numbers are definitely higher among certain racial and ethnic groups, such as Hispanic and Latino families in the US. According to census data, 27 percent of Hispanic families live in multigenerational housing.
As the Hispanic population rises so does the share of families living in multigenerational households. And that was even before the pandemic, which has also led to an increase in multigenerational living economic hardship that has forced some younger adults to move back into their parents’ homes.
Hispanic Multi-Generational Households are at an Elevated Risk During the Coronavirus Pandemic
As the infection rate and death tolls rise in various cities and communities across the country, it’s clear that we have not yet beaten COVID-19. As society opens up, people return to work, young adults begin to socialize (likely without masks or safety measures) at bars and restaurants, and children return to school, the risk of infecting vulnerable elders and family members will increase. Especially if those at-risk individuals live at home with the younger generations re-entering society.
It’s clear from recent data that the strategy of sheltering the most vulnerable while the young and healthy return to work and school doesn’t work, especially when those at-risk individuals live with the young essential workers. And the same risk applies for young, healthy students returning to schools but going home to their vulnerable, elderly relatives.
If you ask Pat Herlihy, chief of critical care at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston, recent spikes in cases, especially among older generations, are directly related to recent re-openings and social gatherings of younger individuals. “My hypothesis now is that they’re engaging with the larger families, they’re engaging with the 60- to 70-year-olds — parents uncles, aunts. They’re engaging much more with that vulnerable population,” he said.
And this seems to be the pattern in cities across the country, especially where there are larger Hispanic populations such as in Florida, the Southwest, and California, where about 27 % of people live in multigenerational households. And to add extra complications to an already complicated situation, it seems as if younger people are disproportionately asymptomatic when they become infected with COVID-19, so they don’t even realize they are bringing the germs home and infecting their families.
“It appears there’s a lot more positivity coming in the younger population, but it seems like a lot of the deaths are coming in that high-risk population,” said Peter Paige, chief medical officer for Miami’s Jackson Health System.
What Can Multi-Generational Households Do to Protect Loved Ones During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
According to the CDC, there are some measures that family members can take to try and protect relatives and loved ones living under the same roof during this extraordinarily contagious and dangerous pandemic.
– Limit Errands: Try to minimize how often and how many people in your household run errands outside the home. Pick one or two family members to do grocery shopping and other essential errands, and make sure they wear a mask, avoid public transportation if possible and wash hands thoroughly upon returning home.
– Try to Minimize Contact Between Vulnerable Family Members and Children or Sick Individuals: While many multi-generational households involve family members taking care of one another, if someone in your house is sick, do not let that person care for young children or elderly at-risk family members. If seniors in your house must help take care of young children, then those kids should not have contact with people outside the home to minimize risk for everyone involved.
– Separate Sick Family Members: If someone in your home does get sick, separate them immediately by providing a separate room and bathroom, if possible. If not possible, identify one person to take care of that ill individual and keep a distance of at least 6 feet between them and everyone else in the home.
– Wash Hands Thoroughly and Often: This applies to people inside and outside the home, but do not forget to wash your hands every time you come or go, and every time you are going to be near any family member, especially those at risk. More is definitely more when washing hands to prevent the spread of germs.
– Wear a Mask: Everyone should be wearing a mask when they are out in public or out of the house, but for those living in multi-generational households with at-risk family members, consider wearing a mask even when you are home. “I would tell our residents … that they should consider, particularly if they have a multigenerational household, wearing masks indoors at times … and also respecting social distance when they’re at home,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez (R) said at a news conference last week.
– Avoid Being in Close Quarters with Other People Outside Your Household: If your primary goal is to keep family members inside your home safe, you need to limit your contact with anyone outside your home. Minimal physical contact and avoiding crowded spaces where you cannot safely distance is key.