'This is hitting you': Stories of fear and loss embody pandemic's heavy toll on Black Iowans
Kenneth Jones of Storm Lake had at least three strikes against him when it came to his susceptibility to the coronavirus.
He was 60, part of a statistically vulnerable age group, when he died last month of COVID-19. He had high blood pressure and diabetes — underlying conditions that made his health more fragile. And he was Black.
A growing body of research provides the evidence:
- A new University of Chicago study of 4,413 patients that found Black people were twice as likely as white people to test positive for the coronavirus (58% vs. 24%).
- Black people with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are nearly five times as likely as white people to be hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms — at 213 per 100,000 compared to 46 per 100,000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in an analysis of data from late June.
- In Iowa, state government case counts show Black people account for 9% of positive coronavirus cases, more than double the 4% of Iowa's population that is Black.
- And a New York Times analysis of CDC data, published July 5, found even more striking disparities at the county level. In Polk County, it reported, the infection rate among Black people was 116 per 10,000 cases, as compared to 25 per 10,000 cases for white people. In Cedar Rapids' Linn County, the disparity was even greater, at 170 per 10,000 vs. 28 per 10,000.
Perhaps most alarming, a study by Yale and University of Pittsburgh researchers found Black people were 3.5 times more likely than white people to die of coronavirus-related causes.
The study took note of certain other factors, including one that Jones' widow, Sara Jones, believes was key in her husband's death: "at-risk employment."
Jones had a job at Tyson Foods' meatpacking plant in Storm Lake. The essential industry employs low-wage workers who crowd together on processing lines, thwarting any attempts at social distancing that could help slow the spread of the virus.
Sara Jones said her husband, a father to two children and four stepchildren, had worked at the Tyson pork processing plant for at least a dozen years.
Minority workers make up 61% of the workforce in meatpacking plants, and yet they account for 87% of the total coronavirus infections in such facilities, a recent CDC study found.
Though Kenneth Jones may not have known the precise statistics, he was aware he was at higher risk for COVID-19 infection, his wife said. But he worried about providing for the family, including their 9-year-old son, who has his own health problems.
"My husband was 60 years old, with high blood pressure and diabetes. My son has respiratory issues," Sara Jones said.
So he kept working until he became ill around May 20. His wife said he was sick with a fever and was coughing, had no appetite, suffered body pain and had trouble breathing.
Tyson had him tested for the virus, but the results were slow in coming. By the time he was diagnosed with the coronavirus, he already had been admitted to UnityPoint hospital in Fort Dodge.
He died there June 3, so ill he couldn't share a final goodbye with his wife.
"Unfortunately, my husband was on a ventilator. I was able to just kinda speak to him, tell him that we love him and that sort of stuff," she said.
Remembered in his obituary and online messages posted by friends as a loving father, a faithful Jehovah's Witness, an avid sports fan and a steadfast friend, Jones was laid to rest June 10.
Now his wife of 11 years is pursuing a worker's compensation case against Tyson, saying the family is devastated by his loss.
No way to say goodbye
The need for income also drove Geanell Shavon Latimore, a lupus patient, to take a job outside her home despite the threat of the pandemic.
A Black West Des Moines resident, she was ineligible for unemployment payments because she left her previous job, suffering from what her sister, Marquetta Latimore, said was carpal tunnel syndrome and post-traumatic stress related to difficult experiences when she was younger.
As the caretaker for her ill, 62-year-old mother, Latimore couldn't afford to just shelter at home.
She took a job with a temp agency, ACRO Services Corp., and was assigned to work at Iowa Workforce Development, the agency in charge of the state's unemployment payments. The agency needed extra customer service staff to manage increased demand as the pandemic closed businesses, leaving more and more Iowans out of work.
While still in training for the job, she began to feel ill. Suspecting she had contracted the coronavirus at work, she called in sick June 1. Later that day, she told the temp agency that her doctor advised her to self-quarantine for at least two weeks.
IWD Director Beth Townsend said that because Latimore "was still a trainee and would be unavailable for at least another two weeks, IWD made the decision to end her assignment and refer her back to her employer, ACRO."
A devastated Latimore wrote in an email to ACRO: "This is not just business when it can cost my life. I'm my mother's primary caregiver and I brought this home to an immune-compromised, oxygen-dependent parent. I'm heartbroken, this is the outcome."
After what her sister said were unsuccessful attempts to get a coronavirus test, Latimore fell in her bathtub June 5 and was taken to Iowa Methodist Medical Center.
Running a fever of 104.5 degrees, she was finally diagnosed with COVID-19. Her sister said their mother was diagnosed soon after, as well.
Latimore, suffering double pneumonia, was extremely depressed in her last days of life, her sister said.
“All she did was cry and say — her exact words were — 'Governor Reynolds did this to me,' ” said Marquetta Latimore.
On June 20, Geanell Latimore died after telling her sister, “'Take care of mom, and I'm proud of you.’”
She was 38.
'Your ZIP code matters'
Tragedies like those that struck the Latimores and Joneses are familiar to Iowa Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, whose 32nd House District includes significant portions of Des Moines' historically Black neighborhoods.
An adjunct professor of speech and drama at Des Moines Community College, she said many of her students come from families who work in fields deemed essential, and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“Whatever spectrum you were on before COVID-19 — if you were a person of color, if you were poor, if you are a refugee or immigrant and non-English speaking — all the way around, this is hitting you,” Gaines said.
Nicole Gilg, chief physician quality officer at Broadlawns Medical Center near the center of the greatest concentration of Black residents in Des Moines, echoed Gaines.
"Your ZIP code matters. High housing density, poor access to health care, limited access to healthy foods, and poor air quality all increase a person’s risk for disease," said Gilg.
Stress also takes a toll.
Breadwinners of Black families in Iowa are more likely than those in most other groups to hold low-wage jobs in health services, food preparation, retail and other fields where working remotely isn't feasible.
They say they find themselves continually balancing the risk of working outside their homes during a pandemic against their need to provide for their loved ones.
Katrenia Isaac, a single mother of three young children who also cares for her disabled brother, is a home care worker through Respite Connection.
Isaac said she continually worries about keeping everybody safe. She and her both have asthma and her entire household is affected by seasonal allergies.
"You're going to put your mask on. I have mine on anytime I go to the store: masks and gloves," Isaac said. "When I'm done, I change my clothes and make sure I'm washing hands. I just try to put an extra barrier between us and whoever."
Mike James, a single father of three, is employed at XPO Logistics as a warehouse worker.
"You wake up every day just hoping that the news is going to tell you something different," James said. "I doubt we'll ever see another normal day with all this."
The prospect of losing loved ones to the pandemic — a more common experience for Black families — takes a toll.
Lindsay Cannaday of Des Moines said the "worry of just not knowing what's going to go on" has at times kept her from sleeping, and it affects others in her family.
"With my son, he worries about his grandparents. He worries about his dad and his family in Waterloo," she said.
Brenda Daye-Wilson, a Louisiana resident who raised her son, Bryce Wilson, in Des Moines, said she feels constant anxiety since her son died of COVID-19.
Bryce Wilson, 31, played professional American-style football overseas. He died April 22 in Atlanta, leaving behind an unborn child.
"I'm all over the place. It does not feel like it's real," his mother said. "I think I keep my sanity because I knit and crochet. But the stress of it all is just, it's unbelievable."
A call for action
Experts who have studied the health challenges of minority communities say the only thing new about what Black people are facing during the pandemic is that the coronavirus has made those problems so starkly apparent.
"Those of us in the field, sadly, expected this," Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center at Yale School of Medicine, told National Public Radio.
"We know that these racial-ethnic disparities in COVID-19 are the result of prepandemic realities. It's a legacy of structural discrimination that has limited access to health and wealth for people of color," she said.
Rashawn Ray, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, told the Des Moines Register that the coronavirus exacerbates existing inequalities for Black people.
Black Americans, he said, are less likely than the population as a whole to have health insurance, to hold jobs that allow them to take time off when they are ill or at risk of illness, or to have convenient transportation options for reaching health care providers and testing sites.
"We need to ensure that essential workers have sick leave, then ultimately to ensure that testing facilities are in predominantly Black neighborhoods," Ray said.
Des Moines NAACP President Kameron Middlebrooks emphasized the need for health care options for minorities, "whether they be low-income, immigrant or refugee."
"We need to devise plans so that they are getting equal access to care," he said.
Workplace protections are another area of concern. In a statement highlighting the July 5 New York Times analysis, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a group that advocates for worker rights and environmental protections, laid the blame for the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on what it said was the governor's refusal to put people before profits.
It called on Reynolds to "immediately issue a #MaskUpIA order to protect all Iowans, especially essential workers of color."
The Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans, created by the state Legislature in 1989, drafted a letter of concern to Reynolds, asking her to "balance the economic needs and health/life needs of the society" and "help manage the fear of the population" by keeping people updated on progress.
Asked what measures Reynolds is taking to address the pandemic's disproportionate impact on Black Iowans, her spokesman, Pat Garrett, said the state will continue to support essential workers with testing, personal protective equipment and contact tracing.
"While racial disparities exist across the nation and in Iowa, Governor Reynolds is focused on protecting the lives and livelihoods of all Iowans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and as we reopen safely so that we can grow jobs, wages and ensure every Iowan, regardless of background or circumstance, has an opportunity to find success," Garrett said in a statement.
But Ray said governments at both the state and federal levels have not done enough to address the plight of the Black community during the pandemic — and the consequences may reverberate for years to come.
He pointed to programs like the U.S. Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program. Part of a $2 trillion stimulus package Congress approved in March, it provided forgivable loans to small businesses to help them stay afloat and keep their employees working during coronavirus-related shutdowns.
But the money was administered through banks, and surveys have shown Black business owners, who are less likely to have close relationships with financial institutions, have gotten a meager share.
Stanford University researchers say there has been a 41% decline in the number of African-American business owners since the pandemic began.
The Paycheck Protection Program, Ray said, "gave an opportunity to invest in Black businesses and Black communities in the same way that white communities and large corporations will be invested in. And instead, our country did the exact opposite."
Congress is under pressure to target Black- and other minority-owned businesses with a second round of stimulus funding.
Ray said that unless there is sweeping legislation to address the disparities, things will get progressively worse.
"There will be a lot of losers and maybe a small subset of winners who have been able to quarantine, engage in physical distance and use the drop in the stock market and certain types of stimulus bailouts to generate wealth," he said — a situation that would exacerbate the wealth gap that already exists for Blacks.
Just as lasting, he said, could be the long-term physical effects of the pandemic.
"I think we could also see a larger number of people needing health care earlier (in age), because of what COVID-19 has done to their body, and overwhelmingly, these people could be Black," Ray said.
The consequences of those outcomes, he said, matter for all Americans, because "that's going to cost everyone more money."
Even more important, he said: "People are dying."
"People shouldn't need a financial reason as to why people are dying; people should (care) because they're good people."
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