NEW BEDFORD — In just over a year, the pandemic has killed more than 400 people in New Bedford. But its fatal blows have not landed equally. The city’s COVID-19 death toll has struck hardest at the elderly, younger Black and Hispanic residents, and frontline workers.

Those are the findings of a detailed analysis of death certificates obtained by The New Bedford Light through an official records request to the state Registry of Vital Statistics. The numbers provide the first comprehensive public accounting of who in New Bedford has died from the novel coronavirus, where and when.

Death statistics for Bristol County have been widely reported, but for municipalities they have been difficult to come by. The city has declined to release detailed information, citing HIPAA, the federal law aimed at protecting the privacy of individuals’ health records. The state, however, determined that death records are, by law, public.

The data obtained by The Light is extensive and stark, a statistical spreadsheet of names, addresses, family members, occupations and causes of death. To review the toll is to behold a swath of death that was unimaginable when the first of 411 recorded victims died some 14 months ago. Overall, the number of people who died in New Bedford increased 15 percent last year over averages of the last decade, reflecting the grim toll medical experts call “excess death.” Coronavirus became the leading cause of death in the city in 2020.

Source: Nursing home deaths were reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Safety Network, a federal database. This number is similar but slightly greater than nursing home deaths reported by the state Department of Public Health. In April, the Department of Public Health altered the way in which nursing homes reported deaths in Massachusetts, resulting in lower numbers than reflected in the federal reports.

Vaccinations have now radically reduced both hospitalizations and deaths, especially among the elderly. The infection rate has dropped from a high of 134 cases per day in mid-January, among the highest rates in the state at the time, to under 16 cases per day by the end of May. On May 27, New Bedford moved out of the “Red Zone” for the first time since November, 2020. 

Click the image to view the full interactive chart tracking COVID-19 cases from March 2020 to May 2021. It includes daily cases and seven-day averages, plotted in a blue line. Source: New Bedford Health Department

The vast majority of novel coronavirus deaths, 80 percent, have been among those over the age of 65, with nursing homes at the epicenter of the pandemic for this demographic. By the end of May, 97 residents of New Bedford nursing homes had died of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This number is slightly higher than nursing home deaths reported by the Department of Public Health, which in April altered the way nursing homes reported deaths to the state.

Among younger people, the ethnic breakdown of the data reveals clear racial and occupational disparities. Nearly half of coronavirus deaths among Hispanics, a generally younger population in New Bedford, were under the age of 65. Among Blacks and Cape Verdeans, 22 percent of deaths were those under the age of 65. But among the white population, the city’s largest demographic, only 13 percent of those who died of COVID-19 were under the age of 65.

In general, a higher percentage of younger people died in New Bedford than in the state as a whole. The CDC reports that just over 10 percent of coronavirus deaths in Massachusetts were people under 65, compared to 18 percent in New Bedford.

The ethnic breakdown of COVID-19 cases underscores the trend, revealing a disproportionate rate of infection mostly within the Hispanic population. Though 20 percent of New Bedford’s population is listed as Hispanic or Latino, that same demographic amounted to 27 percent of total COVID-19 cases. The white population, listed as 67 percent of the city’s total population, amounted to 40 percent of total cases.

Chart breaking down COVID-19 cases in New Bedford by race/ethnicity compared to group's percentage of city population, shows disproportionate toll on Black and Hispanic people.
Click charts to view full interactive versions. Source: New Bedford Health Department
Bar chart shows COVID-19 cases by age with 21-30 being the age group with the highest cases, followed by 31-40 and 41-50.
Source: New Bedford Health Department

During the first surge of the pandemic in April 2020, when testing was still limited and only available to those experiencing symptoms, as much as 80 percent of those testing positive at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center were Hispanic, says CEO Cheryl Bartlett. 

“The racial disparity was clear from the start,” Bartlett said. “A lot of the essential workforce is from those communities. Grocery store workers, fish house workers. Those people never stopped working, so they were the ones having the highest rates of exposure.” She added that other factors, like a higher rate of underlying health issues and crowded living conditions, likely played a role.

The death certificates confirm that many of the COVID-19 deaths among younger workers, early on deemed essential, included fish cutters, truck drivers, freight handlers, nurses, cooks and one crematory technician. 

One of those workers was Francisco Chingo Gomez, 55, a fish lumper at Mariner Seafood. He moved to New Bedford from Guatemala in 2015, according to his obituary, and was a father of seven. He died of COVID-19 related illness at St. Luke’s Hospital on May 15, 2020. 

Sonia J. Forty-Cardenas, 62, was a certified nursing assistant for the Cerebral Palsy of Massachusetts Senior Care Division. She was born in Puerto Rico and was a mother of six. She died of COVID-19 at St. Luke’s Hospital on Jan. 14, 2021.

Disparities are visible even among city neighborhoods. Death certificates show a concentration of COVID-19 related deaths in both the near South End and near North End — densely populated neighborhoods with a high number of minority residents. 

Although the state records reveal stark racial and occupational disparities, they also show how widespread the virus was in every corner of New Bedford life. Among those who died were teachers, janitors, foremen, truck drivers, cooks, fishermen, mechanics, waitresses, pastors, nurses, a professional wrestler, construction workers, both retired and working police officers, and even a former mayor. 

On a late May evening, about two-dozen New Bedford residents gathered at Monte Park to reflect on those lost during the pandemic. They shared stories of their mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, friends and family.

Toward the end of the ceremony, Rev. David Lima, of the Inter-Church Council of Greater New Bedford, shared a prayer to honor those lost and to comfort the families and friends they left behind. 

“It touched us all, no matter who you are,” Rev. Lima said, following the prayer. “After a year of such angst and isolation, we have to come together, to process, to reflect and find strength to move forward.”

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