Ernie Alvarez cleared the wreath of red roses and the pedestals carrying Asiatic lilies alongside yellow cushion poms, until all that remained was a simple gray casket.
Turning a metal crank, he lowered a white bed holding the body of 67-year-old Jorge Gamarra, as his family whispered their last goodbyes. They caressed the top of Gamarra’s head and then departed before Alvarez shut the lid.
“The hardest part of my business is dealing with people who you don't expect to die,” Alvarez, 50, said inside his funeral home in Passaic City. As the masked mourners headed to their cars and the final burial on February 26th, his staff carried the casket to a hearse parked outside. So went their 39th COVID-19 funeral service here since 2021 began.
This trail of death extends back to the earliest moments of the coronavirus pandemic. Alvarez has been working in mortuary services since he was 17, but the crushing amount of bodies he witnessed last April was unlike anything he’d ever seen. Most visitors to his two funeral homes—the other in Paterson—are Latino.
“One reason why it spread so much in our community is we do have two-family houses, and they have three families living in it. That’s how they make it. They chip in and pay the mortgage,” he said. “That’s also how I’ve gotten multiple people from the same family die.”
His hunch is right. Passaic City and Paterson are the two most Latino towns in New Jersey’s most Latino county, also named Passaic. They’re also among the state’s most densely packed regions. COVID-19 devastated these predominantly Latino areas as the virus spread through tight webs of multigenerational and multifamily homes.
Last year, the pandemic hurt every racial and ethnic group in New Jersey, increasing overall deaths from March to December by 34% relative to 2019. But state data show that Hispanic communities saw one of the biggest jumps—97%—in excess deaths. High-density cities like West New York, Passaic, Elizabeth, Union City, and North Bergen saw roughly twice as many overall fatalities and Hispanic deaths from March to December in 2020 compared to the same period a year prior, according to a WNYC/Gothamist analysis.
Public health experts say that crowded housing and other social determinants of health can help explain why the virus flourished in New Jersey’s Latino communities, which also lead the state in infections, hospitalizations, and mortality. The death disparity was starker among millennials, where Latino men make up nearly half of COVID-19 deaths among adults younger than 50.
“It's the perfect storm,” said Dr. Frank Dos Santos, the chief medical officer at the Clara Maass Medical Center. “This virus very unfairly really went out and attacked the most vulnerable people and the most vulnerable living circumstances.”
‘We are very close’
When the pandemic started, Diana Carrillo, 44, lived with her father, two brothers, and four nieces and nephews in a four-story home in Paterson. She, one of her brothers, and her dad, Teodoro Carrillo, carpooled almost every day to Watchung Regional High School in Somerset County, where they worked as custodians.
In late October, Diana’s brothers, ages 47 and 23, began feeling sick and later tested positive for COVID-19. Over the next four weeks, the virus spread to everyone else in the household, from Diana’s 1-year-old niece to her 66-year-old father, who died on November 23rd.
“You stay traumatized, and the worst is to go back to work,” Diana Carrillo told WNYC/Gothamist in Spanish. “The first few days, I was crying. It’s hard.”
According to Pew Research, Latino families are second only to Asian communities when it comes to the percentage who live in multigenerational houses. Passaic County, where the Carrillos live, has the state’s largest average household size, census numbers show.
“It compounds the issue, right, because if you're living together, if you have families living together to help cover the rent. Then most likely, you have multiple members of that household who are going out to work every day, and the potential for exposure increases exponentially,” said Christian Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network, a statewide Latino civil rights group.
Sarah Bonilla, director of the Center of Excellence for Latino Health at Clara Maass, said there’s both an economic and cultural impetus for Latino families living so close to each other. While for some families, it might be a necessity, once younger generations move up the economic ladder, “we fall into these similar roles regardless of what our socioeconomic status is.
“There's still the mentality of, well, I need to provide,” Bonilla said.
‘He was everything’
Yanira Cortez watches a video of one of the last big parties her family threw before the pandemic. She remembers walking those few steps over to her sister’s place, just across from her apartment on a narrow sloping street in North Bergen. It was New Year’s Eve 2019.
She’s sitting in the same living room, watching on her phone where her son Jared Lovos danced into the first minutes of the new decade. He was the life of the party, Cortez told Gothamist/WNYC in Spanish. “Sin verguenza,” shameless, she says with a smile. “He was everything.”
In late March, Cortez’s family of four got sick with COVID-19. Cortez had trouble breathing, and her husband phoned his siblings to say goodbye because he thought he wouldn’t survive. Her nephew, niece, and husband, who lived in the apartment upstairs, also tested positive. Her 19-year-old son, Jaziel, laid in bed for hours, and Jared, her oldest son, was hospitalized.
He died on April 10th. He was 27.
Though young people are much less likely to succumb to COVID-19, Latino men in New Jersey have died at twice the rate of young Black men and seven times that of young white men. When Jared passed away, Hudson County, where he had lived all his life, had the state's highest coronavirus infection rate.
New Jersey is the country’s densest state, and some of its cities rank alongside metropolises like New York City and San Francisco. Experts say the rate of spread in these cities, which tend to be predominantly Latino, contributes to the disproportionate deaths among young Hispanic men.
“If Latinos are getting infected at a higher rate, then the likelihood that they're going to have worse outcomes goes up because they're a bigger part of the pool,” Estevez said.
North Bergen sits in Hudson County, which stretches along the river that shares its name and contains some of the densest cities in the United States. Hudson has 14,505 people per square mile—the most among the state’s 21 counties, according to census data. It’s predominantly Hispanic in part because of its working-class affordability and easy access to New York City. Now, more than 2,000 Hudson residents have died of the virus, more than half of them Latinos.
Cortez said her son didn’t have any underlying medical conditions. He worked for JetBlue’s human resources department, commuting by bus and train to Queens.
Dr. Meg Fisher, a consultant to the New Jersey Health Commissioner, said in high-density cities, Latinos who are already at risk of catching the virus at home or on the job are more likely to interact with others in similar situations, particularly if they all rely on public transit.
“If you don't have transportation...if you have to take public transportation, you have to go on buses or trains or in subways; that clearly is going to increase your risk of being around other people,” she said. “Early in the epidemic, when we weren't wearing masks, that was a huge, huge problem.”
It’s not clear how the virus made it into Cortez’s home; Jared shared a room with his younger brother and a bathroom with his mom and stepdad.
Grief is the hollowness of love.
“We're all just in such a small space,” said Jaziel Cortez, Jared’s brother, who would sleep in the living room to isolate from him. “One of the last things I remember is him telling me to take care of my mom.”
Their cousin Abnner Pereira, 32, said Jared was initially denied admission to the hospital until he could come back with a positive COVID test. He did, five days later, his laptop in hand to keep working. But by then, his lungs were beyond recovery.
“He was my little brother before I had a real little brother,” said Pereira, who added he and Jared never lived more than a few blocks away from each other. Most recently, he lived a floor above Jared.
“Grief is the hollowness of love,” he said. “There's a space of a person that's supposed to be there and been taken out...you just want to touch it, and it's not there.”