The inequities of COVID: Why has South County been impacted so disproportionately?

Who were Miri Villalobos and Santiago Tehandon? Two members of a Watsonville community that has absorbed 45% of Santa Cruz County’s COVID-19 death toll despite accounting for just 18% of its population.

When COVID-19 started wreaking havoc in Santa Cruz County, no community appeared at higher risk than Watsonville, the blue collar, agricultural city of 53,000, full of large households made up of essential front-line workers.

COVID South County

COVID South County, Lookout’s look at how the pandemic has disproportionately affected Watsonville and the surrounding area, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of its toll. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

Almost a year later, the community is reeling from the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on South County residents.

Despite making up just 18% of Santa Cruz County’s population, Watsonville has been home to almost 55% of all known COVID-19 cases. A largely Hispanic and Latino area, South County has also seen the worst of COVID-19: 45% of all deaths in the county.

Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra stands in front of a mural in his city.
Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra, who was sworn into his new position a few weeks ago, stands in front of a mural in the city. “I’m not immune to what we’re going through,” he said. “My anxiety’s been up there as well...I have a 99-year-old grandmother who’s going to be 100 in a couple of weeks, I have a mom, and just want them to be safe.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But those are just the numbers. Every one of the dozens who have died were part of the rich fabric of their community. Each one was loved, and each one leaves behind stunned, heartbroken families and friends.

“It’s hit our city really hard,” Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra said. “It’s affected so many people.”

Miriam Villalobos, a 30-year-old Watsonville resident, died of COVID-19 complications in December 2020.
Miriam Villalobos, a 30-year-old Watsonville resident, died of COVID-19 complications in December 2020. Her family and friends remember her as an involved, caring community member.
(Courtesy Villalobos Family)

Miriam Villalobos and a friendship lost too soon

On Tuesday, after weeks of grieving in quarantine, the family and friends of 30-year-old Miriam Villalobos attended a funeral for her in Watsonville. The family had crowdsourced the money needed to pay for the service because they couldn’t afford it otherwise.

Brenda Gutierrez Baeza, 26, was faced with the reality of her childhood friend’s death.

It all happened so quickly. Just weeks earlier, Baeza had been shocked to learn that Villalobos was in the ICU with COVID-19. The two had seen each other at a small outdoor birthday party Villalobos had in August, complete with “her go-to, can’t-miss” mariachi band performing.

“Miri,” as Villalobos was nicknamed, loved music — Banda and rancheras most of all (Banda Cuisillos was her favorite group). “Heartfelt, depressing music,” Baeza said, adding that they could only ever agree on the merits of Selena’s music, which captured how they felt about their lackluster dating lives.

Miriam Villalobos and Brenda Gutierrez Baeza sit side-by-side.
Childhood friends Miriam Villalobos (left) and Brenda Gutierrez Baeza sit side-by-side. “A lot people that would see her, they would see her really serious. They would think that oh, she’s a very quiet and serious person,” Baeza said. “But when you got to know her and you made an effort ... she would be really sweet. She would be laughing very easily.”
(Courtesy Brenda Gutierrez Baeza)

On her birthday, Villalobos sang along as the mariachis serenaded her and filled the Watsonville yard with music.

That was the last time Baeza saw her friend.

As a Spanish language interpreter for health care facilities, Baeza is an essential worker, and had delivered enough bad news via video conference throughout 2020 to be paranoid about her own exposure to the virus.

“I often have to be the person to tell patients that they might not make it or that they need to be put on a ventilator. Sometimes I’m even the last person that they speak to because they need to be put under sedation for ventilation,” she said.

Baeza started working from home and cut back on social interactions, including the twice-a-month shopping trips or movie theater outings with Villalobos.

They were old friends, and had developed a special bond since they met as young girls at Grupo Renacer, a local support group for parents of children with disabilities.

“We were both disabled, in wheelchairs, and in a way, that kind of does bring you together because our community of disabled people isn’t really that big so we have to be there for each other,” Baeza said.

Brenda Gutierrez Baeza in her wheelchair outdoors in Santa Cruz.
Brenda Gutierrez Baeza, 26, in Santa Cruz on the day of Miriam Villalobos’ funeral. In the weeks after her childhood friend’s death from COVID-19 complications, Baeza was still grappling with the loss. “I feel like something’s missing, but I don’t quite realize it’s real quite yet. I’ve been looking at a lot of her pictures. I think I found it comforting,” she said.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Knowing each other that long meant their relationship was elastic — they didn’t need to talk everyday; they were there for each other when it mattered, like when Baeza was sick in the hospital before the pandemic. Villalobos was the first to show up.

And before that, when a mutual friend died of cancer in 2019, the two of them sat together, “not really talking, but just trying to process it.” Baeza wishes she still had Villalobos’ calming presence, her friend’s ability to laugh at anything, now, as she deals with the crushing loss.

Once she was hospitalized in early December, Villalobos’ health quickly declined. COVID-19 attacked her lungs, and she needed a ventilator to breathe. Because the hospital was not allowing visitors, Villalobos’ family would stand outside her hospital room window to show their support. Baeza braced for the worst. “Ever since the pandemic started, I’ve had it in my brain that people with disabilities don’t have good outcomes to Covid. I didn’t want to be one of those people that loses hope right away, but in my mind. . . . I already felt her leaving,” she said.

Villalobos died Dec. 17, the youngest COVID-19 patient to die in Santa Cruz County.

Her death, like so many others in Watsonville, reflects how vulnerable that community was to crisis long before the pandemic even started.

A farmworker in Watsonville.
File photo: A farmworker in Watsonville holds a box of strawberries with his left hand and a cart with his right hand as he walks to get another empty box. COVID-19 has highlighted why Watsonville was among the communities in Santa Cruz County most vulnerable to a public health crisis, in part due to its large essential worker population.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘In the worst way, an affirmation of what we knew’

Through the years, Watsonville has consistently been the place in the county at highest risk of devastation from disasters like disease outbreaks, according to Census data analyzed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s due to a number of factors, including the large minority population, number of non-English speaking residents, the poverty rate, lack of access to transportation, age makeup of households and housing issues.

COVID-19 can quickly spiral into a nightmare scenario when combined with overcrowded multigenerational households full of frontline workers who don’t have the space or resources to quarantine.

“It was, in the worst way, an affirmation of what we knew,” said Dori Rose Inda, chief executive officer of Salud Para La Gente and co-chair of the Pajaro Valley S.A.V.E. Lives, assembled in 2020 to address the pandemic.

Dori Rose Inda, CEO of Salud Para La Gente and co-chair of the Pajaro Valley S.A.V.E Lives committee.
Dori Rose Inda, CEO of Salud Para La Gente and co-chair of the Pajaro Valley S.A.V.E Lives committee. Inda had been studying the “upstream” reasons for inequitable health outcomes before the pandemic, but COVID-19 illuminated those disparities in a major way. “COVID was like, oh no, this is right now, way worse,” she said.
(Courtesy Salud Para La Gente)

Those with lower incomes often don’t have the means to miss work in order to self-quarantine or isolate for two weeks, much less work from home for months at a time, county public health officer Gail Newel said.

Communities of color also frequently distrust medical institutions and might avoid seeking out health care for that reason, or because they are uninsured or undocumented.

Some people who can’t safely quarantine at home might fear leaving to isolate themselves if they are undocumented or have mixed-status families. Many households in South County don’t have yards for people to gather outdoors and stay socially distanced.

Prohibitive housing costs mean it’s “not uncommon” for 10 or more people to live in the same household in South County — often several generations in one home, according to Newel.

There are countless reasons — many of them the result of systemic inequities, Inda said — why Watsonville was vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.

Dutra, the city’s mayor, agrees.

“Many of the people, many of our residents are in farmworking, are in grocery stores, are the people that are working with the public face-to-face daily still,” he said. “And they put themselves in the face of danger daily. And because of that, they are becoming infected with COVID.

“A lot of our families are from multigenerational homes, so they go home and there are many people living in the house and as we know, this is transmitted pretty easily and it’s being spread throughout their households.”

That part is predictable. But for the families of those who’ve died of the disease, the ripple effects of such a loss are far from it.

Santiago Tehandon
Santiago Tehandon, 80, died of COVID-19 complications and a heart condition on Christmas Day.
(Courtesy Juan Castaneda via GoFundMe)

‘I wasn’t expecting to lose my father’

Juan Castaneda Tehandon, 28, felt like he was living in a haze for days after his 80-year-old father, Santiago Tehandon, died on Christmas Day of COVID-19 complications.

The elder Tehandon, a retired maintenance technician who worked at the Watsonville Martinelli’s facility for 36 years, most likely contracted the virus from his son.

Castaneda said he wouldn’t have known he had COVID-19 if he hadn’t been required to submit a test result to Hawaiian Airlines prior to taking a vacation in early December. It came back positive. The vacation was cancelled. But by the time he realized he was sick, his whole family had been exposed, he said.

A few days later, Tehandon developed a mild cough, which turned into breathing trouble and fatigue by Dec. 17. Castaneda tried booking an appointment for his dad to get a COVID-19 test, but the first available slot was days away, on Dec. 20. By the time that date arrived, Tehandon felt so sick he asked his son to drive him to the hospital instead.

Tehandon was strong, even for his age, his son said. Other than an irregular heart rhythm doctors had diagnosed as atrial fibrillation five years before, Tehandon was healthy and active.

On Dec. 23, Santiago Tehandon’s wife, 85-year-old Rufina Tehandon, was hospitalized, too. She hadn’t shown symptoms of COVID-19 up to that point, but had complained of abdominal pain and discomfort. In the hospital, she tested positive and was admitted.

That left Castaneda to care for his 51-year-old brother, Francisco Tehandon, who is disabled.

At first, the prognosis for Santiago Tehandon looked good: his blood oxygen levels were improving, and he was moved out of the intensive care unit. But on Christmas morning, his condition unexpectedly took a turn. His heart had stopped. Doctors called his daughter, Sylvia Castaneda, 56, and asked if she wanted them to resuscitate him. She said “yes.” But a few minutes later, doctors called back: her dad was gone.

The family set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for Tehandon’s funeral. As of Wednesday, two dozen people had donated a collective $2,800.

His mother had been hospitalized more than a week as of late December, and her prognosis for a complete recovery was unclear.

“I am afraid,” Juan Castaneda said. “I wasn’t expecting to lose my father. And definitely wasn’t expecting my mother to be in the same situation.”

Do you have a personal story about COVID-19? Share it with us here:


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.