Bronx residents twice as likely to die from COVID-19 in NYC

Taking preventative measures in the South Bronx. (Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

BY ESE OLUMHENSE AND ANN CHOI  (Editor’s note: This story was first published on April 3, 2020 by THE CITY.)

Jackie Edwards’ cough started sometime this week, accompanied by aches that radiated through her body.

While she’s not ready to concede she has the novel coronavirus that’s already killed almost 1,600 in New York City, the 50-year-old resident of NYCHA’s Bronx River Houses is certainly worried.

“I’m scared now that I actually have it and my kids are gonna get, you know — I have six children in my home,” she told THE CITY on Friday morning, speaking from her Soundview apartment.

“I can’t even hardly move,” Edwards added. “My head hurts.”

If her suspicions are confirmed with a test, Edwards would become one of more than 56,000 recorded cases of COVID-19 in the city — 10,765 in The Bronx, as of 5 p.m. April 3.

While the number of confirmed infections in the borough is in line with its 17% share of the city population, the stakes for anyone who contracts the virus are far higher in The Bronx than anywhere else in the city.

Through April 2, Bronx residents have accounted for an outsize one in four coronavirus hospitalizations, data from the city Department of Health shows.

And in no other borough are residents more likely to succumb to the virus than in The Bronx, where residents have died at a rate double that of the city, according to THE CITY’s analysis.

As of Friday, 480 had died.

In The Bronx, which has long grappled with lower-than-average life expectancy and high incidence of chronic health conditions like asthma and diabetes, those infected with coronavirus die at a rate three times higher than those who live just a river away in Manhattan.

“Manhattan has more people but The Bronx has more than double the fatalities from COVID-19,” noted Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx), who tested positive for the virus last month and has asthma.

Pre-existing Conditions

Public health experts say it’s likely The Bronx’s elevated death rate is tied to the borough’s high rates of diabetes, asthma and hypertension, some of the nine illnesses linked with coronavirus complications.

Despite longtime efforts by health advocates and elected officials to change course, the borough ranks last among New York State’s 62 counties in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s survey of health outcomes, including premature death.

The Bronx logs more ER visits for asthma than in any county in the state. The Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization have classified people with asthma as high risk.

The borough also has the state’s highest share of adults — 16% — with diabetes.

Doctors who’ve treated people with diabetes and COVID-19 say the condition can weaken the immune system.

The New York Academy of Medicine’s Image:NYC project surveying the health of older New Yorkers has flagged five Bronx neighborhoods — Kingsbridge Heights, East Tremont, Mott Haven-Port Morris, Crotona Park East and Melrose South — as having the city’s highest rates of senior citizens with preventable diabetes hospitalizations.

“We’ve done so many things to help and address and improve the health outcomes, but nothing seems to be working to improve things,” said Paulette Henriquez, executive director of Bronx Health Link, a health education and advocacy group and member of the #Not62 coalition — a reference to The Bronx’s last-place ranking.

“A lot of it has to do with the poverty in the area,” she said.

‘It Just Terrifies Me’

Doctors treating Bronx residents say they see the results every day.

“If you have a background of inequality, whether it’s social determinants, access to health care, or anything else, and you throw a virus on top of that, what you’re going to get is exactly what we have, which is people who start out poorer and sicker and are going to get sicker,” said Dr. Neil Calman, president of the Institute for Family Health, which leads the Bronx Health REACH coalition.

“We haven’t even seen the peak of this illness, and the number of people in families that are going to be sick,” he said. “It just terrifies me to think about what we’re going to be facing.”

Medical professionals at the Institute are conducting around 650 phone and video check-ins each day with patients, many of them reporting anxiety, depression and, for some, suicidal thoughts.

Fully understanding why Bronx residents have been disproportionately affected by the virus will take extensive study, Calman said.

“There are other factors at play that you have to look at as well,” he added. “One is when were the first cases in The Bronx, and what kind of resources did we have in The Bronx to do contact tracing and other things that were done probably more precisely in other boroughs?”

Testing Out of Reach

Some elected officials, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Torres and Councilmember Vanessa Gibson (D-The Bronx), point to a lack of coronavirus testing in high-risk parts of the borough as influencing the hospitalization and death rates.

“It’s disgusting,” Williams told THE CITY. “What is clear is that the city and state did not have a plan for a viral outbreak in 2020. And what’s clear is they don’t have a plan for vulnerable populations right now — they simply don’t.”

Councilmember Ritchie Torres in the City Council chamber, Oct. 17, 2019. (Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

“I still haven’t seen a plan of how we’re going to test better in these areas,” he added.

Gibson points to recently released data from the city health department, which shows Highbridge and Morrisania, in the southern Bronx, as having the most cases in the borough.

The area’s only public hospital, Lincoln Medical Center, does not have a COVID-19 testing site, Gibson said. Instead, sick South Bronx residents have to travel elsewhere for their diagnoses.

“We’ve been looking at additional space” including sites at Yankee Stadium parking lots, Hunts Point and elsewhere — “because as of right now the ones that did come on-line are nowhere in our community,” she said.

Testing locations at Jacobi Hospital, Co-op City behind Bay Plaza and Lehman College are all in the northeast or in the northwest Bronx.

“If you don’t drive,” says Gibson, “it’s hard to get there.”

‘Virus Factories’

Jackie Edwards’ fear for her family is magnified by the knowledge that others who work closely with her at another NYCHA development have suddenly fallen grievously ill.

Henriquez calls the NYCHA developments that dominate much of the South Bronx “virus factories.” The borough is home to one in four of the city’s more than 400,000 public housing residents.

More than a fifth of NYCHA tenants are over the age of 62. Many residents of public housing work, but have limited financial means. Meanwhile, many NYCHA tenants are affected by persistent moldpests and lead paint.

“People are living in such congested conditions,” Henriquez said. “Multiple family members, eight, nine, 10 in one family group — and it’s multi-generational.”

While the tenants and resident association leaders in Bronx NYCHA buildings who spoke with THE CITY have not seen outbreaks in their developments, they said coronavirus precautions are changing the pace of life in their communities.

Seniors, once staples on outdoors benches in the spring, have essentially vanished, said Cornell Nolton, longtime tenant association president at Butler Houses in Morrisania.

“We have a lot of people here with heart problems, a few on dialysis machines. We got a lot of problems that make them vulnerable to the virus,” he said.

Nolton, who describes himself as “older than 60,” had been visiting the sick and shut-in on Sundays for the last five years, he said.

But now, at the urging of his doctor, he said, “I try to stay away.”

Nolton said he doesn’t know of anyone who’s sick.

But, he noted, “I’m not going to everyone’s apartment.”

With additional reporting by Yoav Gonen.

This story was first published on April 3, 2020 by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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