Ida Souza holds photo of husband at Monte Park COVID memorial service.
Ida Souza holds a photo of her husband Dale during a COVID memorial service held at Monte Park. Photo by David W. Oliveira

Sandra Castro’s family seemed overwhelmed by the pandemic last May.

She and her husband, both Salvadoran immigrants, first had to deal with the rapid COVID-19 death of her brother-in-law, 48-year-old Marcielo Guttierez, who had worked as a janitor. Then her husband, Juan, a 46-year-old welder who works about an hour north of New Bedford, got so sick he nearly died from COVID.

Sandra said Juan went to St Luke’s where doctors found a shadow on his lung. They wanted to put a tube down his throat but he was afraid and decided to go home.

“He could barely get up,” she remembered. “He could barely walk.”

Somehow Juan beat the disease, but not before his family made their way through a terrifying time.

Sandra said she separated herself and her husband from their two children, fearful that the kids would catch the disease. “I said to myself, I don’t want my children to get sick, or for someone to die.”

A disproportionate burden

New Bedford’s Latino community was hit hard by COVID-19, with state statistics showing a far greater percentage of Latinos under 65 dying than whites in the same age group. It was difficult for them to avoid the infectious disease, said Cheryl Bartlett, the executive director of Greater New Bedford Community Health Center.

“We were very worried about people living in tight places,” she remembered.

The immigrant community relies heavily on the GNBCHC, whose mission is to promote health equity, and last spring about 45 percent of those tested for COVID-19 at the center were coming back positive. Bartlett said that was because many of their clients live in crowded apartments and many have had to go out to work in essential jobs.

“He could barely get up. He could barely walk.”

Sandra Castro, about her husband, Juan, who got so sick from COVID he nearly died

COVID trauma didn’t just affect those whose loved ones died.

Karla Mejia, also a Salvadoran immigrant, remembered her husband’s terror after he believed he had caught COVID-19 from the seafood processing plant where he works.

Eventually, the advocacy group Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores wrote a letter to seafood houses that is credited with helping increase access to PPE and mandating social distancing. But the 32-year-old Mr. Mejia, whom Karla did not want to name, was in a no-win situation as he tried to provide for his family.

Karla recalled him sleeping in his car one night.

“He didn’t want to infect the children, but afterward they all got infected,” she said.

Like Sandra Castro, Mejia did her best to separate her husband from her four children. She also separated the oldest child when he contracted COVID-19. But when she came down with the disease herself, Mejia had no choice but to interact with her three other children, who were younger and needed her care.

“Although (my husband) didn’t want to go home, he had to go home,” she said. “We were going to get infected because he had to go into the house to change.”

“He didn’t want to infect the children, but afterward they all got infected.”

Karla Mejia, about her husband, who slept in his car after he caught COVID

The long reach of COVID-19 wasn’t limited to those infected or even those who directly succumbed to the disease.

For Sarah Paine, the disease was an especially cruel and ironic killer.

Her mother, Jo-Ann Lessa, was a well-known 56-year-old Salvation Army volunteer who found out just before the onset of the pandemic, that she needed a kidney transplant.

Sarah was tested and found to be a perfect donor match for her mom’s kidney, but the transplant was considered an elective surgery and it did not go forward. Jo-Ann actually contracted COVID-19 twice and beat it both times. But as her kidneys failed,  she had to begin dialysis, and a day after she received her fistula, she died unexpectedly.

All the time she had been sick, her mother had continued her Salvation Army work, Sarah said, delivering meals to those who could not get out and working on the Christmas for Kids drive, even when she wasn’t feeling well.

“It’s definitely not the same without her,” she said. “She was my best friend.”

‘I think what we’re looking at is community-level trauma’

Local health-care professionals say they expect the pandemic’s effects to run deep in New Bedford — the city was one of the last areas in the state for infection rates to decline.

“I think that what we’re looking at is community-level trauma as a result of this pandemic,” said Damon Chaplin, director of the City of New Bedford’s health department. “Lots of folks like myself have lost close family members to COVID during this last 15 months.”

“We were very worried about people living in tight spaces.”

Cheryl Bartlett, executive director of Greater New Bedford Community Health Center

Chaplin, a forthright guy, said he broke down at one point during the summer of 2020 after a family member died from the disease. The stress of doing the planning for the city, being available 24/7 and the toll it was all taking on his own body was too much, he said.

“I had a moment last year where it just felt overwhelming to see so many people sick,” he said.

Chaplin is also personally familiar with the “long tail of COVID.”

“I have a very close friend and family member who still is not quite right, and they have recovered from COVID almost two months ago,” he said. “So we have some folks who are going to be long-haulers, who will be dealing with the effects of COVID for years to come.”

Some long-awaited hope

If there’s a bright lining to the pandemic in the city, it may have been for those health-care workers who were finally able to help prevent the novel coronavirus’s spread.

The New Bedford vaccination program, though lagging behind the rest of the state in terms of numbers, provided long-awaited hope to frontline health-care workers. 

Andy Joseph administers COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic on Hervey Tichon Boulevard. Photo by David W. Oliveira

Mike DeMedeiros, a nurse and urgent care manager who is running GNBCHC’s vaccine program, says the vaccinations are redeeming him. He is part of a team that has inoculated thousands of city residents against the virus. But during the first nine months of COVID’S spread, DeMedeiros was working in an ICU-like unit at a New Bedford long-term care facility, where suffering was all around, and the ability to help was limited.

“It was the most difficult, most trying time of my life, both personally and professionally,” he said.

“It was really difficult watching my co-workers lose their family members, watching my co-workers get sick, working double shifts and extra hours just so that patients had somebody at the bedside that would help take care of them,” he said.

DeMedeiros talks hauntingly of skeleton crews in that care center (which he did not want to name), and the memory of treating patients on ventilators and with tracheotomies, and the way COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the kidneys of formerly healthy people, forcing them on to dialysis.

“Their lives got turned upside down,” in the course of a week or so, he said. “That fast.”

But overseeing the vax program has now offered him an opportunity to see daylight after watching so many of his fellow nurses burn out. “To be able to change gears and see us come up from the ashes really, in a sense, and do this vaccine clinic, and get people over the hump, and back to normal life, was a really big deal for me.”

“It was the most difficult, most trying time of my life, both personally and professionally.”

Mike DeMedeiros, a nurse and urgent care manager

Perhaps it takes a spiritual inclination amidst all this trauma, to see the bright side of the pandemic in New Bedford.

If so, Father Pat Fanning, the pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in the Cape Verdean enclave just south of the downtown, may have it.

Soon after arriving in the city last October to take over the ethnic parish, Father Fanning himself came down with COVID-19. He spent two weeks at St. Luke’s, two weeks at the North End step-down hospital for COVID patients, and then another month or so recovering at his religious order’s retirement home in Fairhaven.

He had to get back his strength to do everything from walking to genuflecting during Mass. And yet, he sees an upside to it all.

Fanning said he saw signs of a community working closer together during the pandemic. His parish sent cards and letters to those who were homebound and worked with the United Way’s food distribution program for those who lost jobs. Even when he went out shopping, it seemed people were helping each other more, he said.  

“For me, it’s woken us up to caring for each other. And watching out for each other,” he said. “There are a lot of times in our past practices as a people, as a nation, we just kind of rush past each other. And now we’re a little more careful how we care for each other.

“I hope,” he said.    

Wesley Ayala translated from the Spanish for this story.

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