Dying young: Race factors in COVID-19 deaths among working-age Minnesotans

Peaches Goodridge last spoke to her mother on the phone the day before she died but said she was still not prepared to say goodbye.

“I just knew she was going to be OK,” Goodridge said. “When my dad called, his words were, ‘Peaches, she’s gone.’ I still can’t believe it.”

Larrydean Goodridge, a 45-year-old immigrant from Liberia, died from COVID-19 on June 1.

A 5 INVESTIGATES review of records from the Minnesota Department of Health revealed Goodridge was among 19 people between the ages of 41 and 50 who died from the virus between March and July.

Sixteen of them, including Goodridge, were people of color.

The small sample underscores larger health care disparities impacting Black, Latino, Asian and other people of color that state and local advocates say they’ve been fighting long before the pandemic began.

“It is definitely alarming and something that we’ve been paying close attention to,” said MDH Director of the Center for Health Equity Kou Thao.

When 5 INVESTIGATES expanded the state data to include everyone of working age, 65 years old and younger, race remained a factor — 63% of those who died from COVID-19 were people of color.

Over the same time period, every person under 30 who died from the virus in Minnesota was a person of color – that includes a 9-month-old in Clay County. State health administrators said the child had no underlying health problems and was among the youngest victims of COVID-19 in the country.

“Something we always say is when you look beyond the averages in Minnesota, you really see the level of disparity,” Thao said. “Employment, where you work, where you live, whether you have access to testing locations near you — they all kind of come together into this perfect storm.”

Working on the front line

Larrydean Goodridge worked as a phlebotomist, drawing blood from patients at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale.

Her death raised questions about whether proper personal protective equipment (PPE) was being provided to workers and prompted an investigation by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Union leaders said they’re also taking a closer look at how employment could explain why people of color have been disproportionately impacted during the pandemic.

“Many of the workers who are doing essential work, who are going to work and clocking in and out of grocery stores and nursing homes and health care facilities — they are overwhelmingly women, people of color,” said SEIU Healthcare Minnesota President Jamie Gulley.

He said the data compiled by 5 INVESTIGATES is a reminder to the working age membership of his union that they’re still vulnerable to COVID-19. Pinpointing exactly what is putting people of color at higher risk is a question the union is trying to answer.

“We are looking to see if there is potentially bias in assignments for who is taking care of nursing home residents who might have COVID-19. We’re looking into the incentive programs,” Gulley said.

“There are programs across the state where nursing homes will compensate people more for taking on the added risk of caring for COVID patients,” he added.

Other experts say the pandemic has exposed health care disparities in the United States that have existed for decades. While some minority groups have historically higher levels of underlying health problems, such as diabetes and obesity, some researchers say that doesn’t completely account for the impact that COVID-19 has had on people of color.

A recent study by the University of Minnesota found African American or Black people who tested positive for the virus made up nearly 25% of hospitalizations in the state even though they make up less than 7% of the population.

U of M study

Turning the tide

In Brooklyn Park, where Goodridge lived, outreach workers have been trying to mitigate the uneven impact of the pandemic by directly contacting certain segments of the community.

Neighborhood Relations Specialist Claudia Diggs led an effort to mail a list of COVID-19 resources directly to the city’s 8,600 renters.

Brooklyn Park COVID-19 resources

“We’re 54% or more people of color… one of the most diverse communities in Minnesota,” Diggs said. “We know where some of the disparities lie and renters sometimes can be one of the harder populations to reach with information.”

Diggs said the city is now in the process of offering grants to help individuals with basics such as rent, mortgage payments and utilities with money from the federal CARES Act.

Cultivating a Health Equity Ecosystem

Keeping faith

Peaches Goodridge said her mother shared little about her work at the hospital during the first months of the pandemic.

“She never really talked about it but once mentioned she was drawing (the blood) of a COVID patient who coughed on her,” Goodridge said.

Instead, Goodridge said her mother focused on prayer and her work as a pastor at Faith Embassy City of Rescue Church.

“My mom was literally praying for the entire family,” Goodridge said. “She had faith that nothing was going to happen to any one of us. Regardless of the outcome, she still died having faith.”