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Residents say they are being kept in the dark about COVID-19 as nearly 90 deaths are recorded at low-income housing in Chicago. ‘This is dangerous.'

Thursday, May 21, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Cecilia Reyes & Elvia Malagon

At least three people have died from COVID-19 in the senior citizens’ high-rise where Laura Brownlee lives, including a close friend she visited often.

But the landlord has said nothing about them to residents, who are more vulnerable to the disease and might want to take extra precautions, like following the advice of city health experts and moving out of such housing when there’s a heightened risk.

“These are senior suites up in here, seems like someone should be coming in and testing everybody," Brownlee said by phone. “I’m already afraid it’s all over. And I don’t wanna go out like that.”

Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, which runs Kingston Place on the South Side, would not comment on the three deaths reported there by the Cook County medical examiner’s office as of May 19. “In order to respect the privacy of the tenants of the building, we do not release information regarding deaths or those who choose to be tested and are confirmed positive.”

A Tribune investigation found that residents at subsidized housing across Chicago have been told little, if anything, about COVID-19 cases where they live, even though they are generally older and in poorer health and therefore at higher risk.

Ramonita Masas, 66, looks out from a common balcony in her Chicago Housing Authority apartment building on the Near North Side on May 8, 2020. She said the pandemic has meant she hasn’t had a chance to talk to her neighbors or knock on their doors like she usually would.
Ramonita Masas, 66, looks out from a common balcony in her Chicago Housing Authority apartment building on the Near North Side on May 8, 2020. She said the pandemic has meant she hasn’t had a chance to talk to her neighbors or knock on their doors like she usually would.(Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

So far, 89 people in low-income housing in the city have died from complications linked to the novel coronavirus. Half of them were older than 76, an analysis of data shows.

They include seniors in at least 19 buildings managed by the Chicago Housing Authority, and residents in 51 buildings where apartments are subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the city of Chicago.

About 70% of the people who died were black and had underlying conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and hypertension.

The numbers parallel broader city data that shows black residents of Chicago are dying of COVID-19 complications at much higher rates than whites, while cases in communities that are largely Latino are surging past other areas. Of the nearly 13,600 people who live in CHA public housing, 73% are black and 12% are Latino.

Advocates say residents in public housing are often just as vulnerable as people in nursing homes, where the death rates have garnered more attention. Some residents told the Tribune that little information about potential exposure has trickled down to them. Others said they feel like they’ve been left to fend for themselves.

“You would think some of the community leaders would make sure we had groceries and masks and gloves or something,” said Luana Bell, 74, who lives in senior housing in the South Deering area on the Far South Side.

Bell walks to a nearby store to buy groceries or catches a ride with a friend. She worries about neighbors who aren’t as mobile, particularly those who use wheelchairs. “Nobody has done anything.”

‘You need good transparency’

Last month, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady acknowledged the increased risk of living in senior housing. She told an online forum that families should reconsider their loved ones’ living arrangements if they don’t require additional care.

“If there is the possibility to remove folks from these higher-risk settings, that’s a good thing," Arwady said. “We know that it’s not possible for the great majority of families.”

Both HUD and CHA need to do much more to protect those people, according to Rosanna Márquez, president of AARP Illinois.

HUD could require landlords to implement an emergency plan during the pandemic, including providing more information to residents about cases and possible exposure, she said.

Márquez, who has worked for HUD, said the agency has the authority to intervene because it provides funding. "HUD has the leverage to step in as a regulator,” she said.

HUD, in an email response, said the agency had contacted the owners of 123 out of 124 retirement buildings in Cook County. The agency found 47 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least nine fatalities at the buildings.

The federal agency said it is allowing building owners to use operating funds to cover staff overtime, hire additional security and buy cleaning supplies during the pandemic. Tenants are still expected to pay rent, but landlords can’t file evictions for nonpayment during the health crisis.

HUD said it hadn’t received requests from any buildings in Cook County for more funding or gotten reports of evictions.

The CHA, in a statement last week, said it knows of 59 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among residents of its housing, based “largely” on self-reporting. It added that the agency “is not required to track or verify cases and, due to privacy issues, (does) not inquire about the health status of residents.”

After a confirmed case is reported, common areas are sanitized and the agency works with the Chicago Department of Public Health, according to the statement. The CHA also provides every resident with a surgical-style mask, and sends updates on public health guidelines and testing protocols.

But Márquez said the CHA should directly provide residents with information about cases and take measures to prevent exposure. “They have more of an affirmative duty to check on their residents,” she said.

Márquez said she supports an ordinance by Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, that calls for nurses to conduct well-being checks at CHA housing, along with mandatory screening of visitors and more protective equipment to complexes.

Advocates worry that if the ordinance doesn’t advance quickly, it may not be implemented until July as the city begins to reopen.

Contact tracing could stop the spread in low-income buildings, Márquez said, but agencies need to turn to state or city health departments to do it. And just like nursing homes, affordable buildings for seniors should provide timely information to residents and families about COVID-19 cases and outbreaks.

“You need good transparency,” Márquez said. “They need to have the best information about what’s going on so they can make the best informed decision to stay where they are, bring them home or move them elsewhere."

A spokeswoman for the city’s public health department said it has been working closely with congregate living facilities and requires buildings to report clusters, defined as two or more cases occurring within 14 days.

Across the nation, only a few states and cities have focused on curbing the novel coronavirus in public housing.

On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded free testing at 40 public housing locations after saying earlier that such housing “is one of the greatest places of concentration and it’s one of the greatest places of health disparities in the first place.”

Ramonita Masas, 66, in her CHA studio apartment on the Near North Side.
Ramonita Masas, 66, in her CHA studio apartment on the Near North Side.(Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
Ramonita Masas with a picture of herself at age 26 atop a dresser in her CHA apartment.
Ramonita Masas with a picture of herself at age 26 atop a dresser in her CHA apartment.(Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

‘This is dangerous’

Carmen Betances, 68, lives at Elizabeth Woods Apartments, a CHA senior complex in Lincoln Park. In mid-March, as the pandemic spread rapidly, residents took it upon themselves to clean elevator buttons and common areas. She doesn't think her building’s management takes precautions seriously.

“Eventually people will have contact,” Betances said. “We’re gonna have a massive grave.”

Elena El-Alwan, 69, lives in the same building as Betances. She's nervous because she still sees people congregating in common areas.

“It’s very depressing because I don’t wanna get sick,” El-Alwan said. Her sister is in a nursing home and has been quarantined after another resident contracted the virus. “This is dangerous. … I don’t need people coming in and out of my building.”

Ramonita Masas, 66, a resident at a CHA building on the Near North Side, had surgery on her spine in early March, just before the stay-at-home order. She hopes she’ll be able to see a doctor in person by June. She’s in pain but she’s trying to manage it by herself at home.

“I don’t want to go to no doctor right now,” Masas said by phone. “In my condition, my sugar is going up high. If I go to a clinic or a hospital with all these things going around? I might be able to catch it, and I’m afraid of it.”

Cecilia Reyes

Cecilia Reyes is a reporter who uses data to uncover systemic abuses and bolster investigations. She's written about racial disparities in the pricing and waste of drinking water around Chicago, and is interested in housing and criminal justice. Born and raised in Mexico City, Reyes also worked as a fellow at ProPublica in New York.

Elvia Malagón is a general assignment reporter interested in immigration, the census and breaking news. She joined the Tribune in 2016. She previously covered courts for The Times of Northwest Indiana, reporting on a suspected serial killer and death penalty cases. Elvia is an Indiana University graduate.

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