Volunteers Samantha Mora, left, and Meredith Benson set up a table of food pantry items outside Catholic Charities’ Juan Diego Center in south Omaha on June 4. Both are Creighton University students and members of St. John Parish on the Creighton campus in Omaha. Catholic Charities has seen demand for food staples increase fourfold, according to Mikaela Schuele, director of emergency and supportive food services for the organization. More volunteers and donations are needed. Items in high demand include white rice, dry beans, cereal, diapers (especially the larger sizes), peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, and boxes to help distribute the food. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF


Parishes, organizations work to counter COVID-19’s disparate impact

Deacon Jose Luis Guzman, a part-time chaplain at a Tyson Foods plant in Dakota County, felt some of the tell-tale signs: headache, coughing, back pain.

A test at a nearby health clinic confirmed that he had COVID-19, one of about 1,700 cases reported in the rural northeast Nebraska county by early June.

The 65-year-old – who’s served for 20 years as a deacon at his parish, St. Michael in South Sioux City – was told to isolate himself for two weeks, take Tylenol and drink hot tea.

His wife and daughter contracted the disease from him, but they all were fortunate: They survived.

“We’re all in good health now,” Deacon Guzman said in a telephone interview with the Catholic Voice.

But they’re also part of unsettling statistics that show minorities, especially Hispanics in Nebraska, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Douglas County, for example, Hispanics have accounted for slightly more than half the cases, according to recent figures put out by the county’s health department.

“The virus hits everybody, no matter their race or color,” Deacon Guzman says.


But circumstances such as the outbreaks at meatpacking plants and socioeconomic factors have made some populations more vulnerable than others.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a social vulnerability index that takes into account factors that put people at risk for the coronavirus, such as poverty, crowded housing, language barriers and lack of vehicle access.

Minorities have been shown to have more underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and lung disease, that put them at greater risk from COVID-19. According to research by the APM Research Lab, blacks have been found to be 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites.

Statistics from the Douglas County Health Department’s online COVID-19 dashboard as of June 8 showed that blacks – who were estimated to be 11.4% of the county’s population in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau – accounted for 8 (or 17%) of the county’s 47 COVID-19 deaths. However, they only accounted for 7.6% of the 5,206 positive test cases.

By comparison, whites, who were 80.3% of the population, accounted for 61.7% of the deaths but only 17.8% of the positive cases, according to the statistics. Hispanics, who were counted as 12.8% of the county’s population, accounted for only 7 (14.9%) of the deaths but a whopping 54.3% of the positive tests.


Cultural differences likely have affected the way the pandemic impacts Hispanics. Those who minister to that population have said they may be more reluctant to isolate from each other because of strong family bonds, including with extended family members.

The situation for undocumented immigrants is even more complex because they can’t apply for various forms of financial aid, advocates say.

Parishes in areas hit hardest by the pandemic and organizations like Catholic Charities are seeing the toll and doing what they can to help – supplying grocery items and other aid, keeping people informed, consoling mourners and offering spiritual strength through the sacraments and prayer.

Father Carl Zoucha, pastor of Assumption-Guadalupe Parish in south Omaha, said that during the first month of health restrictions and isolating, the impact didn’t seem that bad.

But within the last month, the severity increased, he said. He was seeing middle-aged men, many who had worked in construction, dying.

In one case, a parishioner didn’t want to be admitted to a hospital. He didn’t want to be cut off from his family and may have feared medical costs, Father Zoucha said. He had instructed his wife not to call 911.

The man died at home, leaving behind his wife and their five children.


Another parishioner was hospitalized, but his lungs severely, irreversibly deteriorated. He was taken off a respirator and allowed to die.

Father Zoucha suited up in protective gear and was able to give him anointing of the sick, praying with the man’s wife and daughter. Two sons were able to join them only after Father Zoucha left, because of hospital visitor restrictions.

The father died less than 15 minutes after being taken off life support.

Deacon Guzman said prayers are needed for those fighting for their lives in hospitals, including several of his friends.

Father Anthony Weidner, pastor at St. Michael, said every death takes its toll. “To lose a loved one unexpectedly is always hard,” he said.

The priest has had to fight sometimes to have access to hospital patients, but as Catholics, “we believe in the extreme importance of the sacraments,” he said. “We believe that Jesus touches us through them.”


St. Michael – which has about 1,500 registered families, the majority Hispanic – is part of a Dakota County Ministerial Alliance that pools resources for food and other help.

Father Weidner said he’s been stressing to his parishioners their unity in the Holy Spirit, and they’ve been praying for each other and reaching out to meet spiritual and corporal needs.

St. Joseph Parish in south Omaha also has been heavily impacted.

Father William Bond, pastor, said many parishioners have been sick, including those in parish leadership.

Most of them have been able to recover at home, he said, but they fear spreading the disease to family members.

“In a perfect world, they’d have their own bathroom and bedroom,” he said, but that’s not typically the case.

Father Jairo Congote, associate pastor at Divine Mercy Parish in Schuyler, said the outbreak in that area seems to be improving, but many are still sick. He said he’s “been praying like crazy” for them, including at Masses and remembering them while praying the Rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy at the parish.

Unemployment doesn’t seem to be a huge problem in the Schuyler area, where the Cargill meatpacking plant is a major employer, he said. A Ministerial Association of Christian churches and organizations in Schuyler, including Divine Mercy, operates a food pantry for anyone in need.


Catholic schools have seen families in pain and have offered help whenever possible, said Beatriz Arellanes, coordinator of Latino school enrollment for the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office.

They’ve helped connect parents to Catholic Charities and other places for resources, Arellanes said.

Teachers have seen students who are still learning English struggle with online learning, Arellanes said, and at least one high school student she knew of had to take on a part-time job, despite his difficulties.

The schools office also learned about a father who was deported during the pandemic. “It was painful to see that,” she said.

Father Vitalis Anyanike, pastor of Holy Name and St. Benedict the Moor parishes in north Omaha, said there’s been a lot of misconceptions about the COVID-19 pandemic, so he has “done a lot of explaining and encouraging.”

Many Hispanics don’t like to ask for help, he said, so sometimes he has to nudge them toward food pantries and other aid that’s available.

Catholic Charities has two pantries: one at the Juan Diego Center in south Omaha and the other at the St. Martin de Porres Center in north Omaha. The organization offers many other services, including instruction and advice for small business owners.


Mikaela Schuele, director of emergency and supportive food services for Catholic Charities in Omaha, said demand for food pantry aid has increased fourfold from what it was before the pandemic.

Those who receive food fill out a questionnaire that has indicated that job loss is a big factor for the increase. In January, 25% listed it as the reason for seeking food. By April that number was up to 47%, Schuele said. May figures were not yet available.

Besides handing out food and other grocery items, Catholic Charities has been trying to provide answers to the people they serve.

“They’re coming for the pantry, and because they’re scared and have questions,” Schuele said. Staff members and volunteers try to be prepared by staying up to date on the latest health measures and recommendations.

“There’s so much uncertainty at this time,” Schuele said. “We just want to be a safe haven in the community.”

At the Juan Diego Center, Catholic Charities also has a family strengthening program that can help people find other resources they need, and a microbusiness program that can help small business owners get support and assistance.

Business owners have been receiving help in applying for government stimulus loans and participating in virtual classes, said Guadalupe Millan, director of the microbusiness and asset development program at Catholic Charities.

The program also offers a cleaning academy, which offers certification in cleaning procedures, a skill that could see high demand during the pandemic.

She encourages entrepreneurs to look for such opportunities. “We are living in unfortunate times,” she said. “But it’s a time for opportunity as well.”

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