In the summer of 2020, Ana Arana was examining COVID-19 death statistics in different cities across the country when she spotted something that concerned her. The veteran investigative journalist looked at her home state of California and noticed that, in some heavily-Latino counties in the Bay Area, deceased people with Latino names were not identified as Latino.
“They were identified as ‘white,’ ‘other,’ or ‘Black,’” Arana recalled. “And in some cases, the nationality was kind of the ethnicity … saying ‘I’m Honduran’ or ‘Mexican,’ rather than saying, ‘I’m Latino.’”
Arana, a Salvadoran American journalist who has worked as a foreign correspondent in Latin America and Africa, decided to look deeper and learned something that medical and health experts have known for a long time: “Deaths are counted in this country, but sometimes the system is complicated and people are misidentified along the process,” she said.
Instinct told Arana that public health consequences were at stake for the Latino community because health allocations from federal and local governments are based on accurate information. She pitched a story about this to palabra, a multimedia platform by the National Hispanic Journalists Association that publishes the work of freelance journalist members.
“I thought it was a good investigation for palabra. In the last year, I’ve been focusing more and working with ethnic news outlets that I think need to be strengthened and promoted,” Arana said. “They’ve (palabra) been around now for two years and they are making a mark for themselves, but I think hard-hitting investigations like this one should come out there.”
Earlier this month, palabra published Arana’s investigation into the widespread misclassification of Latino COVID-19 deaths. In “The Misidentified,” the issue is told through Illinois’ Cook County because of its large Latino population in historically segregated areas. The city of Cicero served as a microcosm of the impact of death certificate miscounting nationally.
Readers are taken through interviews with experts on why the misidentification is a problem, and learn how Arana and her team found other errors in the official accounting of deaths — such as the misspelling of common Latino names and how some compounded Latino names were jumbled.
It also shone a spotlight on how, too often, patients are checked in by intake workers with no training in cultural literacy. “As a result, they tend to go only by skin color and other visible ‘racial’ traits, which are highly subjective assessments — particularly when dealing with mixed-race populations such as Latinos and Native Americans,” the investigation reads.
“What I was worried (about) was, ‘OK, so no one knows how many Latinos have died of fentanyl abuse. This is not just COVID. Nobody knows the exact number of Latinos who die of heart attacks … of cancer,” Arana said. “So a lot of this money is not going to the right communities. It’s the same thing for with Native Americans. Nobody really knows. And so these communities don’t have enough access to local government or state government outreach. … If you don’t have the right numbers, these communities are not being served correctly.”
Arana pitched the story with the intent to be its editor but ended up as its lead reporter and writer, with additional reporting by Chicago-based reporter and fact-checker Kyra Senese and guidance from Cicero Independiente, a bilingual, independent news outlet for Cicero residents.
During the course of their year-and-a-half-long investigation, the team looked at deaths recorded by the Cook County medical examiner’s office between March 2020 and December 2021 and found that the number of Latino deaths was higher than the office determined. A review found an additional 372 misclassified Latino deaths in 2020 and another 108 in 2021.
“Given that Latinos are the second-largest population group in Cook County — nearly 820,000 residents compared to 864,000 white non-Latinos, according to the 2020 U.S. census — correctly documenting Latino mortality is vital to assessing proper access to COVID treatment as well as to other pandemic-related resources,” the story reads.
Arana learned from sources at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the public health agency has known about the misclassification of Latinos for a long time. Another health expert told her that data-gathering systems in the U.S. often leave out correct ethnicities, which results in an undercount of certain ethnic groups. COVID-19, Arana learned, brought this out in the open.
Linda Jue, a palabra contributing editor and the project editor for this investigation, said palabra plans to pursue more stories around this issue and believes that no major news outlet would pour the resources that palabra did into an investigation like this, especially with a reporter that they haven’t worked with before.
“So palabra was the ideal place because they had the staff and the willingness to pursue an investigative story like this,” Jue said, adding that it’s difficult to cold pitch to major outlets or magazines if you don’t have a connection to someone there. “That’s what it exists for, is to encourage more freelance writers to do these kinds of stories and palabra would be a venue for that.”
For Arana, the investigation reaffirmed the need for greater diversity in news organizations and outlets. “I think you needed to be Latina to sort of see this story,” she said. “Because people were seeing it, and they were not counting it, they were not identifying (it) saying, ‘Wait a minute, why is this person identified as white?’”
In her editor’s note, Jue called the story a “wake-up call.”
“I think the experience around discovering that this was a verified national problem that we had stumbled on, and that the CDC and government officials and people who deal with death certificates have known about for years, I think this is just scratching the surface here with this story,” Jue said.
This article was updated to clarify Linda Jue’s role in this investigation.