The Backstory: Pollution. Poor health care. Crowded housing. High-risk jobs. Prejudice. Why people of color are dying of COVID-19.
I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory free in your inbox every week, sign up here.
"José Alfredo Reyes’ wife and son pulled on personal protective gear and entered his San Diego hospital room. 'Can you hear us?' Margarita Reyes said. Her husband’s eyes remained shut, but his body twitched.
"She leaned in low to his ear and told him that his elderly mother, his children and his grandchildren would all be OK. She told him she loved him.
"Ten minutes later, José Alfredo Reyes, 59, was dead."
This is how our story on Latino farmworkers dying of COVID-19 begins. It is heartbreaking. Raw. Real. And a story happening over and over all across the United States, but particularly in communities of color.
Journalists have been reporting this fact since the start of the pandemic. Communities of color have disproportionately more cases, more hospitalizations, worse outcomes and more deaths. People of color make up the majority in 62% of counties with the highest COVID-19 death rates, according to data compiled by USA TODAY.
In pandemic stories, you'll read this phrase, "COVID, which disproportionally impacts communities of color,.... " But this tragic fact deserves far more than a clause. We set out to trace the root causes. What systems, policies or decisions created such risk?
Reporters detailed the redlining that clustered Black families around a chemical plant in Louisiana. The poor working conditions that led to outbreaks among Latinos in California's Imperial Valley. The chronic and historic neglect that created anemic Native American healthcare systems in New Mexico. The discrimination and language barriers that stop Asian Americans from getting tested or seeking help in San Francisco. The housing segregation that forced many Black families into cramped apartments, multigenerational homes and housing projects in New Jersey.
What they found: Systemic racism was the common preexisting condition.
"Melvina Musket stared at her dying father through the cellphone screen. His mouth hung open, his eyes were clamped shut and a beard covered his chin. She heard nurses crying in the background. 'Jesus is waiting for you,' she told him."
This is the lede of our story on the reasons behind the spread of COVID-19 in McKinley County, New Mexico. The county ranks first in the state and sixth nationally for COVID deaths per capita. Roughly 74% of McKinley County’s 71,367 residents are non-Hispanic Native American, mostly Navajo and Zuni.
A few weeks after Musket said those words to her father, he was dead. Her mother would die five days after him.
"When people get sick with COVID now, they just talk about 'Well, they had preexisting conditions,'" said Alan Gomez, one of the reporters on the project wrapping up this week. "The amazing thing was figuring out why and going back in history and kind of putting together those dots, what they did 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago that set these people up to have those diminished health conditions."
Investigating the history that led us today was a challenge, so was getting people to tell their stories.
"A lot of people did not want to talk," said Marco Della Cava, who explored COVID in San Francisco's Asian American community. "There's a stigma associated with even suggesting you might have been near somebody with COVID, it might imply your job would be in jeopardy, your immigration status."
Rick Jervis contacted dozens of people impacted by COVID to get to the four or five who would talk with him in Reserve, Louisiana, in an area known as "Cancer Alley."
The story of Karen Wilson sticks with him, because of how sudden it was. She was talking to her younger brother, Jules Duhe, about having dinner, going to a New Orleans Saints game. "And it was literally like one day to the next he had trouble breathing. He goes to the hospital. Within days he was on a ventilator and that's the last she ever heard from him," Jervis said.
"These are not just numbers on a page. These were actual humans who have lost people really, really close to them. And that involves a lot of human pain. It was really tough to do."
Reporter Deborah Berry saw the pain, but also found hope as she reported from Essex County, New Jersey.
"Despite the hurt and the fear, the pastors, the activists, the mayor, the funeral director, the tenant association leaders, stepped up to help their communities, to help families, to help themselves," she said.
"There was power in that and hope in that. (Videojournalist Jarrad Henderson) and I cried with some of them, but we also smiled and took deep breaths as we watched hundreds of city workers pack up food for families and church volunteers line up people to get free testing. These communities are still struggling, yet they were holding on to hope. We left hopeful."
“COVID was never the great equalizer,” Michellene Davis, executive vice president at RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey told Berry. “It was the great magnifier. And so it has been magnifying inequity, lack of access, health disparity, all of it.”
And that's the point, our reporters found.
"Preexisting conditions occur for a reason," Gomez said. "It's not just genetic, it's not some fault of their own. There's a reason everybody has those conditions. That's one thing I'd always thought about, but I've never been able to report on and learn about. It really opened my eyes."
And, Jervis said, until we acknowledge the policies of the past that created the problem we face now, we'll never get past them.
"Reporting on a story like this, there is a lot defensiveness from people, sort of like, 'Hey, I didn't do that.' And if that's your immediate reaction, what you're doing is closing your eyes to just what the situation is and how it can be changed," Jervis said. "The more people can acknowledge it and talk about it, we can come up with actual solutions.
"But if there's a denial that it even exists, we're all in trouble."
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.