Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

This story is part of our reporting series, “Year One: COVID-19’s Death Toll.” See all the stories and interactive features here.

To call it an “undertaking” would be misleading.

Voice of San Diego began rolling out stories this week about the first year of the pandemic. Through a combination of public records and interviews, we took stock of the devastation wrought by COVID-19 and found that it had been far from equal. We expected as much but were surprised by how stark the gap really was.

For instance, the death certificates showed us that a bachelor’s degree was “an insurance policy” against death and that immigrants died in shocking numbers. We still have more stories to come.

Many of the families I spoke to are still grieving. Their loved ones, they said, had been careful and were wiped out in a flash. Some blame themselves for not doing more.

We were only able to get our hands on the death certificates because of a lawsuit Voice of San Diego filed in summer 2020. Officials had offered to share COVID-related records with a freelancer but on one condition: we provide the name of each decedent upfront.

It was an untenable position. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. More importantly, the information was supposed to be public.

But after prevailing in court, we encountered another obstacle.

The county told us that we’d need to travel to the archives in Santee to see the documents. Otherwise, copies would cost $20 a piece. We were staring at a potential bill totaling more than $80,000. It was cheaper to drive there and spend entire days reading through the paperwork while listening to pretty much everything Lou Reed ever produced. We’re talking 50 years’ worth of material, people.

All told, the project took a considerable amount of time and energy. Almost everyone in our organization had a role in shaping it.

I spoke with Will Huntsberry, the lead reporter on the project. The following is a conversation we had about the effort to bring the project home.

It took months to get all the data together in one place. What was the next step? How did you and others go about identifying patterns and individual stories?

Oh man, putting the data together was a real juggernaut of a project. Bella Ross did the majority of the data logging for us and I would guess we spent at least 400 hours at the county archives, logging each and every death certificate into a spreadsheet. The weeks went by and the final death certificate didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Those were some dark moments, because we really didn’t know what we had at that point.

I had a sense throughout that recording each of these deaths was a consequential act, given the historic importance of the pandemic. But it was always possible that we wouldn’t find anything interesting or newsworthy. That was a misplaced fear. The first thing we noticed was interesting cases. The first person to die related to COVID, the youngest person or even married couples and fathers and sons. Then as we got closer to finishing the data entry certain trends emerged. We were seeing a lot of immigrant deaths. That was the first takeaway. Next we realized, ‘Hey, we can take a look at people’s education level.’ Bella had the great idea that we could classify each person’s occupation and match it with Census Bureau classifications that come attached with median income.

Tell us about the work that was required to find the families of loved ones who died. What did you hear along the way? Anything surprise you?

Getting people to talk to us about their experiences was a lot harder than I expected. But I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. When it comes to just regular everyday people telling you their stories, in my experience, I’ve had good luck with that. Because as a reporter when you ask someone to tell you their story, I think you’re signaling to them their story is important. And that’s how we all want to feel. But it’s impossible to overstate what a traumatic experience the pandemic was for the families hit the hardest by it. For them, as they told us, the pandemic isn’t over. It may be over or at least easing off for other people. But for them, they still have Day of the Dead alters in their homes dedicated to their loved ones who are gone.

Remember that anxiety we all felt in the early days of the pandemic when we thought we might pass the virus onto someone old or vulnerable? Some of the families we talked to had that same anxiety. But in their case a person, or sometimes persons, actually did die. They took inventory and tried to figure out everyone’s comings and goings to see who might have brought COVID home. Until they realized it was a dead end. And nothing would bring their mother and father back. These are heartbreaking stories to hear, but I believe it’s important we give people a platform to do it — when, and if, they’re willing.

One of the most wrenching stories we heard was about a 48-year-old veteran who was working on his bachelor’s degree. He was a security specialist and he was just weeks away from completing the program. But he died before he could finish it. His university awarded him a posthumous degree, making him a member of the class of 2021 — even though he died in 2020. His name was Gregory Denny and he was a husband and a father.

What are your major takeaways so far? What does the database we compiled reveal about life in San Diego?

Here’s our biggest revelation, as we wrote it in our first story: “COVID-19 traveled along the socioeconomic fault lines of San Diego and made them even wider.”

We had all heard that before — that COVID led to all the disproportionate impacts. But a lot of that information about disparate impacts was coming out during the height of the pandemic when we were all consumed with worry about our own personal lives and the state of the world. People were on overload.

Our reporting puts this new and shocking level of detail on the story. COVID didn’t just have an impact that was a little bit disproportionate. It was a lot disproportionate.

Thirty percent of people who died didn’t have a high school diploma. That is only true for 10 percent of the population in this county.

Immigrants make up 23 percent of the region. But they made up 52 percent of deaths.

There was a strong correlation between death and income. For every $6,600 increase in median household income, a person’s chances of death decreased by 10 percent.

A lot more work will have to be done to figure out why these deaths happened the way they did. But it’s work that is important for the future of the county and the country and has potential to direct public policy going forward.

This reporting project is made possible with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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