COVID took many in the prime of life, leaving families to pick up the pieces

Maria Godoy | May 13, 2022
Christina Summers, 37, holds three of her children, 8-year-old twins Elijah and Emmani, and her 6-year-old daughter, Madison. Summers' husband, James Summers, died last October from COVID. She is now raising their nine children on her own.
Christina Summers, 37, holds three of her children, 8-year-old twins Elijah and Emmani, and her 6-year-old daughter, Madison. Summers’ husband, James Summers, died last October from COVID. She is now raising their nine children on her own. Rosem Morton for NPR

Around 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning last October, Christina Summers got a phone call she’ll never forget. It was a doctor at the Baltimore hospital where her husband, James, had been admitted a week earlier for COVID-19. He’d been struggling to breathe. Now, they were calling to tell her James was being put on a ventilator.

She picked up the phone and turned to the people who had been there for her most of her life: James’s family. “I called his siblings immediately in the middle of the night and I said, ‘You all got to come here immediately. I’m scared, I’m scared.'”

One of her sisters-in-law had just arrived when the doctor called back with the news: James had died, leaving Christina, who was 36 at the time, to raise their nine children on her own. “Me and my husband really worked like a team,” she says. “My teammate’s not here to help me, so I’m really feeling a single mom vibe, just trying to get accustomed to this.”

With his death at age 37, James Summers, who was Black, became part of a devastating demographic fact of this pandemic: In the U.S., people of color on average have had younger ages of death from COVID than whites – and lower-income communities have been hardest hit. The age-adjusted COVID death rates are about twice as high among Black and Latino communities compared to whites and Asians, and that reflects the fact that these populations are dying at younger ages, researchers say. It’s even worse for Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, although there’s less data available for those populations.

While the gap between whites and people of color narrowed in 2021, that is largely due to the fact that more middle-aged white people died in 2021, rather than things getting dramatically better for Blacks and Latinos, according to a preprint study from researchers at Princeton University and University of Southern California.

Many of these deaths have come in people in the prime of life. As the U.S. approaches the grim milestone of 1 million deaths from COVID, the nation has yet to reckon with the effects of these losses, says Debra Furr-Holden, an epidemiologist at Michigan State University who has been studying the disparate effects of the pandemic.

Christina and James Summers were married for 17 years. Now, she's learning to navigate life without him.
Christina and James Summers were married for 17 years. Now, she’s learning to navigate life without him. “Me and my husband really worked like a team,” she says. “My teammate’s not here to help me, so I’m really feeling a single mom vibe, just trying to get accustomed to this.” Rosem Morton for NPR

“The impact of COVID on families, especially families who are already on the margin, has been profound. I feel like we’ve glossed over this. We haven’t thought through what is the long-term implication of that,” she says.

The reasons are manifold, though underlying them all is systemic racism, Furr-Holden says. “COVID was the snitch. COVID told the truth to us about what was happening,” she says.

People of color are overrepresented in low-paying frontline jobs that increase their exposure, Furr-Holden notes; they also face unequal access to health care and have more underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to begin with. All of these are ongoing factors that raise the risk of infection and death. Coupled with the fact that the U.S. Black and Latino populations are younger than Whites, these factors help explain the higher death rates at younger ages, says Noreen Goldman, a demographer at Princeton University who has studied disparities in life expectancy resulting from COVID.

Living with loss

Christina Summers is living those implications every day. She says her husband, James, was a large man — over 6 feet tall and 300 pounds — and his presence was outsized too.

“You know, he was very uplifting, always, trying to push through our struggles and keep my head up.”

James was an optimist, and a jokester. He’d put on her wigs and walk around the house to elicit giggles, tell corny jokes and make silly TikTok videos. “He just brought a lot of joy in my home,” she says, adding that he always put family first. “He was just always there for his kids, you know, was there for every graduation, every birthday, every holiday.”

Christina Summers shares a TikTok video she made in memory of her late husband, James, to mark his birthday.
Christina Summers shares a TikTok video she made in memory of her late husband, James, to mark his birthday. Rosem Morton for NPR

Her children, 5 boys and 4 girls — ranging in age from 6 to 17 — were all close to their father. Now, she says, they’re all struggling with his loss. Several of her middle-school-age children are scared to go back to school, afraid they’ll catch COVID — a heightened vigilance that experts say is common among children who’ve lost a parent. Her 16-year-old son, Matthew, has become withdrawn. Her 6-year-old daughter, Madison, keeps thinking her father will return.

“I have to sit there and tell my daughter, you know, he’s not coming back, unfortunately. So it’s really hard for me to keep trying to push through,” she says.

And there’s a lot to push through. James was the family’s main breadwinner. Christina stayed home with the kids. She says finances were always tight, but somehow they made do. Now, with James gone, the family is surviving on savings and the disability benefits her 15-year-old son, Marcus, receives. He has autism. Christina doesn’t drive, and the family car was repossessed.

“It’s really tough because you know what? Hardly no income coming in right now and trying to get things together for my life to start all over again. It’s hard,” Summers says.

Even families that were on firmer economic footing have seen their finances upended. And because of that, their whole lives can be upended, too.

Sisters, Madison, 6, and Emmani Summers, 8, play in Baltimore County, Md.
Sisters, Madison, 6, and Emmani Summers, 8, play in Baltimore County, Md. Rosem Morton for NPR

“I’ve known many families who have had to move because they couldn’t pay their rent, have had to move in with family, folks who have had to live in transitional housing, whether that’s a hotel room or a car … because they’ve lost the breadwinner and didn’t have a plan for for a sudden death of a young breadwinner in the family,” says Kristin Urquiza, cofounder of Marked By COVID, an advocacy and awareness group that seeks to humanize the losses of this pandemic. The group is calling for a national COVID memorial day on the first Monday of March each year, as well as the construction of physical memorials in cities across the country.

Urquiza started the organization after her own father died of COVID in 2020 at age 65. He was a first-generation Mexican American and had worked his whole life in a blue-collar job.

“He hadn’t even had a chance to retire yet,” Urquiza says. “That entire chapter of his life, he was kind of barely starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that was completely stolen from him.”

Since her father’s death, she’s taken on financial responsibility for her widowed mother. She’s also been living off her savings since losing her job as an environmental justice advocate with a nonprofit during the pandemic. Because of the strain of the last two years, goals like having her own home one day are starting to feel unattainable.

“I’m sort of feeling any of the dreams I had for myself kind of slip away,” she says, adding, “It’s like the hits don’t stop.”

A cascade of effects

And the hits aren’t just financial. The grief of losing a loved one can have profound repercussions on mental health, says Debra Umberson, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin who studies racial disparities and the impact of loss.

“For example, if you develop a lot of anxiety or depression, you may carry that with you for more years of your life, which takes a toll on health,” she says.

And that can have lasting impact on physical health, affecting cardiovascular health, mortality risk and dementia risk, Umberson says. “It’s written on the body.”

And for children, the loss of a parent early in life can also have serious educational ramifications. Studies show they’re more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to go to college and less likely to pursue a degree beyond a bachelor’s, if that had been their plan, says Ashton Verdery, a sociologist and demographer at Penn State who has studied the impact on children from parental loss due to COVID. He says the evidence is really strong that losing a parent “is very consequential for the child’s educational trajectory.” And that in turn influences a child’s job prospects and earning potential later in life.

“And of course, socioeconomic status is linked to health outcomes as well. So it’s this cascade of effects,” Umberson says.

Umberson points to Verdery’s research suggesting that for every person killed by COVID, nine family members have been left behind. She says the fact that so many unexpected COVID deaths at younger ages are happening among communities of color is bound to exacerbate existing disparities in health and wealth. “So it’s this huge impact, it’s this ballooning effect, because for each person who dies, there are multiple people who are affected by it,” she says.

Christina Summers, 37, with her children, Elijah, Emmani and Madison in Parkville, Md.
Christina Summers, 37, with her children, Elijah, Emmani and Madison in Parkville, Md. Rosem Morton for NPR

For Christina Summers, the battle is just to get herself and her nine kids through each day. “It’s been very hard because we’re still all grieving,” Summers says.

She’s been trying to find grief counseling for the kids, but so far, no luck. With demand so high since the pandemic, the wait for therapy can be months long. She’s also been busy navigating the bureaucracy – trying to secure Social Security survivor benefits and other resources for her children, all while still coming to terms with the reality that her life partner and best friend is never coming home.

“Every day I just look for him to come through the door, you know? ‘Cause sometimes I feel like he’s going to come through the door still. It’s surreal how COVID just takes them out.”

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Transcript :

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

COVID took many people – sons, daughters, mothers and fathers – really in the prime of life. Their families are left to endure the pain of their loss. In remembrance of them, President Biden is having flags flown at half-staff through Monday evening. It marks COVID’s toll as we approach 1 million deaths. And some have been more impacted than others. Here’s researcher Elizabeth Wrigley-Field of the University of Minnesota.

ELIZABETH WRIGLEY-FIELD: It was shocking to me that it’s still true that in my state of – in Minnesota, that people of color who are in their 50s have higher COVID risks than white people who are 10 years older.

MARTINEZ: Joining us now to talk more about the communities that have been hit hardest is NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Maria, a million deaths – I mean, that is just an awful number to hear.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Yeah. COVID has struck Americans from all walks of life, all ages, all racial and ethnic groups. But one of the things we’ve heard throughout this pandemic is this virus has disproportionately hit people of color the hardest. And I want to explain what that means. When you look at COVID death rates from the first two years of the pandemic just by race and ethnicity, they’re fairly close to what you’d expect given the racial and ethnic breakdown of the U.S. population.

But when you look at recent CDC data on the age-adjusted death rates, you see something really startling. The death rates are about twice as high among Black and Latino communities compared to whites and Asians. And that’s a reflection that this population is dying at younger ages. It’s even worse for Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, although there’s less data available for those populations.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Regrettably, I can’t say I’m too surprised. So people of color are dying at younger ages.

GODOY: Exactly. And when you think about the implications of that, losing people in the prime of life is going to have devastating repercussions for the families left behind. I recently spent some time with one of these families. Christina Summers – she lives in Baltimore, and she lost her husband to COVID when he was 37. She remembers all too clearly around 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning last October, she got a phone call. It was a doctor at the hospital where her husband James had been admitted a week earlier for COVID. He’d been struggling to breathe. Now they were calling to tell her James was being put on a ventilator.

CHRISTINA SUMMERS: I was just so scared, and I was just praying to God.

GODOY: She picked up the phone and turned to the people who had been there for her for most of her life, James’ family.

SUMMERS: I called his siblings immediately in the middle of the night, and I said, y’all got to get here immediately. I’m scared. I’m scared.

GODOY: Her sister-in-law had just arrived when the doctor called back with the news. James had died, leaving Christina, at age 36, to raise their nine children on her own.

SUMMERS: Me and my husband really worked like a team. So it was – my teammate not here to help me. So I’m really feeling the single mom vibe. Just trying to get accustomed to this.

GODOY: With his death at age 37, James, who was Black, became part of a devastating demographic fact of this pandemic. In the U.S., people of color are more likely to die at younger ages from COVID than whites. Many of these deaths have come in people in the prime of life.

DEBRA FURR-HOLDEN: We’ve lost people in their 30s, in their 40s unnecessarily and preventably.

GODOY: Debra Furr-Holden is an epidemiologist at Michigan State University who’s been studying the disparate effects of the pandemic. She says there are multiple reasons why people of color are at greater risk of infection and death, including greater exposure at work, crowded living conditions, long-standing lack of access to health care and more underlying conditions that left them more vulnerable.

FURR-HOLDEN: The impact of COVID on families, especially families who are already on the margin, has been profound. I feel like we’ve glossed over this and we haven’t thought through what is the long-term implication of that.

GODOY: Christina Summers is living those implications every day. She says her husband James was a large man – over 6 feet tall and 300 pounds – and his presence was outsized, too.

SUMMERS: He was a really funny guy, very optimistic, just always trying to push through our struggles and trying to keep my head up.

GODOY: She says James was a jokester. He’d put on her wigs and walk around the house to elicit giggles, tell corny jokes, make silly TikTok videos. He was also a great cook and would often whip up family dinners after a long day of work. She says for James, family always came first.

SUMMERS: He was just always there for his kids, you know, was there for every graduation, every birthday, every holiday – split with family – his sisters, his brother. He just brung (ph) a lot of joy in my home.

GODOY: She says her children – five boys and four girls, ranging in age from 6 to 17 – are all struggling with the loss of their father. Some are scared to go back to school, afraid they’ll catch COVID, a heightened vigilance that experts say is common to children who’ve lost a parent. Her 16-year-old son has become withdrawn. Her 6-year-old daughter keeps thinking her father will return.

SUMMERS: And I have to sit there and tell my daughter, you know, he’s not coming back, unfortunately. So it’s really hard for me to keep trying to push through.

GODOY: And there’s a lot to push through. James was the family’s main breadwinner. Christina stayed home with the kids. Finances were always tight. Now with James gone, the family is surviving on savings, food assistance and the disability benefits her 15-year-old son receives. He has autism. Christina doesn’t drive, and the family car was repossessed.

SUMMERS: You know, bills – when your husband dies, you – and you don’t have work, it’s a hard – something hard. There’s a struggle.

GODOY: Even families that were on firmer economic footing have seen their finances upended, and their lives, too.

KRISTIN URQUIZA: I’ve known many families who have had to move ’cause they couldn’t pay their rent, have had to move in with family, folks who have had to live in transitional housing, whether that’s a hotel room or a car, before finding housing because they’ve lost the breadwinner and didn’t have a plan.

GODOY: That’s Kristin Urquiza. She’s a professional social justice advocate. She co-founded Marked by COVID, an advocacy group that seeks to humanize the losses of this pandemic, after her own father died of the disease in 2020, at age 65. He was a first generation Mexican American and had worked his whole life in a blue-collar job.

URQUIZA: He hadn’t even had a chance to retire yet. That entire chapter of his life, he was barely starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that was completely stolen from him.

GODOY: Since her father’s death, she’s taken on financial responsibility for her widowed mother. She’s also been living off her savings since losing her job during the pandemic.

URQUIZA: It’s just – it’s like the hits don’t stop.

GODOY: And the hits aren’t just financial. Debra Umberson is a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin who studies racial disparities and the impact of loss. She says the grief of losing a loved one can have profound repercussions on mental health.

DEBRA UMBERSON: So, for example, if you develop a lot of anxiety or depression, you may carry that with you for more years of your life.

GODOY: And that can have lasting impact on physical health.

UMBERSON: In terms of cardiovascular health, mortality risk, dementia risk, you know, all sorts of outcomes – because it’s a major stressor, and it’s written on the body.

GODOY: And for children, the loss of a parent early in life can also have serious educational ramifications. Studies show they’re more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to go to college.

UMBERSON: Which then impacts what kind of job you can get and your earnings and your lifelong experiences. And, of course, socioeconomic status is linked to health outcomes, as well. So it’s this cascade of effects.

GODOY: Umberson points to research suggesting for every person killed by COVID, nine family members have been left behind. She says the fact that so many unexpected COVID deaths at younger ages are happening among communities of color is bound to exacerbate existing disparities in health and wealth. For Christina Summers, the battle now is just to get herself and her kids through each day.

SUMMERS: So I’m getting – trying to get a schedule going, trying to stay on a schedule, which is very hard because they’re still, like – we’re still all grieving.

GODOY: She’s been trying to find grief counseling for the kids, but so far, no luck. With demand so high since the pandemic, the wait for therapy can be months long. She’s also been busy navigating the bureaucracy, trying to secure Social Security survivor benefits and other resources for her children, all while still coming to terms with the reality that her life partner is gone.

SUMMERS: Every day I just look for him to come through the door. You know, sometimes I feel like he’s going to come through the door still. It’s surreal how COVID just takes them out, you know?

GODOY: Maria Godoy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.