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Haitian-American essential workers hit with a double-whammy

Coronavirus cases and deaths mount in community 

By Macollvie J. Neel

Every day that Evenson Labranche, 39, drives to hisjob as a chef at an area hospital, he carries with him the fear of contracting COVID-19 and bringing it home to his family. 

Labranche keeps to himself in their Queens basement and insists on running essential errandsfor his wife and two children. All the while, the asthma sufferer prays he won’t be next.

“Every day, I hear about someone I know who died,”said Labranche. “I’m depressed. When you hear of four or five people dying at a time, you never know if you might be next.”

In a city where 45% of the workforce is immigrantand Haiti-born residents are the eighth largest group, Haitian-Americans are a significant group ofessential workers responding to the coronavirus pandemic. They fill roles across the healthcare spectrum as doctors and nurses, sonographers, nurse’s aides and home health aides, patient transporters, cafeteria workers, and janitorial staff. Thousands also work in the education, human services, and retail sectors.

Immigrant toll higher

As they care, comfort, and clean the city, many Haitian-Americans also face worries unique to immigrant communities. Topping the list are the constant texts and calls about family, friends, colleagues, and patients who have died or testedpositive for COVID-19. Especially when the pandemic seems to have peaked.

Several factors account for the high number of deaths and confirmed cases among Haitian-Americans, community members say. In addition to the contributors affecting communities of color disproportionally, many immigrants are beset by large families sharing tight quarters, older relatives in the home, friends living nearby, and not being able to do their jobs remotely.

While too soon to compare deaths at the country-of-origin level, anecdotal counts in immigrant-heavy pockets indicate Haitian-Americans may be among the worst affected.

“This is hurting people in a lot more ways that are adverse, especially in the immigrant community,” said Dr. Guy Aristide, a critical care pulmonologist.“The curve is flattening, but I see the mortality remaining high for some time, given the number of people in the ER or on ventilators.”

Officials began acknowledging the higher toll on immigrants and help available. Notable effortsinclude a $20 million relief fund for undocumented immigrants and expanding testing sites.

“COVID-19 does not discriminate, but for immigrants, often working on the frontline of this crisis, it is a hardship multiplier for them and their families,” said First Lady Chirlane McCray in announcing the relief fund. “We value and depend on them, and we want them to know that their City will not leave them behind.”

News of deaths and cases spreads

In his role, Dr. Aristide has intubated scores of patients at both the Brooklyn and Long Island hospitals where he works. Over the last several weeks in Brooklyn, he has seen patients who should have recovered pass away, worked alongside staff whose own relatives were hospitalized with COVID-19, and arranged for families to say final goodbyesto loved ones. 

“It’s an emotional grenade, an uncanny feeling the way that [the deaths] happen,” Dr. Aristide said. “This thing is bad. It is bad.”

Dr. Guy Aristide

For Angie Cazeau, an elementary school teacher, it was a no-brainer to help at a Department of Education Regional Enrichment Center when regular schools first closed. She took the precautions, but still, Cazeau and her family fell ill. 

Then, throughout her recovery and return as aremote teacher, Cazeau constantly received news offriends, neighbors on her block, and church members dying. In a recent interview, she listed the names of 10 people who had died, nine of them Haitian. 

“I lost count,” said Cazeau, taking a deep breath. “There are so many who passed away. It’s harder now with the isolation, seeing family and friends suffering. It’s so sad you can’t be there for them.”

A Brooklyn home health aide, who did not want her name used for fear of losing her job, is also feeling the weight of lives lost. Back in March, she was optimistic about doing her part to curb the disease. At the nursing home where she works, she diligently followed safety protocols, wore and disinfected her protective gear, and checked her own vitals before entering patients’ rooms.

Still, many of the nursing home’s patients have been hospitalized or died. And she is exhausted.

“I can’t wait for this thing to be over,” the home health aide said. “Only God can do something.”

Risks to family compounded

Labranche, the Queens chef, said nearly 30 members of the church he attends have died in the past few weeks and he was close to three of them. A couple near his Cambria Heights home also died, leaving behind two children around his kids’ ages. 

Finding out about them hits hard every time, he said. So, he stays quarantined in his basement. He explains to his children why he can’t hug and kiss them as much and hope they understand it is a temporary measure for the family’s safety.

“I told my wife from the beginning that it’s better if one of us goes instead of both of us dying,” Labranche said. “Who would take care of the kids?”

One nurse practitioner, who asked that her name not be used to protect her position, said her family is at additional risk of contracting the virus. Not only is she in frequent contact with patients at her long-term-care facility, but her only option for child care is a daycare operator whose mother passed away from COVID-19. 

“It’s been a headache [and] of course the kids are at risk, but what can we do,” the nurse practitioner, 40, said.

At work, the mostly African-American or Caribbean staff face similar challenges, but their patients are counting on them.

“Now that it’s a pandemic, they appreciate us,” she added. “I hope that they don’t only appreciate us when they need us. We carry all these places.”

Apr. 23, 2020

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