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Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Our series Year One: COVID-19’s Death Toll has unearthed new – and disturbing – information about the people and communities hit hardest by COVID. 

The data tells many new stories. But if I could boil it down to just one statistic, it would be this: For every $6,600 increase in median income in a given San Diego County ZIP code, the rate of death decreased by 10 percent.  

Money, in other words, protected people from COVID. It is both unsurprising and a moral failure.  

Here’s a ZIP code map of San Diego County with death rates overlaid on top. Hover over each of the ZIP codes and you’ll find some wealthy ZIP codes didn’t have a single COVID death. In poorer parts of the county there were hundreds.  

Going through a litany of COVID death statistics can be insightful. But in the list of takeaways, one data point isn’t so much about data at all. It’s about families.  

At least, 4,046 people died during the first year of COVID, according to county death certificates. In 7 percent of cases, COVID was a contributing factor, but it isn’t necessarily what killed the person. In other cases, people who died were in their 90s or 100s and family members had already been preparing to let them go before the pandemic.  

But in so, so many cases people died too young and before their family members were ready to see them leave. Many of us have moved on from the worst of the pandemic, but for those who lost a son or mom or brother, moving on remains out of reach.  

“People tend to forget what happened last year,” one granddaughter told us, “except for those who lost loved ones.”  

Jackie Rubio set up an altar at her home to honor her son Francisco Rubio III, who died of COVID-19 complications earlier this year. He was 21 years old. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

One of the biggest findings that began to emerge as our team of reporters logged death records was the large number of immigrants who died.  

Despite only accounting for 23 percent of the San Diego County population, immigrants accounted for 52 percent of all deaths.  

The finding was somewhat shocking. The “healthy immigrant effect” is a well-known public health trend that shows immigrants in the United States tend to be healthier than the average resident. 

But immigrants faced an onslaught of problems that made them more susceptible to the virus. They are less likely to speak the language and have access to credible information. They are more likely to live in multi-generational housing. They are less likely to have access to healthcare. They are more likely to have public-facing jobs.  

Among working-age San Diegans who died, 60 percent were immigrants.  

This chart shows the nationalities of the people who immigrated to San Diego who died.  

Research into education level also produced shocking findings.  

A bachelor’s degree essentially served as “an insurance policy” against death, one expert told us. On the other end of the spectrum, people without a high school diploma were left far more exposed than most.  

Our latest story in the series examined the occupations for each working-age San Diegan (65 and under) who died during the first year of the pandemic.  

The analysis confirmed again that COVID was not an equal-opportunity killer.  

Agricultural workers died at the most disproportionate rate, while professionals like lawyers and accountants were far less likely to die than the average citizen.  

It’s unclear exactly why farmworkers died at such high rates. Some lived in more isolated communities with less access to credible information about COVID risks. They often lived in multi-generational housing. They were also essential workers and unable to work from home.   

Filipino residents also suffered more than most during the pandemic, as Maya Sriskrishnan reported. 

They experienced the second highest death rate: 120 per 100,000 residents. Latino residents had an even higher death rate, while the death rate for White San Diegans was considerably less: 38 per 100,000.  

Filipinos’ increased risk of death appears connected to their increased likelihood of working in the healthcare industry. Among working-age Filipinos who died, 20 percent worked in healthcare. The same was true for just 6 percent among the rest of the population.  

Voice’s data also shows that men were significantly more likely to die than women, which has been true across the entire country.  

Sixty percent of people who died in San Diego County related to COVID were men. 

COVID is a virus that is more likely to kill older people. So it is surprising that the men who died tended to be significantly younger than the women. On average, men who died related to COVID were 72. Women were 79.  

Other studies have shown that men who died from COVID were more likely to have chronic diseases such as hypertension or diabetes. Chronic disease also greatly increases the risk of death for COVID patients.  

Paying attention to these statistics has the potential to push policymakers to make better decisions in the future about the allocation of resources. But it’s also important not to get lost in the wash.  

Jayme Mejia, a construction worker and reggae singer, was 43 years old when he died from COVID complications in January. He leaves behind eight children, a wife, and several grandchildren. Having quality time with his family was his favorite thing in life, his children say.  

They went to him with their problems or when they just needed a laugh.  

“I don’t think we all show it too much to each other, but it’s really hard,” said his son. “I don’t understand life anymore.”  

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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