COVID-19 moved through Alma De León’s extended family faster than anyone could have imagined.
Months later, the Canyon County residents still bear the scars of more than a dozen family members contracting coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic.
Some spent days hospitalized or on a ventilator. Others, including De León, still experience pain or struggle to breathe normally. Two grandparents, whose relentless labor as migrant farmworkers built a new life in Idaho for 14 children and countless grandchildren, are gone forever.
“No one thought that we were going to lose my grandparents,” De León said. “They were very healthy, very active. If people would only follow the rules, wear a mask ... Don’t visit your loved ones. You don’t know, you could be someone else’s grave.”
ARE MORE IDAHO LATINOS DYING FROM COVID-19 THAN THE DATA SUGGEST? IT’S COMPLICATED
Like their counterparts around the country, Idaho Latinos are contracting coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates than white Idahoans. Despite this disparity in coronavirus infections, state data has long suggested that COVID-19 fatality rates among Latinos are consistent with the state’s population. A study conducted by NPR in September found that Hispanics and Latinos were dying at rates higher than their share of the state’s population in 19 states and the District of Columbia. In contrast, official data from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare shows that slightly more than 13% of Idahoans who have died from COVID-19 so far during the pandemic were Hispanic — and Hispanics are 13% of Idaho’s population.
However, an Idaho Statesman review of excess death data found that deaths during the pandemic may have been disproportionately high among Hispanic Idahoans. The state lost significantly more lives than usual this year, and only some of those additional deaths were attributed to COVID-19.
Most excess deaths in Idaho appear to be among people age 75 and older, according to the CDC data. But there have been a few mortality spikes among Idahoans age 45 to 64, the data show.
While the majority of excess deaths have been among white Idahoans, the difference between this year and the past five years hasn’t been as stark as it is among Hispanic Idahoans. For nine weeks since the start of the pandemic, Idaho had double the average weekly number of Hispanic deaths; for non-Hispanic white Idahoans, that hasn’t happened once.
The CDC shows a total of 183 more deaths among Hispanics in Idaho since March, compared with the 2015-2019 average.
“Whenever there is a health problem — whether it’s diabetes, whether it’s heart disease, whether it’s stroke — those health issues do have a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged populations (including) communities of color, Hispanic populations,” Dr. Frank Johnson, the St. Luke’s medical affairs vice president, said in an interview. So it follows that they might be more vulnerable to dying during the pandemic.
There are a few possible reasons for that, he said:
- Less access to primary care providers and urgent care clinics, whether they’re sick with COVID-19 or another potentially fatal condition.
- Latinos and other marginalized people are “under a significant amount of pressure to continue to work” in meatpacking plants or other settings where they’re at higher risk of exposure to the virus.
- Multigenerational households in the western part of the Treasure Valley have been affected by outbreaks there, he said. “Kids who were living with older family members ... give it to their elderly family members,” he said.
- Without good access to health care, an infected person might only be cared for by a family member, who then also becomes infected.
- Less easy access to virtual health care, which many medical providers are now using to see patients. “Families of low socioeconomic status are going to have a hard time, particularly in telehealth,” Johnson said.
All of those factors can make Latinos in Idaho more vulnerable to dying from undiagnosed or untreated health disorders — including COVID-19.
“If they don’t have access to care and get sick and die before they can get care ... there’s disproportionate likelihood that they might be true COVID positives that just couldn’t get in to see a doctor,” Johnson said.
‘MAMA YA ESTÁ CON CRISTO, PAPA.’
In April, most of De León’s family knew the risks coronavirus posed to their elderly loved ones in particular. They tried to be as careful as possible, isolating their grandparents, Asunción and José Correa, and De León’s mother at their home, and requesting the myriad of kids, nieces, nephews, cousins and grandkids restrict their visits as much as possible. But several members of the family worked in various food processing plants — including some Boise-area plants that had early coronavirus outbreaks spread among employees. Eventually the virus worked its way through the family.
De León estimates 19 members of her family caught coronavirus, including her grandparents. Terrified of being separated and unable to see her family as she struggled to fight COVID-19, Asunción refused to stay in the hospital and the family decided to care for the grandparents at home. On April 20, Asunción died. She was 85.
The family believes José had already “beat” COVID-19 by the time his wife died. His fever had receded, and he seemed to have regained his sense of taste. But his dementia, past heart problems and fragile state of recovery made them loathe to tell him the truth when he kept asking for Asunción. Eventually, they couldn’t keep it from him any longer.
“Mama ya está con Cristo, Papa,” they had to tell him. Mom is already with Jesus.
José was heartbroken, De León said, and stopped eating. Within a week, he had passed away, too. De León, still recovering from COVID-19 herself, had to answer the check-in call from the faithful Southwest District Health staffer and break the news.
“You have that guilt,” De León said. “A lot of family members didn’t get to say goodbye (at a funeral), they were so scared they were going to get sick.”
‘I THOUGHT WE WERE DOING EVERYTHING RIGHT.’
Caldwell School Board Chairwoman Marisela Pesina thought she had done everything right. But at the beginning of August, she found herself staring through the windows of St. Luke’s in Nampa, watching her 30-year-old son Miguel struggle to breathe.
“Here I thought we were doing everything right and being extra careful,” Pesina told the Statesman in an interview this month.
A visit with a few family members they didn’t know had been exposed to the virus was all it took to have everyone in Pesina’s house feeling ill. Miguel, who started having trouble breathing, was resistant to suggestions they go to the hospital, as they’d all heard the horror stories about families separated from each other while their loved ones became progressively ill, suffering alone.
But Pesina was determined her son wouldn’t feel alone. She recruited friends who worked in the hospital to check in with Miguel, passing updates and encouragement back and forth. One day, she dressed up and danced outside his window (and in full view of the other patients’ windows, to Miguel’s embarrassment). As documented in a video posted to Facebook and viewed by 14,000 people, she twirled and sang Bob Marley’s “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right” to cheer him up.
“I was incredibly touched by it,” Miguel said. After a few days in the ICU, he was able to return home with supplemental oxygen to aid him in his recovery.
A LONG ROAD TO CORONAVIRUS RECOVERY
Raquel Reyes quickly learned her fight with coronavirus wasn’t going to end even after she beat the virus.
Reyes tested positive for COVID-19 back in July, when summer activities caused a spike in cases across Idaho, and much of the country. Her family had been fairly careful, but decided to take a risk attending a relative’s party, social-distanced and outside. Reyes remembers hugging people, though. A few days later, she was sick.
But the scariest part came around Sept. 20, when she began feeling sick again and experiencing some of the same symptoms she had during her bout with COVID-19. Running a low grade fever, coughing and experiencing trouble breathing, she panicked.
“I thought I had COVID again,” Reyes told the Statesman in an October interview.
A trip to the doctor revealed it wasn’t a second round of coronavirus, but walking pneumonia. She had a bronchial infection as a result of COVID-19, the doctor told her. She’s on an inhaler and has been taking antibiotics, and she’s worried about what will happen if she gets any worse.
“If I get sick at the end of the month, I don’t have any insurance left,” Reyes told the Statesman. She recently left her job with the Community Council of Idaho’s immigration clinic, and is about to start a new one. “I can’t not go to the doctor. I can’t afford a hospital bill of $100,000.”
Reyes has been taking to social media to warn friends and family to take the virus seriously. If they don’t care about their lives, she wrote in one post, could they care about saving hers?
“If you still think this virus is hoax believe me, it isn’t,” Reyes wrote. “Not even with all the precautions that I took was I able to escape it.”
But she’s not sure how much of an impact her own story will have.
“I don’t feel Idaho cares enough. We’re not taking it seriously enough, to take those precautions,” Reyes said.
BEARING THE BRUNT OF THE PANDEMIC, BUT LITTLE POLITICAL POWER
Pesina was concerned about the dangers of COVID-19 even before her family contracted it, and she brought that knowledge and experience in her decisions on the Caldwell School Board — which happens to be majority Latino, like the district’s students. Working closely with the district’s administration, the board has implemented stricter measures for the district — like a controversial mask mandate that drew the ire of Ammon Bundy — than others in Canyon County.
Her say in policies meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 appears to be rare for Latinos in Idaho. Latinos are woefully underrepresented in Idaho politics at every level, even when they’re a quarter of the population of Canyon County, the state’s second largest county, or nearly half the population in some areas of the Magic Valley.
That means throughout the pandemic in Idaho, mostly all-white health district boards and local governments have been making decisions about how to handle a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting Latinos in their community.
In August, Caldwell-based Southwest District Health board members questioned why the district was tracking race and ethnicity data for coronavirus at all, and mused that Vitamin D deficiencies was why coronavirus appeared to be particularly high among people of color. At the time, Hispanics and Latinos in the district were testing positive for coronavirus at higher rates than their white counterparts in almost all of the six counties under the district’s jurisdiction. Despite sustained coronavirus outbreaks in Canyon County and across the district, the health board has not instituted a mask mandate or restrictions on large events.
Board members of South Central Public Health District based in Twin Falls also voted against a mask mandate for its eight counties this week, despite the pleas of hospital administrators warning that a flood of coronavirus hospitalizations was pushing Magic Valley hospitals into crisis. The board did decide to limit gatherings of more than 50 people, according to the Times-News.
Latinos are more than half of COVID cases in five counties in the South Central Public Health District — a trend that began early in the pandemic and continues to be fueled by large coronavirus outbreaks at food processing plants in the region. There are no Latinos on the Magic Valley’s health district board, pulled from county commissioners in each of the region’s counties. The elected officials making those coronavirus health and safety decisions for a region that is increasingly Latino, are largely white.
No mandate means that mask use is still dismal in many areas of Southern Idaho. Miguel Pesina said he felt like it was a lack of respect for the community, especially in communities like his hometown Caldwell, where Latinos are hit so hard by COVID-19.
“It’s a big slap in the face to see like — especially people in the community of Caldwell — aware that the majority of their neighbors are Latinos ... it’s just the disrespect that people have,” he said. “Why not just wear a mask just for the off chance of actually saving somebody?”
For De León, she watches people in her community go about their lives normally — as if the pandemic doesn’t exist — with sorrow and fear. She wants people to know they’re likely not being as careful as they think, that seeing loved ones could mean losing them.
“If this can help another family to not go through what we’re going through,” De León said. “It’s just painful.”