Over three weeks last spring, COVID-19 took Juan Carlos Delgado’s family from him one by one — first older brother Julio, then younger sibling Luis, and finally his mother, Juanita.
"It’s still very difficult, because there was never a weekend when I wasn’t with them," Delgado, 43, said in Spanish from his Brentwood home, where marble urns with the ashes of his mother and brothers rest on wooden shelves in the living room.
Few places in New York have been as devastated by COVID-19 as Brentwood, which on Feb. 25 became the first Long Island community to surpass 10,000 confirmed cases. The hamlet’s 163 cases per 1,000 residents is the highest rate of any Long Island community of more than 500 people, a Newsday analysis of Suffolk and Nassau county data shows.
Experts and residents said crowded housing, a large number of essential workers and greater reliance on public transportation than in the rest of the region help explain the pandemic’s impact on Brentwood.
"People are careful. But even under the best precautions the way Brentwood moves, so to speak, it precludes people from truly being 100 percent safe 100 percent of the time," said Marcos Maldonado, who has been active in numerous community organizations in the hamlet and has lost several friends to the disease. "So many people can say they know someone or are related to someone who passed away from COVID in Brentwood."
Suffolk County referred questions on the number of COVID-19 deaths in Brentwood to the state Department of Health, which did not respond to queries or confirm whether it has mortality data by community.
Nearly 44,000 of Brentwood’s more than 63,000 residents, or 69%, are Latino, giving it the largest Hispanic population on Long Island, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The hamlet is 15% white, non-Hispanic; 12% Black, non-Hispanic; and 2% Asian.
Brentwood’s 163 cases per 1,000 people is far higher than the neighboring, mostly white communities of Commack, with 97 cases per 1,000, and Hauppauge, with 98. Suffolk County as a whole has 111 cases per 1,000 people, and Nassau has 112.
Across the nation, experts say communities with large Latino and Black populations tend to be more heavily impacted by the pandemic than those with white, non-Hispanic majorities.
Brentwood is a community mainly of single-family homes on quiet, tree-lined streets, sandwiched between the Long Island Expressway and Southern State Parkway in the center of Long Island. The median annual household income of $82,165 is about $19,000 below the Suffolk County median.
Maldonado said that among Latino households in Brentwood, it’s common for generations of family to live under the same roof, including grandparents — who are put at higher risk because younger family members have to work outside the home and can unknowingly bring the virus back with them.
Brentwood’s average household size of 4.52 people is 75% larger than the statewide average of 2.59 and 52% bigger than Suffolk County as a whole, with 2.97 people per household, Census Bureau estimates show.
Most residents have jobs they cannot do at home, including restaurant, hospital, construction, distribution center and factory work, Maldonado said.
"The epidemic tends to be focused on people who have to work [outside the home] and can’t really control their exposure," said Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University and an expert on health disparities. "Communities where there’s a large number of people who can work from home are able to protect themselves to a greater extent."
That greater exposure has a ripple effect, Clouston said, because "when they go home, they bring that [potential exposure] into their house, but also when they go grocery shopping and when they go to the deli. The risk in the community as a whole is elevated because there are all these essential workers. And that’s been happening a lot in communities of color, and in general in communities where people need to work outside the home."
Delgado said his brothers both worked in factories, although it’s unclear where they contracted the virus. Julio and Luis Delgado, and Juanita María Borja Jiménez, lived together in their Brentwood home.
"The four of us had always been close," said Juan Carlos Delgado, who talked with his mother three times a day by phone and considered her "my father and my mother" because he had had little contact with his late father.
Borja said, " ‘When I’m with my three sons, I’m the happiest person in the world,’ " recalled Daisy García-Prieto Delgado, 44, Juan Carlos Delgado’s wife. "She said that to everyone. She adored her sons."
Julio Delgado, 44, died first, on April 26, and 11 days later, Luis Delgado, 41, passed. Their mother, 64, succumbed on May 19.
"I feel a very large emptiness," Juan Carlos Delgado said. "I never thought I’d lose them."
Victor Castaneda, 61, came close to dying from COVID-19. The Brentwood man spent three months in the hospital, nearly two of them on a ventilator and in a coma. He still has lingering effects from the disease, including body aches and an inability to move his fingers enough to make a fist.
"I breathe a little better, but I still feel tired," he said in Spanish after getting his first COVID-19 vaccine dose at a state pop-up vaccination site at La Espiguita Soccer Academy last month.
Martine Hackett, an associate professor of health professions at Hofstra University and an expert on health inequities, said she was surprised by how high Brentwood’s coronavirus rate was compared with other places.
"It really does jump out in terms of how much higher it is than other communities of color in Nassau or Suffolk," she said.
In general, people of color are more likely to live in crowded housing and have jobs as essential workers, she said. Those factors may be even more pronounced in Brentwood than elsewhere, she said.
In addition, Brentwood has a large immigrant population, and those who arrived more recently might have fewer ties to the community and less exposure to preventative information about COVID-19, she said.
Nearly 43% of Brentwood residents were born abroad, and 32% of residents age 5 and older speak English less than "very well," according to Census estimates.
Many of those immigrants are living in the country illegally, said Maidaya Maldonado, operations director of Adelante of Suffolk County, a Brentwood-based social services nonprofit.
"If you don’t have the correct documents, you don’t have access to all of the services" that help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, including government health benefits, unemployment insurance and stimulus checks, she said. That leads to more pressure to work in high-risk jobs, she said.
Clouston said that includes pressure to show up for work even if they’re sick, for fear of losing their jobs or getting their hours cut if they don’t.
People living in the country illegally also often don’t seek medical care until their symptoms are severe, and they may worry about getting COVID-19 tests if they have to provide their names, phone numbers and addresses, Clouston said. Testing helps control the spread of the virus by identifying who is infected, health experts said.
The county put one of its temporary "hot-spot" coronavirus testing sites in Brentwood in the spring. One of the current county-run vaccination sites is at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, which in addition to hosting the general public has hosted vaccinations last month targeted at Suffolk educators, including educators of color. The La Espiguita pop-up vaccination site inoculated 400 residents of Brentwood and nearby communities on Feb. 26.
Hackett said the coronavirus spreads when "you have people closer together for longer periods of time who are not able to be isolated from one other, and who are having that happen over a long period of time." In places like Brentwood, many people have no choice but to be close to others at work or at home, making it more difficult to prevent virus transmission, she said.
"If the rate starts off higher and you have the same conditions, it’s going to continue to be high," Hackett said.
With Matt Clark
Brentwood has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 compared with Long Island as a whole and neighboring communities.
Cases per 1,000 people:
- Brentwood: 163
- Suffolk County: 111
- Nassau County: 112
- Hauppauge: 98
- Commack: 97
SOURCE: Newsday analysis of Suffolk and Nassau County data