NJ.com Special Report: Crossroads of a plague - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

NJ.com Special Report: Crossroads of a plague

Taken from NJ.com

By Spencer Kent | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

December 10, 2020

Chapter 1: A Plague Arrives in Newark

The haunting stare was frozen on his daughter’s face.

Walter Andrews found her in the middle of the night, dazed and unseeing as she rocked back and forth on his living room floor.

“Tasha! Tasha!” he said in a loud whisper. But she merely groaned, continuing to gaze ahead vacantly.

The plague arrived in Walter’s Newark household in early April. His father-in-law contracted COVID-19 first. Then his wife, Gloria. And now, he watched helplessly as his 33-year-old daughter, Latasha, suffered a coronavirus-related stroke.

Walter cared for his wife and daughter as they huddled together in bed. He brought Gloria, 64, and Tasha soup and tea, trying to nurse them back to health.

But both would be dead within days of each other. His father-in-law died about a week before Gloria. Then Tasha succumbed. And then the coronavirus took Walter’s brother.

“How could it be?” Walter, 65, asked himself in a strained, raspy voice. He rarely cried. Now he couldn’t stop. The church custodian raised his arms and clenched both fists together in anguish, as if trying to strangle his pain.

“I outlived her,” Walter said in his empty house on Bragaw Avenue. “I brought (Tasha) into the world. That ain’t the way it’s supposed to be.”

The coronavirus emerged out of nowhere late last year, overwhelming Wuhan, China, before sweeping across the globe. When the novel virus reached Walter’s doorstep, it was just as terrifying as the international news coverage had warned.

COVID-19 devastated his family and then all of Newark, carving a lethal path through the gritty, 24-square-mile city with ruthless efficiency. Newark has suffered 727 coronavirus deaths and more than 18,500 cases, the most in all of hard-hit New Jersey.

The virus cut an especially destructive swath of sickness and death from the western boundary of the South Ward to the eastern edge of the Central Ward, spanning three miles across the ZIP codes 07108, 07103 and 07102. It was the hottest of hot zones, the crossroads of the pandemic in the Brick City and home to a majority Black community.

COVID-19 swept through University Hospital. Through Newark’s churches, claiming 15 congregants alone at St. Luke AME Church. Through the city’s nursing homes, taking the lives of 39 residents at New Vista Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. And through Newark’s legion of essential workers — people like Tasha Andrews, a civilian security guard with the New Jersey State Police.

The virus shattered multigenerational households like the Andrews family. It sickened Laura Bonas-Palmer and nearly killed her husband, Ray Palmer. And it left Al Jenkins with permanent scars and killed his 72-year-old mother, Dorothy Miller, who was taken away in an ambulance and never came home.

“The worst thing was those freezer trucks with the bodies. … That ripped some souls out of people,” Tamika Darden-Thomas, a Newark community activist, told NJ Advance Media, referring to the refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals. In April, her 85-year-old grandmother and 66-year-old uncle succumbed to the virus.

The coronavirus preys on the elderly, the medically fragile and people of color, according to a September report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Newark, a city of 282,000, is nearly 50% Black, illustrating the stark divides the worst pandemic in a century has drawn along racial and class lines.

Put another way, the virus has exploited decades of systemic racism, leaving Black residents especially vulnerable. They are dying at disproportionate rates: There have been 30.49 Black deaths per 10,000 Newark residents versus 17.29 white deaths, as of Dec. 3.

“I knew it was going to be an onslaught. And indeed it was,” said Diane Taylor, a registered nurse at University Hospital, who has worked in Newark for more than three decades.

The city was awash in bodies in the spring as COVID-19 began its grim march through the five wards.

“It’s the first time in my 49 years of being here that I felt like I may lose control,” said Samuel C. Arnold, the president and manager of Perry Funeral Home. Just as officials finally wrestled the initial surge under control, the pandemic’s second wave hit in October. And Newark was “ground zero,” Gov. Phil Murphy said.

By Nov. 9, there were 230 new cases a day, rivaling the number of positive tests at the peak of the first wave. By Thanksgiving, Mayor Ras Baraka again asked residents to stay home, locking down the city for 10 days as the virus spread out of control.

Lives continue to be at risk. The city’s economy is at stake. And Newark’s fragile rebirth — decades in the making — is threatened.

The Brick City slowly clawed its way back from the brink after the 1967 riots. Then AIDS. Crack. Corruption. And the years it was called “The Most Dangerous City in America.”

But the unimaginable public health crisis has jeopardized that progress.

Samuel Arnold, director of Perry’s Funeral Home in Newark, feared he “may lose control” as the number of COVID-19 victims grew. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

Despite the devastation, Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver have praised Newark’s response, and some have even hailed it as a shining example.

Baraka, the son of an activist poet, continues to take bold and proactive measures to protect the city, according to Junius Williams, Newark’s official historian and an attorney and civil rights activist since the 1960s.

Frontline medical workers like Taylor continue to fight for each desperately ill patient at University. Faith leaders like the Rev. Joseph Hooper shepherd their congregations through the horror. And activists like Darden-Thomas — the daughter of a homicide victim — advocate for the vulnerable and forgotten.

“I do believe that there is a spirit in Newark of resiliency,” said Larry Hamm, founder of the People’s Organization for Progress, a city-based social justice association.

Brick City remains an unflinching place filled with survivors.

This is their story.

Read more here.