For the uninsured, delaying medical care can have deadly consequence

The sickness accelerated quickly for Don Chuz, a Guatemalan immigrant who had lived in Greenport for about a decade, earning a living in construction. He particularly enjoyed doing tile work.

He had been feeling ill for a few days before his conditioned worsened and he had difficulty breathing, said his nephew Henry Garcia. He stopped eating with the rest of the family. Mr. Garcia grew concerned and encouraged his uncle to go to the hospital.

Mr. Chuz, 55, declined at first. He figured it was a bad cold. And he didn’t have health insurance.

His nephew finally convinced him to seek care early on the morning of April 18. Mr. Garcia brought his uncle outside and prepared to help him into his car so he could drive him to nearby Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital.

But Mr. Chuz collapsed on the street. He couldn’t breathe.

Mr. Garcia dialed 911 and began to perform CPR.

Restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic meant Mr. Garcia could not travel in the ambulance with his uncle. So he stayed behind, and called the hospital after about half an hour for an update. He was told to come to the hospital, where he was given the tragic news: His uncle had died.

The news of Mr. Chuz’s death shined a light around Greenport about the vulnerability of a population of immigrants who may be undocumented and lack health insurance, leading to reluctance to seek medical care. The most recent data from the state Department of Health shows that Hispanics account for 14% of coronavirus-related deaths in New York, excluding New York City, while making up just 12% of the population. An even larger disparity exists in the black population, which makes up 9% of the population yet accounts for 18% of coronavirus fatalities. 

Mr. Garcia cautioned that it remains unclear if his uncle even had COVID-19. He had not been tested before his death and the family has not yet received additional clarity from the medical examiner as to an exact cause.

In the current climate, he said, it’s understandable that people assume it was COVID-19. The day after his uncle died, Mr. Garcia and other family members were tested for the virus. The results have come back negative, he said.

Community Action Southold Town, which has faced an overwhelming task since the pandemic hit locally to continue to provide food and resources to the low-income families in Southold Town, has been at the forefront of an effort to encourage anyone to seek care. 

A new flier from CAST leads with an “urgent” message that reads, in Spanish: “If you have a hard time breathing or other symptoms of the virus, see a doctor or call the nearest hospital and go immediately.”

Cathy Demeroto, CAST’s executive director, said the organization has been providing information in English and Spanish on COVID-19 safety guidelines, food resources, coronavirus testing and the importance of seeking medical attention. Those efforts have been underway since mid-March through a text messaging campaign, fliers posted in the food pantry and placed in Feed-A-Kid bags as well as verbal reminders, social media posts and the CAST website.

Ms. Demeroto said CAST has also recently partnered with Stony Brook ELIH to create additional materials. 

“It is imperative that all members of our community know they can safely receive needed health care irrespective of immigration or financial status,” Ms. Demeroto said in an email. “We will continue to get the word out as we want to ensure that no more lives are lost because of fear of seeking help.”

A spokesperson for Stony Brook ELIH said in a statement that every person who comes to the emergency department will receive care regardless of ability to pay. Stony Brook University Hospital has a financial assistance program to help patients with limited income or no health insurance or who are underinsured and have difficulty paying for services provided. The hospital’s program provides discounts to qualifying individuals based on income. And patients whose income is below four times the federal poverty level may be eligible.

The hospital encourages those with insurance who are seeking care to have their plan identification cards ready so the hospital can bill the insurance carrier directly.

“Please be knowledgeable about your insurance plan’s co-pay amount, deductibles and other important information when going to the emergency department,” the statement said.

Brent Pelton, an attorney who owns American Beech and the historic Stirling Square property in Greenport, said his New York City-based law firm represents a number of Hispanic workers in the city. He said he’s heard stories of people in the city declining to seek medical care. And when he heard about Mr. Chuz, it hit home that it’s not just a concern in the city, but also on the North Fork.

“It’s super sad because you never know if Don Chuz had gone to the hospital if he would have made it,” said Mr. Pelton, who has assisted CAST in its community efforts for several years.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in mid-March as the outbreak began to spread in the U.S. that people should not avoid seeking medical care for fear of civil immigration enforcement.

ICE noted that during the COVID-19 crisis, it will not carry out enforcement operations “at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.”

Mr. Pelton often works alongside Jorge Gomez, who owns JG Quality Construction in Greenport, on his North Fork projects. Mr. Gomez knew Mr. Chuz and thought of him as an uncle. 

Mr. Gomez had assisted his friend with auto insurance for a few months on a vehicle he used to go back and forth to a job in East Marion. On April 17, Mr. Gomez realized he had the title to the car and decided to return it. He called Mr. Chuz and told him he was waiting outside with the title. He waited about 15 minutes and finally texted him again saying he would leave the title on the windshield of the car. Mr. Chuz emerged shortly afterward and didn’t look right. Mr. Gomez said he appeared almost as if he had been drinking, which was unusual because he didn’t know him as someone who drank at all.

They were across the street from each other to maintain distance and Mr. Chuz wore a mask. He joked that he wished he had a drink so maybe it would make him feel better.

“He didn’t want to come closer to me,” Mr. Gomez said. “He told me for the last couple of days he didn’t feel well. He felt dizzy and out of energy.”

He encouraged Mr. Chuz to go to the hospital.

“He goes, ‘No, if this doesn’t kill me, the bill from the hospital will,’ ” Mr. Gomez said. “I’m like, ‘No. There’s a way to take care of that. Take care of your health first.’ ”

It was around 6 p.m. that day when Mr. Gomez left. He told his friend to call if he needed anything. It was the last time they spoke.

“It’s sad because he didn’t have to die like that,” he said. “Something else could have been done for him.”

Mr. Chuz leaves behind two teenage children in Guatemala. Mr. Gomez said he believed Mr. Chuz was looking forward to traveling back to his home country this year. Now, they don’t know if his body can even be transported back to his family.

“He would talk about his kids and how he supports them and how much he loved them,” Mr. Gomez said. “It’s sad, because they’re not going to get to see him again.”