An exclusive analysis of Santa Clara County death records shows the coronavirus is hitting hardest in the poor, largely Latino neighborhoods of East San Jose, where death rates are far higher than in wealthier areas.
According to records obtained by the Bay Area News Group, more than a third of the county’s first 100 deaths occurred in just four ZIP codes on the city’s East Side. In the county’s poorest ZIP codes, the death rate from COVID-19 is four times as high as in the wealthiest ZIP codes.
The death data are the most extensive released by any Bay Area county, and illustrate outcomes in the county with the largest numbers of cases and deaths in the region. They offer insight into a phenomenon seen around the country and across the world: The toll of coronavirus is falling disproportionately on vulnerable communities, where residents — predominantly Latinos and African-Americans — have long been poorly served by existing health care systems, and where many — because of economic stress or the nature of their jobs — have been unable to stay safely at home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The victims are working-class people like Candelario Suarez, who had no known health issues when he died from COVID-19 last month, weeks after his wife contracted the virus; Arcelia Martinez, 65, a FoodMaxx cashier known for her big heart and cooking skills; and a 94-year-old retired carpenter and self-taught musician who arrived in San Jose from Sinaloa at age 20.
Poorest areas hit hardest
In less than three months, the coronavirus has claimed 128 lives in Santa Clara County, infected just over 2,300 people and caused the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression. Though families all over the county have been impacted, the virus’s deadly toll has been uneven.
Records from the county medical examiner obtained by this news organization for the first 100 people who died with COVID-19 in Santa Clara County show that 46 lived in ZIP codes where at least a quarter of the population earns less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, a common definition of poverty in the high-priced Bay Area. The death rate in those areas is 8 deaths for every 100,000 residents. At the same time, only five of the COVID-19 victims lived in ZIP codes where fewer than 10 percent of residents live below the poverty level, and the rate there is 2 deaths for every 100,000 residents.
More than a third of the first 100 victims lived in just four ZIP codes — 95116, 95127, 95122 and 95148 — all of which are located on the East Side of San Jose.
SAN JOSE – MAY 3: Boxer’s Mayfair Village Senior Apartments on North Jackson Avenue San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, May 3, 2020. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)
In those neighborhoods, and countywide, Latinos have been hit particularly hard, dying of COVID-19 at rates far disproportionate to their percentage of the population, according to an analysis of the medical examiner records and public health data. Latinos make up 34 percent of people who have died from the virus in Santa Clara County as of May 9 but compose just 23 percent of the county’s 18-and-older population. By contrast, whites make up 26 percent of COVID-19 fatalities and 35 percent of the adult population, while Asian Americans make up 32 percent of deaths and 37 percent of residents 18 and older.
Latinos are also dying younger than COVID-19 victims of other races. Medical examiner records for the first 100 show that Latino victims were on average 65 years old — about 15 years younger than their white and Asian-American counterparts.
“This data is pretty devastating but it’s not completely shocking given the racial disparities in our country,” said Matthew Warren, a staff attorney with the Western Center for Law and Poverty. “It’s no secret that the neighborhoods on the east side of San Jose have not benefited from the same resources as the rest of Silicon Valley. They’ve suffered from systemic disinvestment for a long time. They probably aren’t poised to weather the current pandemic as easily as other parts of the valley, from an economic or health standpoint.”
The numbers echo racial disparities in coronavirus cases and deaths seen around the state and the U.S. Statewide, Latinos make up 38 percent of deaths between the ages of 65 and 79 years old and 22 percent of the population in that age group, according to data from the California Department of Public Health; whites, who make up 54 percent of the population between those ages, account for 34 percent of deaths, and Asians account for 12 percent of deaths and 17 percent of that age group.
African Americans have also died at higher rates than their share of the population, both in Santa Clara County and statewide, though the total number of deaths locally — eight as of May 9 — is too small for extensive analysis. In California, African-Americans make up 6 percent of people between ages 65 and 79 but account for 12 percent of those deaths.
‘He never woke up’
The medical examiner’s reports — which include all COVID-19 deaths through April 24 — offer previously unknown details about those killed by the coronavirus, and a snapshot of its outsized toll on East San Jose communities as infections spread through Santa Clara County and across the state.
The victims include Suarez, the owner of Nacos Tacos and a fixture in the East San Jose community, known for his generosity with friends and relatives, and his birria tacos. The 56-year-old father of five began showing symptoms of the coronavirus in late March. At the time, his family had some idea of what to expect. His wife Silvia had been hospitalized at UCSF on March 20 with the virus. Silvia’s sister, who lived in Kern County, had died of COVID-19 earlier that same month.
Unlike many coronavirus victims, Suarez did not appear to have underlying health issues and initially refused to seek medical attention. When his symptoms worsened, however, his daughter Cynthia — a registered nurse who had long acted as her father’s guide through the medical system — took him to Kaiser Santa Clara.
She waited for an hour outside the hospital for her father to come back out. When it became clear he was staying at the hospital and would be moved to an intensive care unit bed she told him to be a good patient, to listen to his doctors.
He sent her a final text, in Spanish.
“He was going to be put to sleep,” she said. “And I told him that I loved him, and he never woke up from that.”
His death left Cynthia and her three siblings on their own to wait for news about their mother’s condition. “My mom was in the ventilator as everything was happening,” Cynthia said “It’s not like you can call your mom and say, ‘Mom what do I do, give us guidance.’”
Candelario spent some of his last days working at his Alum Rock restaurant, figuring out how to navigate the county’s stay-home order. But neither Cynthia nor her siblings were in a position to take over the business, so for now they have shut down the restaurant and returned the keys to the landlord.
“That was the end of one chapter,” Cynthia said. “I felt like he died and he took the restaurant with him.”
‘A lot of fear is being passed around’
Suarez was one of 14 coronavirus victims who lived in San Jose’s 95116 ZIP code — the highest number of deaths of any ZIP code in the county. Eight of those victims lived within one city block of N. Jackson Avenue, less than a mile from Nacos Tacos, a busy thoroughfare between McKee Road and Alum Rock Avenue that is filled with large apartment complexes surrounding Regional Medical Center, a public hospital that has itself recorded more coronavirus deaths than any other medical facility in the county, death records show.
The ZIP code includes the Mayfair neighborhoods, once known as Sal Si Puedes — “get out if you can” — because dirt roads made it impossible to move around when it rained, and because many of the early residents were farmworkers seeking a better life, and a way out.
Today, the densely populated area suffers from high rates of uninsured residents and working-class people living on the brink of eviction. Nearly four in 10 adults in the neighborhood don’t have health insurance, according to county health data. The mortality rate from diabetes in 95116 is nearly 45 percent higher than San Jose as a whole, and hypertension mortality rates are 24 percent higher, disparities common in poor neighborhoods. Research suggests that such underlying health conditions contribute to high coronavirus mortality rates, a notion reinforced by the medical examiner’s data showing many of the dead had other health issues.
Connie Ramirez, who lives in an apartment complex next to Regional Medical Center, said the deaths happening around her “hit too close to home.” Her husband, who works in construction, wasn’t able to work for weeks, and she was sent home from her job doing laundry at a Mountain View nursing home after running a slight fever. Their landlord asked for letters to show they are out of work.
But Warren of the Western Center for Law and Poverty said many landlords haven’t been as understanding.
“Landlords are still demanding money. When you need to come up with the bills, it’s harder to stay home, to shelter in place,” Warren said. “When you can’t afford to live in the Bay Area in the first place, when the Bay Area has become so unaffordable, those conditions lead to a different situation for low-income families to do what they need to stay healthy.”
SAN JOSE – MAY 3: People wait in line at United Paleteria y Neveria in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, May 3, 2020. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)
Almost 70 percent of workers in East San Jose neighborhoods are unable to work from home, and nearly half are at high risk of becoming unemployed because of the coronavirus crisis, according to a recent study by the Los Angeles-based Economic Roundtable.
“A lot of our folks haven’t been able to shelter in place. They are Uber drivers, work for Doordash or in grocery stores,” said Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of SOMOS Mayfair. Her nonprofit organization had to temporarily stop handing out boxes of diapers when a worker tested positive.
Adding to the risk, residents in the neighborhood often live in multifamily or multigenerational households, making it more likely that asymptomatic carriers of the virus transmit it to family members at home.
“Many families are doubled, tripled up and living in confined quarters with each other,” said Blanca Alvarado, an East San Jose community leader who was the first Latina elected to the county Board of Supervisors.
One 25-year-old resident who lost a relative in April — and who asked not to be identified because members of her family are undocumented — said that with seven people living in her household, it is virtually impossible for her four siblings and their parents to get any social distance. The situation is the same for lots of the families that live in their large Tully Road apartment complex, she said.
“The young ones can go to work, but then you come home where your grandma is at,” she said. “It’s like being crowded in a home where you can’t do anything. From what I hear from my neighbors, a lot of fear is being passed around.”