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COVID-19 Affects Young Latino Men In N.J. At Disproportionate Rates

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The pandemic has hit younger Latinos particularly hard over the last year. In New Jersey, working-age Latino men are dying at much higher rates than white men. Karen Yi from member station WNYC has this story.

KAREN YI, BYLINE: Elizabeth Rojano-Morales passes Super Car Wash as she walks her tan-and-white shih tzu. It's off Route 1 and 9 in the city that shares her name, Elizabeth, N.J.

ELIZABETH ROJANO-MORALES: Come on.

YI: The car wash takes up an entire street corner. It's a gray building with a small convenience store and a garage for quick oil changes. Elizabeth's dad used to work here. It's right next to her house.

ROJANO-MORALES: We would go at night and ask him to get us an ice cream.

YI: Other kids had a backyard. Elizabeth and her brothers had the car wash.

ROJANO-MORALES: We would go into the - by the oil change and just play soccer with him or ride our bikes around the car wash while he's cleaning or working.

YI: But now Elizabeth's childhood playground is a reminder that her father is gone. Reinaldo Rojano died of COVID-19 in December. He was 44. He likely caught the virus at work. The car wash is just steps away from where he lived with Elizabeth's mother, along with their four children, two cats, a bird and their dog.

ROJANO-MORALES: It's hard to be in this house and knowing that he's not going to come back or to look outside and see that he's not working there anymore.

YI: Rojano is one of 361 Latino men under 50 who have died of COVID in New Jersey. The virus killed Hispanic men at twice the rate of young Black men and seven times that of working-age white men.

STEPHANIE SILVERA: We are losing whole generations of fathers.

YI: Stephanie Silvera is an epidemiologist from Montclair State University.

SILVERA: Health disparities have long been written off by people as the result of bad behavior, right? And I think what COVID is really highlighting in a way that cannot be ignored is that a lot of these disparities are systemic inequalities.

YI: Not only are Latinos overrepresented in service sector jobs; they are less likely to have access to health care. Dr. Frank Dos Santos grew up in Elizabeth, where his family didn't always have health insurance. He's now the chief medical officer at Clara Maass Medical Center in neighboring Essex County.

FRANK DOS SANTOS: The access issue's a big issue because if they don't have insurance, then they're not going to take money from food on the table to spend it on themselves.

YI: He says Latino men are often working very stressful jobs six or seven days a week, and that makes them more at risk of developing diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure that are linked with high COVID hospitalization and mortality rates.

DOS SANTOS: Many of these things either have no symptoms, or they have very few symptoms and allows our Latino men to go on and work hard and be uninsured or underinsured and not recognize that they have these health conditions. It's almost an expectation among Latino men that you become a martyr to your family.

YI: And working conditions for Latino men can be brutal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.

YI: It's a freezing day at the Super Car Wash where Rojano used to work. A dozen vehicles are lined up as masked workers drive each car onto a conveyor belt.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: Men hose and scrub the exterior before the automatic belt pulls the car through multiple rotating brushes. Rojano worked nights, sometimes on 10-hour shifts. His family says he worked through most of the pandemic until he started feeling sick in late October.

ROJANO-MORALES: He would always try to, like, put a brave face in front of us.

YI: Nineteen-year-old Elizabeth says the same weekend her dad was hospitalized, her mom also started gasping for air. She was rushed to the hospital and put on a ventilator. Elizabeth's three brothers also tested positive with the virus. The family of six shared a three-bedroom apartment.

SARAH BONILLA: Rents are really high.

YI: Sarah Bonilla is the director of the Center of Excellence for Latino Health at Clara Maass.

BONILLA: People cannot afford to live by themselves, so if one person got sick and they share within this small space, it's obvious everyone in the apartment was going to get sick.

YI: She says poor access to health care leads to poor health outcomes. And when you combine all of that with tight living spaces...

BONILLA: We have a recipe for disaster.

YI: Elizabeth says her dad Rojano was diagnosed with diabetes four years ago, but he couldn't afford his medication. He was undocumented and didn't have health insurance. But when her mom no longer needed the ventilator, she was hopeful. She thought both her parents would be coming home. A few days later, Rojano was put on a ventilator. He died December 14.

ROJANO-MORALES: I didn't even get to give him a hug before he left. That's what hurts the most.

YI: Elizabeth says sometimes, she still waits for her dad to walk through the door, home from another shift. Instead, her 24-year-old brother, who is shy and introverted like his father, puts on the same uniform to go to work at the same car wash six days a week.

ROJANO-MORALES: It's not fair for him to take on the role of being the man of the house.

YI: Twenty-two miles north in Passaic County, another family is figuring out how to cope without their patriarch.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: Funeraria Alvarez has been serving the Latino community for more than 20 years. Director Ernie Alvarez says the crushing number of bodies that piled up last spring was unlike anything he has ever seen, with a line out the door of people looking for someone to bury their dead.

ERNIE ALVAREZ: It was chaos, pretty much. It was like I would make an appointment at 8:30, 9 o'clock, 9:30, 10 o'clock, 10:30. And then every half hour, we were doing funerals.

YI: He did 150 COVID funerals in April and turned down another hundred. He says he'd often see members of the same family come back to mourn another loved one.

ALVAREZ: People who lived together in extended families is where we see it the most. And yeah, it was really sad. You know, they'd come back, say, yeah, it's us again.

YI: Alvarez says almost every person mourned here is Latino. And these days, about half are still COVID deaths.

ALVAREZ: Ready, hit - one, two, three.

YI: After he wraps up another viewing...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: ...And delivers a simple gray casket to the local church...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Singing in Spanish).

YI: ...Alvarez heads back to his hearse, his phone ringing with another family, no doubt, on the line and another funeral to plan.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Yi in Passaic, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.