GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When Benito Sosa celebrated turning 71 on April 4, there was no sign of the virus that would rob him of birthdays to come.

But within two weeks, he fell ill with COVID-19.

By May 10, the construction and factory worker who refused to retire at 71 laid near death at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Sosa’s daughter, Maria Garnica Altamirano, wonders if her dad could have survived if he’d gone to the hospital sooner.

“But he was very stubborn. He didn’t want to say, ‘I’m feeling sick. I cannot breathe,’” said Garnica Altamirano in a Zoom interview with News 8 from her home in Chicago.

When doctors said Sosa would need a ventilator and dialysis for the rest of his life, the family made the excruciating decision to let him go.

“My other sister, who is a doctor, we talk together, and we said, ‘no more’ because he won’t like that,” said Garnica Altamirano, referring to the ventilator and dialysis.

A nurse herself, she had traveled from Chicago to be at her dad’s hospital bedside at the end.

“I told him, ‘don’t worry, we’re okay,’” recalled Garnica Altamirano through tears.

“‘I’m sorry if we made you suffer all these days, but we thought you will make it because we know you are strong, and you don’t have nothing. There is no high blood pressure, no diabetes, nothing. But right now, you can go in peace and we’ll be OK. We’ll take care of mom.’”’

On the record filed with the Kent County clerk’s office, Sosa’s immediate cause of death was listed as “Acute Respiratory Distress System” and “COVID-19 pneumonia.”

While there were no “other significant conditions” listed as contributors to Sosa’s death, his daughter believes he may have had undiagnosed lung problems due to working construction in Mexico, where he lived part of the year.

Shortly before his birthday, Sosa had returned to Grand Rapids and the factory job his family said he enjoyed.

“He worked hard for us,” said Garnica Altamirano.

“He made changes in his life because he lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s more of a poor place. He traveled with my mom… for us to have a better life.”

He succeeded.

Sosa and his wife raised seven children, all of whom hold college degrees.

Benito Sosa was one of 11 Hispanic people who died in Kent County from COVID-19 in May, according to death certificates filed with the clerk’s office as of Thursday.

Latinos: 10% of population, 40% of infections, 18% of deaths

According to the Kent County Health Department, while Latinos make up around 10% of the county’s population, they have so far comprised 18% of COVID-19 deaths overall.

The disparity was even more pronounced in the month of May.

Death certificates filed with the county as of Thursday, showed one-third of COVID-19 deaths — 11 out of 33 — occurred in the Latino population.

But the gap in infection rates is even more alarming.

“While the disproportionality of deaths is significant, the disparity in the disease itself is even greater,” wrote a health department official in an email exchange with Target 8.

A courtesy photo of Kent County Health Department working to raise awareness in the Latino community, passing out essential supplies and information at Hispanic grocery stores. The department is also advertising in Spanish newspapers and radio stations.
A courtesy photo of Kent County Health Department working to raise awareness in the Latino community, passing out essential supplies and information at Hispanic grocery stores. The department is also advertising in Spanish newspapers and radio stations.

Despite comprising just 10% of the county’s population, KCHD reports Latinos make up 40% of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“That means there are four times more cases among the Hispanic population than we would have expected if the distribution were equal,” concluded the health department employee.

Latinos are also dying at a younger age than their counterparts.

Average age at death: Non-Hispanics – 77, Hispanics – 61

Kent County health leaders say the average age of non-Hispanics who’ve died from COVID-19 is 77 years old, while the average age of Hispanics is 61.

Matias Domingo was 51 when he died from COVID-19 at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s on May 16.

Domingo ran a Guatemalan grocery store with his wife, Candelaria, on Burton Street, west of Division Avenue in Grand Rapids.

Courtesy photo of Matias Domingo and his wife, Candelaria.
Courtesy photo of Matias Domingo and his wife, Candelaria.

He was also studying to become a deacon in the Catholic Church.

It was in the deacon program that Orlando Benedict met Domingo.

“He was a person you’d like to have as a friend. Extremely friendly and very helpful. A person who always gave more than he received,” Benedict said.

Benedict recalled that Domingo used to spend Saturdays visiting sick patients at Grand Rapids hospitals.

It was on a Saturday — in one of the hospitals where Domingo once spread hope — that the aspiring deacon succumbed to COVID-19.

The grocery store is closed for now as his wife and family grieve his passing.

The record filed with the Kent County Clerk’s office listed the cause of Domingo’s death as “Acute Hypoxic Respiratory Failure, ”Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome,” and “COVID-19

The death certificate listed “Klebsiella pneumonia” and “Pneumothorax” as “significant conditions” contributing to his passing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described Klebsiella pneumonia as a bacterial infection that “commonly occurs among sick people who are receiving treatment for other conditions” for instance, “patients whose care requires devices like ventilators.”

Death records: 8 of 12 Latinos who died had other “significant” condition

According to death records, of the 12 Latinos who died in April and May (one died in April), eight had at least one “other significant condition” that contributed to their death but did not directly cause it.

It’s unclear where Matias Domingo and Benito Sosa contracted COVID-19, but both had jobs that could have exposed them to the virus.

Sosa worked in a factory that produces dog food and Domingo worked in his grocery store, which remained open as an essential business during the lockdown.

Benedict said he’s certain Domingo was happy to continue working to serve people in need.

Edith Reyes, a reporter with the Spanish language newspaper, El Vocero, thinks Latinos may be at higher risk because they often work jobs in “essential” industries like food production, food
service and agriculture.

Reyes, also a student at Grand Valley State University, helped Target 8 connect with families for this report, visiting homes with us and translating conversations.

Edith Reyes helping Target 8 connect with impacted families
Edith Reyes helping Target 8 connect with impacted families

She said she fears for her own family too, especially her mom, who works in food production.

“Her having to work, it’s like her having to put her life at risk,” said Reyes.

Reyes noted that the Latino community has less access to health care and benefits like unemployment.

“They don’t have a choice to stay home and protect themselves,” she said.

Some worry about their immigration status as well.

Benito Sosa came to West Michigan on a green card and was studying to take the citizenship exam.

At the end, Sosa’s daughter, Maria, tried to make sure her dad knew he’d prepared his children well for life.

“He can go in peace and we’re OK,” she said tearfully.