The Investigators: Where you live could determine whether you’ll survive COVID-19

The Investigators: COVID-19 death rates

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Where you live plays a major role in whether you’ll survive COVID-19 if you contract the disease.

Data obtained exclusively by the WMC Action News 5 Investigators shows the number of deaths broken down by zip code in Shelby County.

We also looked at the death rate in counties outside of Shelby.

Fifty-two-year-old Tim Bonner died from COVID-19, which his widow believes he contracted in the hospital after he had a bad fall. Bonner went to the hospital thinking he had a stroke but things quickly went downhill.

“The nurses called and said he would not be able to come home. I said why?” said Phyllis Bonner, his widow.

Her husband tested positive for COVID-19.

“They called back and said he had coronavirus,” she said.

Mr. Bonner had diabetes and hypertension. The effects from COVID-19 forced doctors to put him on a ventilator and place him in a medically-induced coma.

Tim Bonner died July 15.

“We know he’s gone but it’s still unbelievable,” said Mrs. Bonner.

The Bonners live in Shelby County’s 38141 zip code where 10 people have died of COVID-19 so far this year.

Data shows many more people have died from the disease in other zip codes.

As of Oct. 27, 56 people had died of COVID-19 in the 38119/38120 zip codes, more than any other, followed by 55 in 38116 and 48 deaths in 38109.

The three areas account for nearly a third of the total COVID-19 deaths in Shelby County.

“Do you think where you live in Shelby County will determine whether you live or die from COVID?” asked the Investigators.

“Absolutely,” said Le Bonheur Hospital’s Dr. Jon McCullers, who is also on the Memphis-Shelby County COVID-19 task force.

“The high death rate is really because those are underserved populations where we see a lot of poverty, either amongst African-Americans or Hispanic or Latinx persons,” said McCullers.

We checked and census data shows 29% of residents in 38116 live in poverty, while 27% live in poverty in 38109.

The national average is 10.2%.

Each zip code is also almost entirely comprised of Black and African American residents: 38116 is 93% Black/African American, while 38109 is 96.3% Black/African American.

“COVID just highlighted the existing conditions we have in our society,” said Sandra Madubuonwu, senior director of Social Determinants of Health and Wellness for Methodist Healthcare System.

Madubuonwu works to address health disparities in Memphis. She points out that Black and African American residents account for most of the COVID-19 cases and deaths in Shelby County.

She says research shows the demographic is more likely to have pre-existing conditions, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“A lot of the African American population are the front-line workers so they are susceptible to get this infection easily because they have contact,” she said. “They work in grocery stores, hotels and all those areas. Some of them do not even have health insurance and because of that they do not even go to the doctor.”

In her role, Madubuonwu works to address health care access, housing instability and food insecurity.

“How does food insecurity also contribute to the outcome of COVID-19 both in contraction and mortality?” asked the Investigators.

“When we don’t eat well, our immune system is impacted,” she said.

A map from the USDA shows high concentrations of food insecurity in both 38109 and 38116, where the COVID-19 death rates are among the highest in Shelby County.

“To know that it’s so close and that the spread has migrated is very shocking,” said Madeline Lyles, co-owner of After Life Mortuary Services.

The business sits on the border of both 38109 and 38116. The owners say since the start of the pandemic business has been steadily increasing, in part, due to COVID-19.

The women wear biohazard suits, respirators and multiple pairs of gloves while preparing bodies with the disease. The business owners say they’ve handled parents and grandparents whose children or grandchildren brought COVID-19 home to them.

“Some of the younger people in the community may still be going out with friends or going to restaurants,” said Dana Taylor, co-owner. “They have to think about them going out and then coming home to their older parents or grandparents.”

The socio-economic issues affecting 38109 and 38116 don’t show up in 38119/38120.

We looked at state data to make sense of it, which shows most of the deaths in the area - 35 of the 56 - come from Quince Nursing and Rehabilitation center.

“In the zip codes where we have more elderly we expect to see more deaths because most of our deaths are in those 55 and over,” said McCullers. “Many of our deaths come from nursing homes because that’s where many of the elderly are.”

Nursing homes account for some deaths in the other two zip codes.

The Investigators also looked at death rates in counties surrounding Shelby.

Crockett County in Tennessee, Cross County in Arkansas and Tate and Tunica counties in Mississippi had the highest death rates, much higher than Shelby County’s.

“What about rural areas may contribute to more susceptibility from both contracting and dying from COVID?” asked the Investigators.

“With many small hospitals closing and doctors moving out of these areas, health care is more difficult to come by,” said McCullers.

Meanwhile, Phyllis Bonner knows first-hand what COVID-19 can steal from a family.

“We are having a very hard time coping with this. His grandchildren, his daughters, his sons,” she said. “You still have to be careful. You have to be very careful what we’re dealing with now.”

Health officials are concerned family gatherings will lead to more COVID-19 deaths, especially with the holidays coming up.

They urge mask wearing and social distancing as a second wave of coronavirus is expected.

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