by Mariama Jallow, Turner Jones, Alexandra Karlinchak and Lilian Nassif

It’s not just the elderly.

As COVID-19 continues to upend lives since the pandemic reached North Carolina 14 months ago, the deaths of essential workers who toiled on the frontlines of healthcare and other professions have been overlooked.

For the last few months, Triad City Beat worked with students at Wake Forest University to assemble a database to get a clear picture of who was dying of COVID-19 in the Triad.

Like elsewhere in the country, the vast majority of those who died from COVID-19 in Guilford and Forsyth counties have been elderly people, including nursing home residents. But the magnitude of these COVID-19 mortalities overshadows deaths among frontline workers, one as young as 26.

The data from this story was assembled from a complete review of death certificates filed with the Guilford County Register of Deeds from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 through March 2021. The reporting team also made use of an incomplete sample of COVID-19 deaths on file at the Forsyth County Register of Deeds to fill out the picture across the region.

More than 12,000 North Carolinians have lost their lives to COVID-19 since the pandemic reached the state in March 2020.

In the Triad, Guilford County has recorded more than 700 deaths, while Forsyth has lost about 375 residents to the virus. Those numbers are roughly proportionate for the third and fifth most populous counties in the state, which anchor the region.

Overwhelmingly, across the globe and here in North Carolina, COVID-19 is a disease that takes the lives of the elderly. Guilford is typical, with 90 percent of COVID-19 deaths befalling people age 60 and older, according to the county’s public health department.

But among the non-elderly population, frontline workers have borne the highest risks. Denied the luxury of working remotely, by necessity they have put themselves in close proximity to the virus through assisting elderly residents in nursing homes, working behind cash registers, delivering food to grocery stores, providing bedside care in hospitals and repairing industrial appliances, among other jobs. And among the working-age residents of Guilford and Forsyth counties, rates of death for people of color and immigrants were more than double their white and native-born counterparts.

Frontline workers like those at JLG Bargain Box have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

In NC, teachers, nurses, doctors, truck drivers, grocery-store employees, caregivers, police officers, journalists, government employees, foodservice workers and transportation employees are just a few examples of positions that are considered essential. In contrast to the 26 NC residents counted by the Department of Labor as perishing in COVID-19-related workplace deaths, TCB’s database includes 83 people under the age of 65 who died from COVID-19 in Guilford County — excluding those whose death certificates listed them as disabled, never worked, homemaker, college student or unknown occupations. More than half were residents of Guilford County, with the remainder hailing from Randolph, Alamance, Rockingham, Forsyth, Davidson, Granville and Mecklenburg.

A look at who works frontline jobs — and who pays for it

Frontline jobs are disproportionately filled by people of color and are poorly paid. Like COVID-19 deaths on a national scale, the people who lost their lives in the workplace in Guilford County are disproportionately African American and Latinx. Among working-age people in Guilford County, racial and ethnic disparities are stark. African-American and Latinx people are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19. In Guilford County, 28 out of every 100,000 Black residents and 32 out of every 100,000 Latinx residents who were under the age of 65 died from COVID-19, according to TCB’s analysis. In contrast, only 13 out of every 100,000 working-age non-Latinx white residents died. The rate for people of Asian descent was 16 out of every 100,000 residents, slightly higher than that of white people.

Immigrants working in construction and manufacturing in Guilford County have disproportionately borne the brunt of deaths during the pandemic. Similar to the disparities for race and ethnicity, TCB found that working-age adults in Guilford County who were born outside of the United States were almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their native-born counterparts.

Among frontline workers who have lost their lives during the pandemic, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office was hit especially hard, with two employees perishing in as many months in late 2020.

Deputy LaKiya Rouse, a 26-year-old Black bailiff, died on Oct. 21, less than 24 hours after testing positive for COVID-19. Rouse, a Greensboro resident “died from complications as a result of contracting COVID-19 in a presumed exposure while on duty at the Guilford County Courthouse,” according to a statement released by the sheriff’s office.

Deputy Norman Daye, a 52-year-old Black Gibsonville resident who worked in the warrant department at the sheriff’s office, also died from COVID-19.

Natalie Bouchard, a spokesperson for the NC Department of Labor, told TCB that Guilford County government neglected to report Rouse and Daye’s death to the Occupational Safety and Health Division. Bouchard said the division opened fatality inspections on both deaths on Jan. 11, and determined that there had been a COVID outbreak at the courthouse. She said the division issued citations to Guilford County government for failure to report fatalities within eight hours with penalties of $3,750 in both cases. Following informal conferences, the state agency agreed to drop the citation for Rouse’s death, while Guilford County accepted responsibility for failing to report Daye’s death and paid the full penalty, Bouchard said.

Frontline workers who have lost their lives to COVID-19 worked in an array of industries, including healthcare, education and construction.

Driver Donnie Matthews of Growdega mobile food market. Data has also shown that Black and brown people are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 as well. (photo by Nikki Miller-Ka)

Tyra Kinsler, a Black High Point native, was employed as a teacher in the Guilford County Schools. She died at the age of 55 at the Green Valley facility set aside by Cone Health for COVID-19 patients on Feb. 21. Kinsler led the kitchen ministry as a member of New Hope Baptist Church, according to her obituary. She loved to bake, laugh with friends and listen to gospel music.

Tara Pendergrass, who is white, had worked for Graybrier Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Randolph County for six years when the pandemic reached North Carolina, her mother said. The 29-year-old certified nursing assistant never considered quitting.

“She knew that there was a risk, but it was her job,” Jennifer Pendergrass told TCB. “She was there every day. She did not complain. She did what she was supposed to do.”

Beyond her responsibilities to care for the residents, Pendergrass went out of her way to bring joy into their lives.

“Tara collected nail polishes — Lord have mercy, she did,” her mother recalled. “In the evening, she would bring nail polish and lotions, and she and the girls would have a little party and paint their nails, and lotion them up.”

As the pandemic got worse and the virus spread through the nursing home, Pendergrass was assigned to work with the residents who were infected.

“It got to the point where several residents there came down with it,” Jennifer Pendergrass said. “She was one of the unlucky ones that got it.”

By Nov. 20, two staff members at Graybrier Nursing & Rehabilitation had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services’ twice weekly reports on coronavirus outbreaks. Four days later, the virus had spread to 21 staff members and seven residents. By Dec. 1, 56 employees of the nursing home and 62 residents were infected.

Based on the length of Pendergrass’ COVID-19 infection as reported on her death certificate, she contracted the virus around Dec. 1. She died from a heart attack at High Point Regional Hospital on Dec. 8.

The virus would continue to spread through Graybrier in December, ultimately claiming the lives of 16 residents and a second staff member, according to DHHS reports.

Her mom said that Pendergrass found joy and connection to her family through music.

“She loved all kinds of music,” her mother recalled. “She loved the ’80s because of me. That’s because of me. She liked the Beatles and Elton John. A lot of that came from my brother. She went to concerts with him. Her and my daughter-in-law went to concerts in the summer. That was their thing.”

Muhammad Siddiqui had only recently moved to North Carolina when he died.

A 59-year-old Asian bridge engineer for the city of New York, Siddiqui continued to come to work when the pandemic swept through the city in March 2020. When Siddiqui, his wife and daughter all got sick, his son — a financial consultant also named Muhammad — urged the family to join him in Winston-Salem. Two days after his arrival in North Carolina, Siddiqui was admitted to Baptist Hospital with a spiking fever.

Siddiqui considered it his duty to continue to come in to work until he got sick, his son said.

“It was so apparent that this was a big pandemic all around the world,” the younger Siddiqui said, looking back to the early days in March 2020. “And things hadn’t shut down yet. And he was being asked to come into the office every day. And he did it diligently because he was a public servant. He cared about his work, right? He wanted to make sure — he worked on the bridges of New York City — we want to make sure that we’re safe.”

Once Muhammad Siddiqui was admitted to Baptist Hospital, his symptoms only got worse and worse.

“They were not allowing anyone in the hospital,” the younger Muhammad said. “The only communication you could have with a loved one was virtual.” 

“If I could go back, I would have had a lot more communication with him earlier, before he was put on the ventilator,” the son continued. “I think I didn’t really realize how severe his case would get until it got there.”

In Siddiqui’s last moments of consciousness in the hospital, he was listening to an audio version of the Quran before being put on the ventilator, his son said.

“He was such a beautiful soul in the way he carried himself, in the way he cared for people,” the younger Muhammad said. “And the energy he brought into a room. So, that way he was able to make people feel. The other thing about him was he was deeply religious. And it informed the character and the way he carried himself in the world.”

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected and updated. The story originally stated that Guilford County Sheriff Deputy LaKiya Rouse’s death was not counted in the NC Department of Labor’s report on 2020 workplace fatalities. That is incorrect. The story has also been updated to reflect regulatory action taken against Guilford County government in response to Rouse’s death and that of another deputy, Norman Daye.

Other Triad frontline lives taken by COVID-19:

  • Kimberly Dawn Tucker, a white mother and waitress in Greensboro, died at Moses Cone Hospital on Jan. 16 at the age of 48.
  • Omar Javier Acevedo Vega was a 24-year old Latinx warehouse laborer who was born in Puerto Rico and lived in Iredell County, according to his death certificate. Vega, who enjoyed mixing Latin music on Soundcloud, died at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem on Dec. 27.
  • Jose Ruben Lainez Manjivar, a Latinx Greensboro factory worker who came to the United States from El Salvador, died at the Green Valley hospital at the age of 53 after a month-long battle with COVID-19.
  • Lugman Daoda, a Black nurse’s aide at Camden Health & Rehabilitation in Greensboro who was born in Nigeria, died at Moses Cone Hospital on Nov. 26.
  • Jessica Michelle Saulters, a Black 30-year-old Lexington resident, also worked as a CNA. She died at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem on Jan. 27.
  • Mckenzie Lea Hatch, a white speech pathologist who worked with special-needs children at Guilford County Schools, died at the age of 43 at the Green Valley hospital on Feb. 2.
  • Walter Delance Cooper, Black, 51, was employed as a patient transporter at a hospital, according to his death certificate. He died at Moses Cone Hospital on March 26.
  • Malcolm Niles Warren, Black, 61 years old, owned a cleaning business in Winston-Salem. He died at Forsyth Medical Center on Jan. 29.

This story was produced with guidance and support, along with reporting assistance, from Jordan Green.

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡