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California's Working-Age Latinos Are Disproportionately Dying of COVID-19

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In Santa Clara County, more than half of the people under age 65 who died of the coronavirus were Latino, even though Latinos make up only a quarter of the population in that age group. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

On Dec. 20, as many Bay Area families prepared to celebrate an unusual pandemic Christmas, Maribel Alvarado’s family confronted some shocking news. The vibrant 38-year-old had died suddenly from COVID-19 that day, at a Kaiser Hospital in San Jose.

Alvarado had started feeling symptoms less than a week before, and her doctor had recommended bed rest, said her sister Carmen Bueno. Alvarado didn’t have any other illnesses or high-risk medical conditions.

“She was perfectly healthy. So I’m just confused and wondering why she didn’t survive,” said Bueno, 41. “It seemed like overnight. She wasn’t getting any better, and on Dec. 20, she was found kind of unresponsive by her daughter. And then she was taken to the hospital and she passed away.”

Maribel Alvarado died of COVID-19 at age 38, according to Santa Clara County records obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation and shared with KQED. Alvarado left behind a daughter, and four nieces and nephews for whom she was legal guardian in San Jose. (Courtesy of Carmen Bueno)

Alvarado was a single mother, and she left behind a 15-year-old daughter, and four nieces and nephews, ages 8 to 17, for whom she was a legal guardian. She worked as an accountant, and she was the main breadwinner of her household in South San Jose, which also included two of her brothers, whom she had recently taken in to “help them get back on their feet,” said Bueno.

“She helped pretty much anybody that she could,” she said, her voice breaking. “We just miss her a lot.”

The majority of people who have died of COVID-19 were seniors ages 65 or older. But thousands of families in California are also grieving loved ones who died during their prime working years, often while caring for young children. Nowhere is that loss more evident than in the state’s Latino communities.

In Santa Clara County, more than half of the people under age 65 who died of the coronavirus were Latino, even though Latinos make up only a quarter of the population in that age group. That’s according to an analysis of county records from Jan. 1, 2020, to March 2, 2021, conducted by KQED and the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation.



The disparity is even greater statewide, according to California Department of Public Health figures. As of March 24, nearly 10,000 Latinos under age 65 had died from COVID-19, four times the number of white Californians.



In Alvarado’s age group, 35 to 49, fully 73% of people who’ve died of COVID-19 statewide are Latino, even though Latinos comprise just 41% of Californians that age.

Concentration of Cases Lead to More Deaths

Some chronic conditions increase the potential for death from COVID-19. But at its root, the issue starts with a massively higher risk of exposure for many Latinos in California, including in the Bay Area, said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who chairs the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at UCSF.

“We sometimes think that younger age protects you, and it does,” she said. “But when a large number of younger people are infected, some proportion of them die. And that is what we're seeing with the case of Latinos and deaths under age 65 during this pandemic.”

In lower-income communities, especially, people hold front-line jobs where they are more likely to be exposed to the virus. And because of the high cost of Bay Area rents, these same workers often live in crowded households, where infection can spread rapidly.

Low wages frequently go hand in hand with less formal education, and Bibbins-Domingo’s research found that more than 90% of the people under 65 who died from the coronavirus from March through December last year lacked a bachelor’s degree. The analysis did not include deaths among health care workers and nursing residents.

Bibbins-Domingo said that high share of deaths is in part because vulnerable workers, such as undocumented immigrants, may not feel empowered to demand personal protective equipment or safe work environments.

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“The virus has been circulating in the same communities disproportionately throughout the pandemic, and the people who live there are often Latinos,” she said.

Carmen Bueno said she doesn’t know how her sister became infected. But she said some of the family members with whom Alvarado had close contact worked in supermarkets and other essential jobs.

A few days after Alvarado died, their 83-year-old mother tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized but survived, said Bueno.

“If I had not called the ambulance, she would have died at home,” Bueno said of her mother.

Race to Vaccinate

By early May, the state should have enough vaccine supply for all adults, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom. Last week, he announced that, starting April 15, all Californians ages 16 and older will be eligible for vaccinations.

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But over the past two weeks, Santa Clara County didn't have enough doses for everyone currently eligible, including younger essential workers. The county government and its community partners have the capacity to deliver about 30,000 shots per day, but were getting fewer than 8,000 doses, said County Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

Meanwhile, as of March 20, two dozen residents of Santa Clara County were confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 variants first detected in Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom. That leaves officials like Chavez worried about another surge of cases and deaths.

“As a nation, as a state and as a county, we have to move like lightning,” said Chavez, whose district includes East San Jose, one of the hardest-hit pockets of the whole Bay Area. “As soon as those vaccines become available, we want to get them out as quickly as possible. We’ve got to beat the variants and we’ve got to make sure that we save lives.”

‘Horrible Dream’

Many of the younger Latinos who’ve died from the coronavirus leave children behind. Photos on social media accounts and GoFundMe pages created to raise money for funeral expenses often show these parents hugging their kids. Some, like Maribel Alvarado, were single parents.

“It’s gut wrenching,” Chavez said. “The repercussions of COVID-19 are going to be impacting our families for the rest of their lives.”

Bueno said that with her sister's passing, she lost her closest sibling, the person she’d go to first whenever things were good or bad. But Bueno suffered another blow shortly after, as the virus' deadly toll reached its highest peak in California. By the end of December, a good friend had also died of COVID-19 — and she was a woman in her 30s.

“I just feel like it’s a horrible dream and I hope to wake up from it and they are still here,” she said, and cried.

Without Alvarado’s income, her household — including the five kids — has struggled to afford food and rent, wrote Alvarado’s daughter, Esmie, on a GoFundMe page she set up weeks after her mother died.

“She fed us, gave us a home, got us clothes, everything,” Esmie wrote on the fundraising platform. “I really hate having to ask for handouts, but we cannot continue the way we currently are.”

In addition to coping with the financial challenge, family members are also trying to support Esmie emotionally, said Bueno. But there’s no way they can fill the enormous void left by Alvarado’s death.

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“Out of all the kids, she's having the harder time,” Bueno said. “She was the one who found her mother in that condition and that wasn't easy. And it's not going to be easy.”

Esmie’s grandfather has started the process to get legal custody of her. But Alvarado left no will or instructions for the care of her child or her belongings, and that is making this time of grief even more confusing, said Bueno.

Then she added some advice: Make a trust or will.

“[That’s] not something you think about having ... . It’s what ‘rich people do.’ At least that’s what we thought,” she said. “We were left with many unanswered questions. We hope what we managed to do for her is what she had wanted.”

Mohar Chatterjee and Kyra Senese with the Documenting COVID-19 project contributed to this report.

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