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Sheryl Pabatao’s parents, Alfredo and Susana, were health care workers in one of the most COVID-19-ravaged parts of New Jersey. They were married 44 years. (Rosem Morton, special to ProPublica)

“Similar to Times of War”: The Staggering Toll of COVID-19 on Filipino Health Care Workers

One of every four Filipinos in the New York-New Jersey area is employed in the health care industry. With at least 30 worker deaths and many more family members lost to the coronavirus, a community at the epicenter of the pandemic has been left reeling.

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When Alfredo Pabatao told his family that he had helped move a suspected coronavirus patient through the hospital where he’d worked as an orderly for nearly 20 years, he didn’t make a big deal out of it. “My parents are the type of parents who don’t like to make us worry,” his youngest daughter, Sheryl, recalled. But Sheryl was concerned that her father’s vulnerabilities weren’t being given more consideration as he toiled on the pandemic’s front lines in hard-hit northern New Jersey. “Why would they let a 68-year-old man with an underlying heart condition … transport a suspected COVID patient when there’s younger transporters in the hospital who could do it?”

Sheryl’s mother, Susana, was an assistant nurse in a long-term care facility where she often pulled double shifts, saving money for her annual trips back to the Philippines. At 64, she wasn’t much younger than the elderly patients she helped bathe and feed, and she had diabetes, which increased her risk of severe complications if she got sick. The nursing home wasn’t providing adequate personal protection equipment, Susana reported, so Sheryl brought home a stash of surgical masks for her mother to wear on the job. That didn’t go over well with Susana’s managers, Sheryl said: “They gave her a warning, saying she shouldn’t be wearing that. … She was really mad.”

Alfredo fell ill first, his symptoms flaring on March 17. Susana soon developed a fever. The couple had grown up on the same street in Manila and shared a romance that reminded their daughter of a telenovela; after 44 years of marriage and five children, they were all but inseparable. “Where mom goes, my dad goes. Where my dad goes, my mom goes. That’s the way they are,” Sheryl said. The day Alfredo was admitted to the ICU, his heart failing, Susana checked into the same hospital. They died four days apart.

Filipino American medical workers have suffered some of the most staggering losses in the coronavirus pandemic. In the New York-New Jersey region alone, ProPublica learned of at least 30 deaths of Filipino health care workers since the end of March and many more deaths in those peoples’ extended families. The virus has struck hardest where a huge concentration of the community lives and works. They are at “the epicenter of the epicenter,” said Bernadette Ellorin, a community organizer.

Some of the largest Filipino enclaves on the East Coast are in the New York City borough of Queens and northern New Jersey — the very places now being ravaged by COVID-19.

Filipinos are on the front lines there and across the country, four times more likely to be nurses than any other ethnic group in the U.S., experts say. In the New York-New Jersey region, nearly a quarter of adults with Filipino ancestry work in hospitals or other medical fields, a ProPublica analysis of 2017 U.S. census data found. The statistic bears repeating: Of every man and woman in the Filipino community there, one in four works in the health care industry.

“So many people can rattle off five, 10 relations that are working in the medical field,” said filmmaker Marissa Aroy, whose most recent documentary is about Filipino nurses. Her parents were registered nurses in California, and various relatives are in health care professions, including a cousin who works in a rehab center in the Bronx and recently recovered from COVID-19. “Think about all of those family members who are going to be affected,” Aroy said. “We’re talking about huge family structures here.”

The scale of the trauma and the way it is unfolding are “similar to times of war,” said Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York who has written extensively about Filipino American psychology and culture.

Pabatao lights a candle for her parents’ urn. (Rosem Morton, special to ProPublica)

The majority of the reported deaths have involved nurses, including Susan Sisgundo and Ernesto “Audie” DeLeon, who worked at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and Marlino Cagas, who spent 40 years as a pharmacy tech at Harlem Hospital before embarking on a nursing career at the age of 60. A handful, including Jessie Ariel Ferreras, a family practitioner in Bergen County, were doctors. Others worked in support roles, like Louis Torres, 47, the director of food services at a nursing home in Woodside, Queens, and his 73-year-old mother, Lolita, or Lely, a clerk at a nearby hospital. They lived together and fell sick around the same time, both developing pneumonia. Lolita died on April 7, her son, the following day.

Don Ryan Batayola, a 40-year-old occupational therapist, was from a big, tight-knit family and lived in Springfield Township, New Jersey. He is believed to have caught the virus from a patient and was rushed to the hospital on March 31. By April 4, he had improved enough to FaceTime with his wife, also an occupational therapist who was sick and self-isolating at home, their children sheltering with relatives. Then, an hour later, he went into cardiac arrest.

One of the most wrenching aspects of the epidemic is the sense of disconnection and helplessness in a community that stakes its economic well-being on providing care and comfort and cherishes its closeness. So many members of Batayola’s extended family are health care workers, “we could almost open our own hospital,” said his oldest sister Aimee Canton, an oncology nurse in Northern California. But to protect each other, they’ve had to remain apart, with no idea when they’ll be able to come together again. “It’s so sad when you’re a nurse,” Canton said, “and you can’t even help your own family.”

Almost all the deaths of Filipino American health care workers that ProPublica found involve people, like the Batayolas, who immigrated during the 1970s to 2000s, when critical shortages created opportunities for medical personnel with the right training.

But the story of Filipino nurses in the U.S. goes back much further, to the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, when the Philippines became a U.S. territory, said Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History.” One legacy of the colonial era is a network of hundreds of Americanized nursing schools that eventually produced tens of thousands of caregivers a year, making the country “the leading exporter of nurses in the world,” Choy said.

Nursing offered an escape route from economic and political instability and a path to the middle class for those who had few other options. It also appealed to deeply held cultural values: “kapwa,” Tagalog for “a feeling of interconnectedness to all people, putting others before yourself and taking care of the community,” Nadal said, and “utang ng loob,” the idea that people owe a debt to each other and to those who came before.

Most nurses trained in the Philippines who sought work abroad hoped to end up in the U.S. (They also migrated in large numbers to the Middle East and the U.K.) American immigration policies ebbed and flowed depending on labor shortages and political expediency. In the first third of the 20th century, the numbers of Filipino nurses were small; most workers from the islands were sent to the fields of California and the plantations of Hawaii. Then, in the wake of the Great Depression, Filipino immigrants were capped at just 50 per year, rising to 100 after World War II.

After the war, U.S. nursing shortages grew acute. Even as the passage of Medicare and Medicaid made health care more accessible to the elderly and poor, the rise of the feminist movement, which opened up professional opportunities for American women, made caregiver work less appealing, Choy said. The Immigration Act of 1965 swept aside the long-standing system of country-based quotas, instead giving preference to immigrants with professional degrees. Tens of thousands of Filipino nurses answered the call.

Caregivers on the Front Lines

The scale of losses among Filipino Americans from COVID-19 is only beginning to sink in. Clockwise from top left: Don Ryan Batayola, an occupational therapist; Alfredo Pabatao, a hospital orderly; Susan Sisgundo, a neonatal ICU nurse; Ernesto “Audie” DeLeon, a hospital nurse; Susana Pabatao, a long-term care nurse; Daisy Doronila, a correctional facility nurse.

Clockwise from top left: Courtesy of Aimee Canton, courtesy of Sheryl Pabatao, courtesy of New York State Nurses Association (both Sisgundo and DeLeon), courtesy of Sheryl Pabatao, courtesy of Denise Rendor.

Many ended up at inner-city and rural hospitals that had the greatest difficulty recruiting staff, often working the least desirable jobs and shifts, including, in the 1980s and ’90s, on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic. It was part of a historical pattern, said Nadal, of “immigrants doing a lot of the dirty work that people don’t want to do... being painted as heroes, when in reality they are only put in these positions because their lives are viewed as disposable.”

Yet it was a template for economic security that many of their American-born children and grandchildren embraced. “It’s like any kind of family dynamic,” Aroy said. “You see your parents do the job. And so then you know that that’s accessible to you. As a second- generation kid, I always knew that was a path for me if I wanted it.”

Today, people of Filipino ancestry comprise about 1% of the U.S. population but more than 7% of the hospital and health care workforce in the United States — nearly 500,000 workers, according to census data. They find themselves fighting not just a potentially lethal illness, but the scapegoating stoked by President Donald Trump and supporters who have taken to calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” Since late March, civil rights organizations have received nearly 1,500 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents, mostly from California and New York, including against Filipino Americans.

“This anti-Asian racism that’s happening right now,” Aroy said, “what it makes me want to do is scream out: ‘How dare you treat us like the carriers? We are your caregivers.’”

A host of factors, from medical to cultural, have put large numbers of Filipinos in harm’s way and made them vulnerable to the types of severe complications that often turn deadly. They begin with the specific type of health care work they do.

A survey by the Philippine Nurses Association of America published in 2018 found that a large proportion of respondents were concentrated in bedside and critical care — “the opposite of social distancing,” said executive director Leo-Felix Jurado, who teaches nursing at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Many of the organization’s members have contracted the virus, he said, including the current president, New Jersey-based registered nurse Madelyn Yu; she is recovering, but her husband died.

For Daisy Doronila, employed at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in northern New Jersey for more than two decades, the profession was almost a religious calling. “My mom had a very, very humble beginning,” said her only child, Denise Rendor. “She really wanted to take care of people that no one wanted to take care of.”

Doronila saw her responsibilities to her colleagues no less seriously. The single mother and devout Catholic “was always the most reliable person at the job,” Rendor said. “If there was a snowstorm, people called out, nope, not her: ‘I’ll be there.’” As a kid, Rendor sometimes resented the missed volleyball games and dance recitals. Looking back now, “I don’t think I would have the life that I had had my mom not worked so hard.”

It’s not clear how Doronila contracted the virus, though the Hudson County jail has had at least four deaths. Once she fell ill in mid-March, she was turned away for testing by clinics and doctors on three occasions because her symptoms didn’t meet the criteria at the time, Rendor said. On March 21, Doronila started feeling breathless and drove herself to urgent care, which sent her by ambulance to the hospital. She died on April 5 at the age of 60.

If she hadn’t gotten sick, Rendor is sure she would have been volunteering for extra shifts. “That’s just who my mother was. She was just always willing to help.”

That selflessness is common among Filipino immigrants, said Zenei Cortez, a registered nurse in the San Francisco Bay Area who is the president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. “They have such a profound willingness to work that they would forget their own well-being,” she said. “They would think of their loved ones in the Philippines — if they don’t work, then they can’t send money back home.”

In 2019, Filipinos abroad sent $35 billion back to the Philippines, making it the fourth-largest recipient of overseas remittances in the world; many are also helping to support networks of relatives in the U.S. “That’s the economic factor that is on the minds of a lot of Filipino nurses,” Cortez said. “If we miss work, there will be no income.”

It’s a worry that keeps many Filipinos doing sometimes-grueling labor well into their 70s. Doronila’s colleague at the Hudson County jail, nurse Edwin Montanano, was 73 when he died in early April. Jesus Villaluz, a much-beloved patient transporter at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, one of the worst-hit hospitals in northern New Jersey, was 75. “They cannot in their conscience walk away from patients who need them,” said Maria Castaneda, a registered nurse and the secretary-treasurer of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, who immigrated from the Philippines in 1984. “At the same time, they are there in solidarity with other co-workers. If they are not there, it adds to the burden of those who are working.”

COVID-19 risks are magnified in people who are older or suffer underlying chronic conditions. Filipinos have very high rates of Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, both of which render the virus more dangerous. “They’re doing amazing things and helping others to survive,” Nadal said. “But they’re putting themselves at risk because they have immuno-compromised traits that make them susceptible to severe sickness and death.”

And in many situations, they’ve been forced to do that work without proper PPE and other safeguards, said Ellorin, the Queens-based community organizer and executive director of the advocacy group Mission to End Modern-Day Slavery. They are “being infected and not being protected, and then their families, or whoever they live with, are getting infected.”

Sheryl Pabatao thinks of the many people she knows who are working in hospitals and other medical settings and feel unable to speak out. “Even though they don’t want to do things, they still do it because they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

When they first applied to immigrate to the U.S. in the 1980s, Alfredo Pabatao was in the car business; Susana was a former nursing student turned housewife and mother of two. By the time their petition was approved about 14 years later, their two eldest children were too old to qualify to come to the U.S. with their parents, so the Pabataos were forced to leave them behind, bringing only their youngest two daughters and son. “To this day, that was one of the hardest things — being separated from everyone,” Sheryl said.

One of the few photos of Susana and Alfredo Pabatao and all five of their children. (Rosem Morton, special to ProPublica)

They arrived in the U.S. a few weeks after 9/11. One of Alfredo’s sisters, a registered nurse, helped him get a job transporting patients at her hospital, now known as Hackensack Meridian Health Palisades Medical Center, in North Bergen, New Jersey. “My father grew up with wealth, and when he came here, he had to be modest and humble,” Sheryl said. Susana earned her assistant nursing certification while working as a grocery store cashier, then went to work at what is now called Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus, the largest hospital and licensed nursing home in the state. Taking care of elderly people helped ease the sadness and guilt at what she had left behind. “She was not able to take care of her own mother,” Sheryl said. “So when she does her job here, she cares for them like her own.”

America proved to be both generous and hard. The couple prospered enough to buy a house, then lost it in the Great Recession. They managed to rebuild their lives and gained their U.S. citizenship, the kids choosing careers in the pharmaceutical side of health care. After 18 years in the same job, Alfredo was waiting for Susana to retire so he could, too.

Then came the pandemic.

Sheryl had been following the news reports from China since early February and was concerned enough about her family to procure a small supply of masks before vendors ran out; “I’d put my parents in a bubble if I can,” she said. Her father was more easygoing: “He has survived so many things in his life. His attitude is: ‘If I get it, I get it. I’ll be OK with it.’”

Sheryl doesn’t know how the responsibility fell to him to transport a patient suspected of having COVID-19 during the second week in March. “But knowing my dad, he agrees to anything. He has that work ethic: ‘This is my job. If I can do it, l do it.’ Knowing him, if one of the other [orderlies] didn’t want to transfer the patient, they asked him and he said yes.”

When Susana found out her husband had been exposed to the virus that way, she was not happy, Sheryl said. Susana was having her own issues at the nursing home. In mid-March, she received an email from her bosses that warned in boldface, “Facemasks are to be used only by staff who have an authorized or clinical reason to use them. Do not wear non-hospital issued facemasks.” It was a policy Susana complained was being made by people who weren’t doing bedside care and didn’t understand the real risks. She was also told the masks would scare patients. She pretended to obey the directive when her managers were around, Sheryl said, “but my mom was stubborn, so when they left, she put [her mask] back on.”

Before she died, Susana gave her children a black notebook filled with the essential information they need to put their parents’ affairs in order. (Rosem Morton, special to ProPublica)

Bergen New Bridge called Susana a “valued” employee who is “greatly missed.” The hospital denied that it has experienced any PPE shortages, but it noted that “guidance from federal and state health officials regarding the use of PPE has been evolving.” Early on, “it was recommended that masks were to be worn only by those individuals who were sick or those who were caring for COVID-19 patients.” Once the virus began spreading within the community, “we quickly moved to universal masking of all employees,” the hospital said. “Like all healthcare facilities, our Medical Center has stressed the importance of using hospital-issued PPE, as guided by the CDC.”

As of April 29, New Bridge’s long-term care facility had recorded 120 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 26 deaths. Hackensack Meridian Health didn’t respond to ProPublica’s requests for comment about Alfredo’s case.

It wasn’t just Alfredo and Susana who fell ill. Sheryl and her brother, both living at home, caught the virus, too. The weekend before Alfredo’s symptoms emerged, he and the rest of the family attended a gathering in honor of a relative who had died in January from cancer. Alfredo spent much of the party talking to his younger brother; later, the brother ended up with COVID-19 and on a ventilator for nearly three weeks. An aunt of Sheryl’s who is a housekeeper in the same hospital system as Alfredo wasn’t at the gathering but fell ill anyway and was out sick for two weeks. Her symptoms weren’t as severe as those of some of the others; she’s already back at work.

The spread of the virus has been unrelenting for Sheryl. When she returned to her own job as a pharmacy tech this past week, a month after her parents died, she learned that someone who worked at her company — who was also Filipino — had died during her absence. “You have no idea about the extent of this,” she said, “until it hits you.”

Sophie Chou contributed reporting.

Correction, May 5, 2020: This story originally misspelled the first name of the president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. She is Zenei Cortez, not Zeine.

Correction, May 5, 2020: This story originally misspelled the first name of the president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. She is Zenei Cortez, not Zeine.

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