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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Diego’s South Bay has been hit disproportionately hard.
Back in May, hospitals in Chula Vista saw higher rates of coronavirus patients than their counterpart facilities in other parts of the county. ZIP codes in Otay Mesa, Chula Vista, National City and San Ysidro continue to have among the highest case rates and cumulative numbers of cases in the county.
The situation in South Bay has revealed deep-seated disparities in race, socioeconomic status and health care that exist in the region. That part of the county is majority-Latino, has high numbers of essential workers and multi-generational family households. Testing has been expanded in the region, as well as other efforts to help quell the spread of the virus, but South Bay residents continue to be impacted more by the virus than other parts of San Diego County.
We talked to several South Bay residents and people who work in the region about how the pandemic has changed their reality.
Seeing fear in everyone is the biggest change that Ana Canales has experienced since the start of the pandemic.
Canales is a child care provider in Chula Vista. Initially when the pandemic began, parents completely stopped sending their children to her. Since then she’s been able to re-open, though with fewer children, since some parents have lost their jobs and no longer need her services. She’s gone from caring for 11 children to seven.
Even though parents know that she takes necessary precautions, there is still a constant air of fear and uncertainty that taints everything.
Canales has a new cleaning regimen to disinfect toys every day. She can’t let parents enter her home to drop the children off and pick them up – she used to love chatting with them during those moments. If the parents need to talk to her about something, they have to contact her by phone or text. When she needs parents to sign something, she leaves a paper in a clear plastic bag outside for them.
“I have a ‘No Visitors’ sign at my door,” Canales said in Spanish. “That makes me sad because I’m a very friendly person. I used to love to host people.”
Her neighbors can’t stop by. She couldn’t have a gathering of family and friends for Thanksgiving. She’s had friends who’ve gotten sick, and even one who lost her husband to the virus.
“I’m worried, but more than worried, I’m sad because everything has changed,” Canales said.
Much of the warmth and affection has also been taken out of her job with the precautions that she’s needed to take with her children.
“When my kids arrived, I used to greet them with a hug. Now I greet them with this and a thermometer,” Canales said, gesturing to her mask. “I love to hug. And the kids notice. They want me to hug them.”
Sara Dove is a 30-year-old nurse at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. She was healthy, exercised regularly, had no pre-existing conditions and did everything she was supposed to in order to not get COVID.
But she did get the virus in July while working and five months later, her life has completely changed.
Dove is what is called a long-hauler. Months after initially getting the coronavirus, she is still experiencing symptoms that have completely transformed her life.
“When I tested positive, I thought ‘OK, there are really only two ways this can go: this virus is either going to kill me or I will recover in a few weeks,” Dove said. That is what she had consistently seen in hospital patients for months. “Never in my life did I expect that five months after I would be out of work and still wouldn’t be able to do most things for myself. I’m pretty much handicapped.”
Researchers estimate that roughly 10 percent of COVID-19 patients become long-haulers.
Since July, Dove has had two ER visit for chest pain and shortness of breath. She’s had multiple lab draws, EKGs, an e-patch to monitor her heart rhythm and pulmonary rehab.
“I’m taking so many medications, inhalers, nebulizers and pills and no one can give me a concrete answer of why this is happening,’ Dove said. “I’ve lost my independence. I’ve lost everything that basically brings someone joy.”
Dove’s symptoms have changed over the course of the past five months, but currently she experiences a constant chemical, melting plastic taste and smell, which makes it hard to eat. She also has terrible heartburn and nausea. She gets random stabbing heart pains, often at night, and her lungs ache when she lies down for too long. She gets muscle tremors, suffers from muscle weakness and has poor coordination, so her legs sometimes give and things like raising a glass to her lips can be challenging. Sometimes walking around the grocery store is too much.
“Really when you get COVID, it’s a true coin flip,” she said. “It’s a total gamble and it’s not guaranteed that you will just get over it.”
Parts of Chula Vista have been among the hardest hit in the county by COVID-19 this past year. That reality has transformed the job for Mayor Mary Salas.
Recently, she had to send a letter to a Chula Vista neighborhood where the homeowners adorn their houses in elaborate Christmas decorations encouraging them to minimize the decorations. People from throughout the city descend on the neighborhood during the holidays to see the decorations, but with the pandemic, Salas is trying to prevent situations where people congregate.
“I’m a grinch,” Salas told me.
No matter what she does to respond to the pandemic, it upsets someone. Some people think the closure of the city’s businesses and parks isn’t enough to quell the spread of COVID-19, while others think it’s going too far.
“I understand that people have fatigue,” she said. “But I just have to continue the message that we won’t get over this if we don’t maintain some discipline. A sacrifice for a time now will lead us to a better outcome sooner.”
Salas said she particularly misses the personal interactions she used to have with constituents. Now City Council meetings and engagement with community members happens via Zoom or email.
“We adapt and change, but I sure wish we could go back to meeting in person,” she said.
Living in Chula Vista during the pandemic has also deeply impacted her personally. She’s had several close friends lose their mothers and fathers to the virus. One friend’s brother is currently in the intensive care unit, intubated. Even some of her colleagues on the City Council have gotten sick, like Councilman Steve Padilla. She walks her dog down the city’s Third Avenue, which was once vibrant with businesses, but is now vacant as businesses have had to close their doors.
“I’ve seen a lot of tragedy personally,” Salas said. “It’s affected me.”
The isolation has been the toughest part of the pandemic for Valeria Archibald.
“All the stores are closed and there is nothing to do,” she said. “That’s affecting a lot of people. You have to keep up in spirit.”
Archibald said her son calls her every day to say, “Good morning, Mom. How are you doing? Are you feeling down?”
That’s when she’ll realize that sometimes she’s been in bed for three days and thinks, “OK, I need to get up because it has all started affecting me. It’s been so long.”
But Archibald sees some bright spots. Places like restaurants are cleaner than they used to be, and she’s also noticed that people seem to be kinder to one another than they used to be
“Everybody is seeing God,” she said. And with the virus impacting everyone’s life, we’re all left thinking, ‘What is going on in this world?’ We’re all on the same level now.”
Dr. Gilanthony Ungab
For Dr. Gilanthony Ungab, a cardiologist at Sharp Chula Vista, COVID-19 has laid bare the disparities in health care facing Filipinos and Latinos in South Bay.
Ungab recalls seeing the mayor of National City on television, asking the community to participate in COVID-19 vaccine trials in temporary facilities in El Toyon Park and assuring people that they would be paid to do so.
Non-white communities have been hit harder by the pandemic, but a deep-seated distrust in medicine and government has made many in those communities hesitant to participate in vaccine trials or want to take the vaccine when it’s available. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, of the nearly 1,200 San Diegans who enrolled in Moderna’s vaccine study, about 59 percent are White; 26 percent Hispanic or Latino; 7 percent Asian; 3 percent Black; 3 percent multiracial; and 1.4 percent Native American or Pacific Islander. By comparison, San Diego County’s population is 45 percent White; 33 percent Hispanic or Latino; 13 percent Asian; 5 percent Black; 3 percent multiracial and 1 percent Native American or Pacific Islander.
“Who wants to go to a park with temporary facilities for a vaccine trial?” Ungab said. “Where is the trust?”
Ungab realized he needed to create an outlet where communities of color could participate in medical research and receive care with dignity.
“You have to create a space where people feel safe,” he said. “You have to have people’s primary care physicians recommending they should participate in trials, not a politician. You have to give us dignity.”
So Ungab recently launched the Sharp Chula Vista Center for Inclusion and Diversity in Clinical Research to try and address those disparities. The center will bridge pharmaceutical companies conducting clinical trials and local physicians to help get more non-White South Bay residents involved in medical research.
Ungab is also part of a Filipino COVID-19 Task Force in San Diego that is trying to advocate for more specific COVID data and additional testing sites in places with high concentrations of Filipino residents. County data on how COVID is impacting Asians is disaggregated by nationality, but Ungab believes that Filipinos are disproportionately being impacted.
And he has reason to.
Statewide data compiled by the Los Angeles Times found that Filipino Americans account for at least 35 percent of COVID-19 deaths in California’s Asian population, when they only make up a quarter of Asian Americans in the state.
“COVID-19 has really exposed the disparities in the lack of care, the disparities in research,” Ungab said. “It drove me to do something.”
For Kathy Sparks, the owner of Mangia Italiano on Third Avenue, the holidays once meant banquets, catering and groups of people coming together at her restaurant.
Now it’s a ghost town.
“It’s like you lived with a family member, then all of a sudden they move across the country,” she said.
She values her customers more than anything. Interacting with them was one of the best parts of her day and now she seldom sees a familiar face.
COVID-19 regulations have been killing small businesses like Mangia Italiano. A judge recently ruled that restaurants could reopen, but that decision has since been put on hold. For restaurants and many businesses, it’s been a constant rollercoaster amid a perpetual drop in clientele.
The pandemic has business owners doing backflips to stay afloat. Most joined DoorDash and other delivery services to make themselves accessible to customers, but those take as much as 30 percent of the cut. Sparks pointed out that after she buys supplies, food and pays her employees, she barely breaks even. She also had to cut all her employees’ hours in order to avoid laying anybody off.
“Do I feel in danger? Yes I do,” she said. “Every business that doesn’t have deep pockets is in danger.”
Manuel Santillan and Ezequiel Diaz
Manuel Santillan and his friend Ezequiel Diaz went out for a beer at Chula Vista Brewery the day after a judge ruled that restaurants could open for outdoor dining with some restrictions. (That ruling has since been put on hold.)
As they got their check, I asked how COVID-19 has affected their lives, and their stories aren’t so different from others. Santillan has a wife and son. Their family used to have two incomes to support them, but his wife was laid off. He is the only one who can make money right now, so his wife watches their son while he attends school at home.
His son is so scared of catching the coronavirus that he has embraced life at home with just school and YouTube to keep him busy. He used to play soccer, but sports have been taken off the table by schools.
“I tried to take him to the park when they opened to play catch or something, but he just said, ‘No way. COVID is out there. I’m staying inside.’”
Diaz said his kids act the same way.
“I try to push the kids to do something,” Diaz said. His daughter “is pale because she never goes outside. They’re just so unmotivated.”
School has been the biggest struggle for his family because he knows his kids are not learning anything. Diaz said their quality of education is diminished and is afraid of how behind they will be when things get back to normal, if they ever do.