For the last 30 years, Arturo Morales slept next to the love of his life, his wife Besabe Roman.
For the last few weeks, he’s placed his favorite photo of Roman holding their youngest son. It’s the last thing Morales sees before falling asleep and the first thing he sees when he wakes up.
“It’s because she’s with my son,” he explained in Spanish. “They’re both happy. She’s smiling, like always.”
Morales immigrated to Chicago in 1985, and four years later Roman joined him. They grew up together in a little town in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. They had five children, including four daughters, who are all adults now, and a son, 14. Their love got them through his medical problems that left him with only one lung. And it got them through her leg amputation and diabetes.
And when they couldn’t find work in the service industry, they started their own business selling tamales on Facebook.
“Despite everything that she went through she never gave up,” he said. “She was strong. I don’t know how this virus took her from me.”
Roman died from COVID-19 on April 1. She was 46. Roman, a Latina, was identified as white in data from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
As of April 12, a total of 31 Latinos have died from complications from COVID-19, according to data from the medical examiner’s office. But that figure is not accurate. And that’s a problem because without reliable data it’s harder to identify vulnerable populations, experts say.
Some of the information collected by the medical examiner’s office is not wrong, it’s just delayed, said Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the county’s chief medical examiner. Arunkumar said preliminary demographic information comes from hospital records and first responders.
“When it comes to that Latino information, we do depend on the families to get that information in the vital record system,” she said. “We don't want to label someone as Latino without knowing if they're actually Latino. We don’t want to go by a last name.”
Arunkumar said once her office gets that information from family members or funeral homes, typically five to seven days later, the demographic data is updated.
Jorge Valdivia said he wants the medical examiner's office to change the demographic information it has for his brother Mauricio Valdivia, 52, a Latino father of two and a Little Village resident, who died from COVID-19 on April 9. Mauricio Valdivia was also misclassified as white in data from the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
“His experience was not that of a privileged white man,” Jorge Valdivia said. “My brother had to fight for every single thing that he had in his life. And I think it's unfair to classify him as a white.”
Jorge Valdivia said his brother dropped out of high school to help their parents. But he loved learning and was very knowledgeable.
“He was probably the hardest working out of all of us. And he had a very strong work ethic,” Jorge Valdivia said. “You’d want him on your team.”
Jorge Valdivia said he didn’t know when his brother contracted the virus, but once he wasn’t able to breathe things escalated very quickly.
Jorge Valdivia said it’s unacceptable to have inaccurate data for Latinos because of the long-term repercussions it could have for future research.
“It's infuriating, because it doesn't give us a very clear idea of how COVID-19 is impacting our community,” he said. “If this information isn't being categorized, isn't being labeled the way it should be, then how can we rely on any type of data, any type of research articles that will emerge years from now?”
Morales wasn’t aware that his wife was marked as white. He doesn’t speak English and is struggling to care for his son and manage his own chronic illness. Without his wife, Morales is unable to make the tamales, so he has no income. He’s relying on his daughters for food.
Morales remains concerned about whether he might also have COVID-19. He was surprised when hospital staff members told him — someone with only one working lung — that he didn’t need to be tested. He said they told him to go home and quarantine himself with his 14-year-old son.
He’s anxious about the virus. He often cries when he talks about his partner of 30 years.
Morales said everything has happened so fast. He said his wife contracted the virus when she went to the Lawndale Christian Health Center clinic for a normal diabetes check up. She went to the clinic on March 20. A few days later she couldn’t breathe. By March 31, she was on a ventilator. She died the next day.
Morales said he couldn’t see her, she died alone.
While Morales’ wife had diabetes and her leg had been amputated, she was healthy and very active, he said.
“We still can’t believe it,” Morales said of his wife’s sudden death. “I don’t believe it because she was full of life.”
Of the 31 individuals identified as Latinos who suffered coronavirus-related deaths, 87% had a pre-existing condition, including diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
COVID-19 can turn deadly for people who have diabetes, and Latinos are two to three times more likely than whites to have diabetes. That’s why advocates are concerned that more Latinos could die from the disease.
But what’s even more troubling is that many people with diabetes don’t even know that they have it.
“Almost 40% of those that met laboratory diagnostic criteria for diabetes mellitus were not aware of having the disease,” according to a National Institutes of Health study.
The study included the largest national sample of Latinos, including 4,136 participants from Chicago.
“Persons with uncontrolled diabetes could be more susceptible to getting infections – like skin infections, sinusitis, pneumonia and others. Also, some persons with diabetes have other health conditions for which they need to take medications and see the doctor regularly,” said Dr. Larissa Avilés-Santa, who led the study.
Avilés-Santa said people with diabetes who later contract the virus are more susceptible to developing a more complicated infection.
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio. WBEZ’s data editor Elliott Ramos contributed.