Latino News

This Bay Area community went from 10 to 551 cases

For a while, North Fair Oaks looked like a COVID-19 miracle.

The small, unincorporated community in San Mateo County had all the makings of a hot spot, with a largely Latino population, many of whom were essential workers in crowded housing, similar to hard-hit East Palo Alto nearby.

Yet for months, public data from San Mateo County put North Fair Oaks’ case number at 10.

Everardo Rodriguez wasn’t convinced.

“Anecdotally, I had heard of more cases happening in the community, so I just knew that the county’s number wasn’t correct,” said Rodriguez, a librarian at Stanford University and chair of the mostly advisory North Fair Oaks Community Council. In October, he and a few other residents started asking questions.

The next month, the health department quietly made a correction: Instead of 10 cases, North Fair Oaks had 551. By late January, the neighborhood had 1,485 cases — a rate of 102 cases per 1,000 residents, making the area one of the hardest hit in San Mateo County. The corrected error is now a small but telling reminder of how Latino communities crushed by COVID-19 did not always get the information they needed.

“I was very surprised,” Rodriguez said. “Surprised in the sense that there was so much data that had not been updated — not necessarily surprised in terms of the county not keeping a … good update on the cases here in North Fair Oaks.”

North Fair Oaks lies between larger Redwood City and wealthier Menlo Park and Atherton. Three-quarters of the community’s residents are Latino. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

North Fair Oaks, he said, is an often forgotten community. Nestled between much larger Redwood City on one side and much wealthier Menlo Park and Atherton on the other, the community of 14,500 is nicknamed Little Mexico, with a population that’s three-quarters Latino. On Middlefield Road, the main drag, a store selling cowboy boots offers Spanish-language tax preparation services near a convenience store prominently displaying the day’s exchange rates from dollars to Mexican pesos and Guatemalan Quetzals.

Until November, almost all coronavirus cases in North Fair Oaks had been incorrectly attributed on the county’s public dashboard to Redwood City and Menlo Park, both of which share ZIP codes with the community. County officials couldn’t explain why 10 cases were correctly assigned to North Fair Oaks from the start.

But Srija Srinivasan, deputy chief of San Mateo County Health, said health officials were aware of the real North Fair Oaks case numbers all along, thanks to geocoding tools that map coronavirus cases to a specific town or even block. Because the incorrect number was only on public-facing maps, Srinivasan said, the error had minimal impact on the health department’s analysis or decision making.

However, she conceded that the county’s public data on hard-hit communities has prompted action from local groups and allowed the health department to build stronger partnerships. For most of 2020, local groups did not have the benefit of accurate public information about North Fair Oaks.

Warren Slocum, the San Mateo County supervisor whose district includes North Fair Oaks, also said he doubted the failure to provide accurate case data had any real-world implications.

Night falls in North Fair Oaks, weeks before the Bay Area’s winter surge. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

“The question is how many people are actually looking at that and paying attention,” Slocum said. “Well, some are, but I don’t know that people in North Fair Oaks are looking.”

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