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‘In the Heart of the Pandemic’: COVID-19 Deaths Loom Large in East San Jose

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Maritza Maldonado holds a photo of her sister Miriam (left), who died from COVID-19 complications last May. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Maritza Maldonado has witnessed firsthand the devastation the coronavirus has wrought on the community where she grew up in East San Jose: layoffs, hunger, illness and an alarming number of funerals.

“Especially right after the holidays, we were hearing of people dying, several people a week,” said Maldonado, 60, who runs a local nonprofit that offers health care, legal aid and other services. “These are people that we know. Our neighbors, the people we go to church with.”

But the pandemic became personal last May, when Maldonado’s sister, Miriam, died due to COVID-19 complications. Miriam was 66 and a mother of two daughters. One of them graduated from college not long after her death.

“Unfortunately, her mom was not there to see that,” said Maldonado, her voice breaking. “And there were moments like that, that are very difficult for them and difficult for us as a family.”

Nearly a year after the global pandemic was declared, Santa Clara County has reported more than 1,700 deaths due to the coronavirus, the largest toll in the Bay Area. And the predominantly working-class and immigrant neighborhoods in East San Jose have borne the brunt.

A cluster of adjacent ZIP codes — 95116, 95121, 95122 and 95127 — have some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Santa Clara County. That area is home to just 11% of the county’s population, but accounts for 20% of those who have died from the coronavirus, according to the most recent county figures.

A pinboard full of photos of Miriam Maldonado-Magaña and her family at the office where she taught ESL classes at Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment.

Miriam Maldonado-Magaña lived in ZIP code 95127. After retiring as a county social worker, she taught English as a second language as a volunteer and delivered food to those in need, her sister said.

“She was a fixture in this community,” said Maldonado. “And my sister died giving food out to families. We think that's how she got COVID.”

Maldonado runs Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment in the Mayfair neighborhood, where renowned labor leader Cesar Chavez once lived. During the pandemic, the organization has been helping local residents who have lost jobs or are sick with COVID-19, providing financial assistance to cover basic expenses, back rent and burial costs. The funds come from private donations, as well as city and county aid.

The help is critical for many immigrant workers who don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or other forms of government aid because they are undocumented, she said.

Close to half of all residents in each of the East San Jose ZIP codes hit hardest by the pandemic are foreign born, many of them from Mexico and Vietnam. The area includes Little Saigon and the Mexican Heritage Plaza.

Maritza Maldonado, executive director of Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment, works at her desk in the Mayfair neighborhood of San Jose on Feb. 16, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Maldonado said the pandemic has exposed long-standing inequities, as Silicon Valley corporations and IT workers have prospered on the backs of the cooks, gardeners, nannies, custodians and bus drivers who live in her community and are now dying disproportionately from the virus.

“It’s not years, it’s generations of poverty,” said Maldonado. “And I think for the first time in a long time, people are standing up and taking notice. But for us, it wasn't a surprise that it hit us the hardest.”

Residents of East San Jose often work essential jobs where they are out in public settings and can be exposed to the virus. And the Bay Area’s sky-high rents force many to live in crowded households, where it’s easier for the virus to spread once someone is infected.

Across the county, coronavirus-related deaths have decreased, from a high of 165 per week in early January to 43 last week. But at Our Lady of Refuge church, in ZIP code 95122, Rev. Hugo Rojas said the parish has still been overwhelmed by requests for funeral services.

“We are doing two, three and sometimes four funeral masses per week,” said Rojas, who is originally from Argentina. “We talk to families, we talk to funeral homes and obviously it’s related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Rev. Hugo Rojas outside of Our Lady of Refuge Parish during a drive-thru food distribution event at the church on Feb. 16, 2021.

Rojas said his parishioners, who may already face unpaid rent or car debt, are often left struggling to afford burial expenses that can cost thousands of dollars. And the risk of virus transmission has prevented some people from gathering to mourn their loved ones, leaving them to grieve in isolation, he said.

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“After they bury them and they go back home, they are alone with their loss and suffering,” Rojas said. “People need attention. People need consolation.”

But the pastor said that amid the uncertainty and pain in the community, people have also found ways to support each other. Relatives and neighbors of grieving families have organized online fundraisers or offered donations of cash to cover the expense of funeral services, he said.

Rojas’ parish also hosts a food distribution site that serves 900 families per week, about three times as many as a year ago. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, dozens of volunteers with Catholic Charities of Santa Clara directed traffic at the church’s parking lot and loaded boxes of groceries into the trunks of waiting cars.

A nurse at a mobile clinic from Gardner Health Services, also in the parking lot, tested people for the coronavirus.

“We need to help each other,” said Rojas, watching the large operation underway outside the church.

Trucks from Second Harvest of Silicon Valley drop off food at Our Lady of Refuge Parish in San Jose on Feb. 16, 2021.

County officials said they understand the disparate impact of COVID-19 in East San Jose and other hard-hit areas, and they’ve made addressing it central to their response. But the hard truth is, there’s not yet enough vaccine for everyone who wants it.

For now, county workers are trying to ensure that those who are eligible for inoculations have easy access. They are setting up more vaccination sites in the community, and partnering with trusted local organizations to go door-to-door to explain that the vaccine is safe and free of cost, said Dr. Rocio Luna, deputy director of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.

“Our county and our partners are incredibly focused on the east side of San Jose, on the areas that are disproportionately hit by COVID-19 to ensure that we get them vaccinated as soon as possible, when it's their turn,” said Luna.

This week, the county opened a large vaccination site at Emmanuel Baptist Church in East San Jose, which will serve up to 500 people per day, and another at the nearby East Valley clinic. Officials are also planning to continue operating pop-up vaccination locations that don’t require appointments.

Volunteers from Leland High School carry food boxes to a car at a drive-thru food distribution event at Our Lady of Refuge Parish in San Jose on Feb. 16, 2021.

While the county has focused on inoculating health care workers and residents 65 and older, it will expand eligibility on Sunday to people who work in food and agriculture, education and child care, and emergency services.

Still, vaccination rates among eligible Latino and Black residents in the county lag behind other groups. Only a third of Latinos and African Americans ages 65 and older have received at least one dose, compared to nearly half of white residents in the same age group.

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So far, 60% of elderly Asian residents in the county have been inoculated. But public health officials warn there may be large differences within racial and ethnic groups, depending on their specific neighborhoods, income levels and other conditions.

The need is urgent in East San Jose, said Maldonado. She called on Silicon Valley leaders to do more to support workers through the crisis, and on government officials to more fully prioritize vaccines for hard-hit areas.

“We can't keep doing this, our people are not disposable. Our people deserve better,” she said. “We are in the heart of the pandemic here. And if that’s the case, then let’s be smart and strategic and get whatever we need to do to get this community the level of support and vaccinations that we need.”

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