In Mississippi, families of COVID-19 victims say poverty and race determine survival
"It could have been prevented.” said one mom about her daughter's death.
In Mississippi, the country’s poorest state, Cassandra Rollins says she has a million questions.
Her daughter, Shalondra Rollins, a bright-eyed teacher and mother of two, was the first person on record to die from the coronavirus, COVID-19, in Hinds County. Home of the state’s capital, Jackson, nearly three-quarters of the county's population is estimated to be black. Rollins, who was already reeling from the death of her son last year says her grief is now so raw that it feels like an open wound.
“It’s a deep hurt,” she told ABC News. “This [is] actually painful. You know, I’ve always been a strong person. … This hurt has actually got physical, where I just ache some… And I wouldn’t want nobody else to feel it. But it is unexplainable.”
“It felt like, ‘Why me? Why the worst happened to me? … How could this be happening again? How could I lose two children?’” she added.
Mississippi is a land of contradictions. The beauty and magic of its fog-capped hills, lazy rivers and blooming magnolia trees wrestle with generations-old division and inequality.
“The pandemic has shown us that America has a health care system that has not served all of its citizens,” Evelynn Hammonds, chair of the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, told ABC News. “We live in a society that [is] stratified by race. It’s true that race is a part of the discussion we have to have in order to think about the best way to come to terms with this outbreak.”
The coronavirus hasn’t spared any part of the United States but the South, a region that has long struggled with poverty and racism, has been particularly vulnerable.
Studies have shown that the coronavirus has infected and killed nearly three times as many black Americans as white. In Mississippi, the state with the country's largest black population, African Americans comprise 37% of the population but account for 52% of deaths from COVID-19.
“It’s not about differences in bodies or that African Americans have different kinds of susceptibilities biologically to the virus,” Hammonds said, “but rather the ways in which African Americans have not been able to have the same access to health care, the same treatment in the hospital systems and in the medical system.”
African Americans and Latinos are also more likely to live in poverty than white people in the U.S., a result of systematic discrimination in employment and housing.
Hammonds said that poverty, housing density and the kinds of jobs these people have “are things that make one more susceptible” to an illness like COVID-19.
For every life lost from the virus, there are ripple effects that pass from a family into their community. Those who knew Shalondra Rollins described her as a light beloved by her students.
“Shalondra is an amazing person,” her mother said. “She wasn’t just my daughter; she was my friend.”
Cassandra Rollins says her daughter first started complaining of headaches in mid-March.
“She was telling me about these headaches. She normally didn’t have headaches,” Cassandra Rollins said. Soon after, Shalondra Rollins’ 13-year-old daughter, Makalin Odie, also became ill. “So she said, ‘I’m taking Makalin to the doctor and I’m going to go, too.’ So, she went and he gave her a ‘Z-Pack’ for the flu.”
Shalondra and Cassandra Rollins had previously been diagnosed with diabetes and Makalin has asthma. Both conditions increase a person’s risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. When Shalondra Rollins didn’t see any improvement in her symptoms she took her family to Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville, where they insisted on getting tested for the virus.
“We almost had to fight for the test,” Casandra Rollins said. “They were saying, ‘Well, you’re not coughing.’ And we was constantly saying, ‘Well, we’ve been exposed.’”
She said she had to tell the hospital staff about their pre-existing conditions to get the tests. When the results came back, Shalondra Rollins had tested positive for the virus.
Two days after her mother received positive results, Makalin says she was in her bedroom watching TV when she “heard a loud noise out of nowhere.” Her mother’s fiance came in and said she had fallen out of the shower.
“I have many inhalers that’s just sitting around the house, so I try my quickest to find the first one I could and every time I start seeing her breathing real hard, I just give it to her and she would immediately calm down,” Makalin said. “I tried to do my best to keep [her] here.”
Shalondra Rollins was still responsive when the ambulance showed up.
“So she leaves home. This is what really, truly hurts me and gets me. She left home conscious asking for her cell phone, sitting up in the ambulance saying she’s gonna call us,” she said.
An hour later, however, her daughter’s heart stopped and she had died. “The last words she said to me was, ‘I love you’ and ‘Stay strong,’” Makalin said.
For Cassandra Rollins, one of the most difficult moments has been that they couldn’t have a proper funeral for her daughter. Restrictions around large gatherings meant she could only have a small service at her daughter’s graveside.
“At least with my son, my family could fly in and be by my side,” Cassandra Rollins said. “This time, me and my daughter, Sherrie, had to do all this on our own, and grieving two people. We were grieving my son, and then we had to turn around and do this on our own. It was just hard.”
In Mississippi, home to nearly three million people, studies show that blacks receive inferior health care, suffer from negative stereotyping when they go to see a doctor and are less likely to be insured. Access to health care also depends on where someone lives in the state.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who went to school with Shalondra Rollins when they were kids, said. The 37-year-old Democrat comes from a family of community activists. He followed in his late father’s footsteps, first as a lawyer and then as mayor of Jackson.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, he has been in a tug-of-war with Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a white Republican who has already begun reopening the state.
The White House has proposed guidelines for states to satisfy before reopening, including a downward trajectory of documented cases, positive tests and influenza-like illnesses within a 14-day period. Despite these guidelines, Reeves allowed the state's stay-at-home order to expire on April 27. Since then, Mississippi has seen a steady number of new cases and deaths and the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths has doubled as the state continues to ease restrictions.
Lumumba, who wants to wait a little longer to reopen, believes that reopening will put his city with a population that’s over 80% black, at risk.
“I don’t think race is something that we can shy away from,” Lumumba said. “It is a part of the conversation whether we want to speak to it or not. … Now, I won’t speak to the values or the personal beliefs of the governor and whether he doesn’t care about black and brown communities, but I can say that black and brown communities are most adversely affected.”
Reeves told ABC News that “we have to recognize and realize that we have a public health crisis” and that “at the same time, we have an economic crisis.” He said their efforts to protect the state’s black population have included getting “as much information, as much education, out to those communities.”
“We’ve worked with our African American mayors,” Reeves said. “We’ve worked with famous Mississippians to provide PSAs.”
Looking to a future beyond the coronavirus, Lumumba believes his generation’s battle will be gaining equal access to health care.
“The right to vote was the particularly strong push of the 20th century. Then, I think access to health care has to be the right that we must pledge to fight for in the 21st century,” he said. “People can’t afford to be sick. People can’t afford to have a doctor or a physician. … They’re confronted with dinner table discussions about how they put food on the table or how they pay for the much needed medical attention. … And so, that is why we see those disparities. It’s because they’ve always existed.”
These socioeconomic struggles are particularly true for those working in the Mississippi’s poultry industry. As the state’s largest agricultural commodity, the industry generates more than $2.5 billion in sales each year and employs over 25,000 people -- many of whom can’t afford to stay home and whose jobs put them at risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Clara Kincaid, of Holmes County, was one person employed in the industry. At 50 years old, she had worked at the Peco Foods chicken plant in Canton, where she spent more than 20 years moving her way up to supervisor. Her sister-in-law, Francine Jefferson, said the mother of four and grandmother of six began feeling sick in early April before the plant had provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to its employees.
“She was so, so sick. She was coughing like crazy -- couldn’t hardly get her breath,” Jefferson told ABC News.
Jefferson believes Kincaid didn’t speak out about the lack of PPE because she might’ve feared retaliation in the form of losing her job or her position.
“We’re in a community where there are not a lot of jobs… And, not to be funny about this, but black and brown people, we just don’t have a lot of choices,” Jefferson said. “People have to do what they have to do.”
Kincaid, who Jefferson described as the “backbone of the family” and “one of the sweetest people” you could ever meet, drove nearly 40 miles to get tested for COVID-19 in another county. She was sent home after getting the test, and two days later, she died. Her official cause of death was acute respiratory arrest and COVID-19.
“She’s considered an essential worker. All of them are considered essential workers, right, to feed America’s families. Now her family is without their mother,” Jefferson said.
“Had she been white -- had she been anything other than black of brown -- she would have been in the hospital,” Jefferson said. “I think she would have gotten the care she needed and they wouldn’t have sent her home to die. … Today, it feels a little hopeless. Today, I feel helpless. It hurts that much… She deserved better. She really deserved better.”
Randy Hadley is president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union Mid-South Council, which advocates for poultry workers. Although Kincaid wasn’t one of his union’s members, it represents 3,000 plant employees in Mississippi. He called them “heroes” for getting up every morning and “going to work knowing that COVID-19 is in the facility.”
He says that despite being considered essential workers, they are not treated or paid as such. He also said his union has recorded more than 4,500 COVID-19 cases in Mississippi and that plants there have to close periodically for deep cleanings.
One of the companies for which Hadley's members works is Tyson Foods. ABC News spoke to 10 poultry plant workers in Mississippi, including four Tyson employees. All of them declined to be named for fear of retaliation from the company by they shared concerns about the conditions at their plants. The Tyson employees acknowledged they're now being given PPE but said that it was provided late into the outbreak. They also claim that the company isn't always informing employees or the public when coworkers contract the virus.
Tyson Foods declined to tell ABC News how many cases it has seen in its plants statewide, but said in a statement to ABC News: "If there is a confirmed case at one of our locations, as part of our protocol and in collaboration with health officials, we notify anyone who has been in close contact with the person. We also inform team members who have not been exposed."
When asked if an employee had been fired or penalized for speaking out, Tyson responded, "Not to our knowledge."
Hadley says that the nature of working in a plant makes it difficult to socially distance.
“On any given day or any given time, you’ll have as many as [600 to 700] people, and they work on an assembly line. … There’s no way that they can run a poultry operation and people stand 6 feet apart. There’s just absolutely no way.”
Tyson Foods also sent images of barriers and screen protectors that it says have been added in its plants to increase safety between workers.
Hadley says government safety guidelines aren’t enough. “We need testing [at] every one of our facilities and our food processing plants,” he said. “And we need this to be done weekly. You know, as often as possible.”
Peco Foods told ABC News that the company wasn’t aware of Kincaid’s death and that it sends its condolences to her family. The company added that at the time of her death, there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the plant. The company said it's now providing PPE and abiding by government safety recommendations, like implementing temperature screenings and workspace partitions. It is also offering up to 14 days paid leave for an employee who misses work as the result of a positive test.
Despite the risks, in small towns like Canton, jobs like these are often the best ones available.
“It’s a tough job and I notice because sometimes when you leave, you are really tired and your arms hurt,” said one former employee of the Peco Foods plant in Sebastopol, Mississippi.
Miguel, who asked ABC News not to use his real name due to his undocumented status, says the assembly line where he processed 42 chickens a minute was “like a chain.”
“There is no distancing there,” he said.
On Aug. 7, 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted what officials called the largest single-state immigration enforcement in history. Roughly 680 undocumented immigrants were arrested in sweeping raids that targeted seven food processing plants across Mississippi.
Miguel said that morning was like any other at the Peco plant. But shortly after starting his shift, he estimated that 60 agents entered the room with their guns drawn. Confused, he thought that police were responding to a shooting situation until he saw the bulletproof jackets they were wearing, emblazoned with the word “ICE.”
“When I realized it was ICE and they told us nobody could move or talk, I thought of my wife and kids,” Miguel said. “I thought, ‘That’s it. They’ll stay here and I’ll be arrested because I’m an immigrant.’”
Peco Foods uses the government program E-Verify and said that it did not know at the time that its workers were undocumented.
Miguel spent nine months in detention at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, where news slowly trickled in about the coronavirus outbreak. Miguel claims the detention areas were crowded, with up to 44 people in his holding area. When the outbreak began spreading inside the facility, he and other detainees demanded PPE for their own safety.
“Little by little, we began to find out that the coronavirus is here. When I got out, it was up to 14 [people infected] so the other detainees who are still there are even more worried now,” he said.
ICE confirmed to ABC News that there have been 62 cases at Winn Correctional Center. The federal agency also said that all ICE detainees are now issued cloth masks, a policy that began in mid-April.
Now, two weeks since he left detention, Miguel says he is not surprised to learn that meatpacking plants have become COVID-19 hotspots. In part, he said it’s because of the close quarters that people are working in.
“The production line is in front of you,” he said. “All the workers are by your sides and we can’t take a step back because we’d be further away from the line. We are standing there for eight hours.”
Miguel’s case with ICE is still pending. As he waits to see if he’ll be able to deter his deportation proceedings, he says he’s now dealing with the trauma of the ICE raid and the fear of being separated from his wife and two children at home. He recalled spending his last birthday in detention.
“That day, I felt a heavy pain in my heart. … I spent the day feeling sad, crying,” he said. “That day was unforgettable.”
On the day ABC News spoke with her, it was also Cassandra Rollins’ birthday.
"My kids were my friends," she said, reminiscing on past celebrations. "It's not easy."
She confessed that there were moments she wanted to die, so that God could take her home. Instead, she said she focused her thoughts on raising her two grandchildren -- Shalondra Rollins’ children. She said it’s them who motivate her to keep going.
“The grand kids and me, wanting to support them, that gives me hope,” she said. “It gives me lots of hope.”
She said she feels a range of emotions, from pain and anger to anguish, because of a system that leaves people like her and her daughter behind, robbing them of what could have been.
“I’m not big on blaming people, but I do know that when you’re poor, health care is not as good for you. I blame America… I just blame the health care system. That’s who I blame because I feel like it could have been prevented," she said with a pause. "She had such a bright, bright future."
This report is part of “Pandemic – A Nation Divided,” ABC News' special coverage of the heightened racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Tune in to "Nightline" for the second part of a three-day series tonight, 12:05 a.m. ET on ABC.
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