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Undocumented People With No Health Insurance Struggle Especially Hard From COVID-19


People who contract COVID-19 can spend months trying to get better. That struggle is especially hard for one group that's at high risk of getting the virus - undocumented people who don't have health insurance. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has one family's story.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Alondra's father got COVID-19. In early August, he came home from a Chicago hospital.

So what was that like the day he came home?

ALONDRA: Oh, my God. We were all so happy. Everybody in the hospital was like, he was about to die. There was no more hope for him. We're like, oh, my God. So now we're like, thank God he's still here with us.

SHAPIRO: Her father Jose spent three months in the hospital. Jose - he's from Mexico - is an undocumented immigrant. That's why we agreed to use just first names. He was in the ICU, then in the rehab wing. Now he's home but with long-term, maybe lifelong, disabilities. Across the country, Latinos are hospitalized for COVID and almost five times the rates of white people who aren't Latino. It's hard to count how many undocumented immigrants get COVID, but they're at high risk. Often, they don't have health insurance. They may live in crowded homes and work in dangerous jobs - in nursing homes, food plants or, like Jose, in restaurants.

And I see you have something on your neck. Were you on a ventilator?

JOSE: Yes.

SHAPIRO: I spoke to Jose on a video call. He's propped up on pillows in bed. He shows the white bandage that covers the spot where a surgeon cut a slit into his neck to insert a tube for the ventilator.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Then Jose pulls up his dark blue polo shirt to show the tube to his stomach. Alondra moves the phone camera to show it.

ALONDRA: He has a feeding tube.

SHAPIRO: Oh, you have a feeding tube. Yeah.

That's how he's still getting fed. He hopes the tube will come out soon.

JOSE: In maybe the next two weeks, yeah, next take it out - no more.

SHAPIRO: Staff at the hospital taught Jose's wife how to use a syringe to push the nutrients through that feeding tube and how to work a portable ventilator. When he first came home, he still needed that ventilator to breathe. Jose has no health insurance. Some nurses come by and check on him from time to time. Still, the vast majority of Jose's care at home, including some pretty high-level medical care, falls to the family. That's appalling to Aida Giachello. She's a research professor who studies health care disparities at Northwestern University's medical school in Chicago.

AIDA GIACHELLO: This require more specialized visiting nurse to come and take care of this gentleman at home rather than to let the wife and other members of the family to take care of the care. That's not acceptable for sure.

SHAPIRO: Not acceptable. But Bob Shea, who started the nonprofit Devices 4 the Disabled, says...

BOB SHEA: It's typical. We see them all week every week now, where people are getting discharged with scarred lungs, damaged heart, complete loss of mobility, neurological issues. They are still significantly limited, and it's just up to the family to somehow figure it out from there.

SHAPIRO: For Jose, Shea's group donated a wheelchair, a hospital bed and other medical equipment - things that can cost thousands of dollars especially if you don't have health insurance. Jose would like to go back to working in a restaurant, but his old job is gone.

JOSE: Maybe no more.

SHAPIRO: And first, he's got months and months - maybe longer - to recover. There's an advantage to living in his multigenerational family. His older children are working. For now, they're paying the rent, and they're buying his medicine.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.