MOULTRIE – The Corona brothers spent nearly every day together.
Beekeepers working in South Georgia, Vicente Corona, 58, and his brother could tell you if you were stocking quality honey or not.
What they couldn’t discern was how COVID-19 would affect their families and their lives.
Both brothers contracted the coronavirus in early April, and while Vicente would be the only person infected in his immediate family, his brother, his wife and their college-age son all were hospitalized from it.
The threesome would ultimately recover, but Vicente’s battle against COVID-19 was a more fearsome and tragic one.
It was a fight that would take his life in early May.
Migrant farm work is generally defined as people who move to follow seasonal work – mostly in agriculture – growing and harvesting crops, tending to livestock or processing foods in factories. Vicente and his brother eschewed the typical migrant farmworker jobs as beekeepers. They traveled to farms across South Georgia looking after bee colonies in Valdosta, Tifton, Thomasville and more.
Vicente’s brother and his family did not wish to participate in this story.
The hours were long. In season, Vicente would work seven days a week but would get two days off out of season despite working 10-hour shifts.
“I know he got tired but you gotta do what you gotta do,” said Lizeth Alvarez, his stepdaughter.
At home, Vicente had a wife, Julia, 50, and three children: Lizeth, 21, Julie, 13, and Dario, 11, in addition to their oldest, Saul, 28, who lives in Dawsonville.
One of his favorite things to do, according to Lizeth, was cook meals on the weekend for his family. Chicken enchiladas were Vicente’s favorite, but he experimented, too. One experiment resulted in a dish described by Julia and Lizeth as “soggy bread balls sitting in soup” that was so inedible even he admitted he could not eat it.
Known for his inability to sit still for long periods of time, Vicente always worked on a project, whether mowing the lawn or working on his five cars. He simply did not have the patience to stay seated and watch a movie in its entirety. He had things to do.
That translated directly to his work. Although his wife works at Zaxby’s, he brought in the majority of their income and felt an innate responsibility to provide for his family, Lizeth said. And he continued working as COVID-19 spread around the U.S.
While many people stopped physically going to work as the pandemic became more serious, Vicente was deemed an “essential worker” and worked on site.
On April 3, the Centers for Disease Control released a guideline to wear a face covering “especially in areas of significant community-based transmission” such as grocery stores and pharmacies.
His work never required Vicente to wear a mask, Julia said, but he did have his temperature checked along with other workers starting the week of April 6. Although, he never had a fever, he showed other symptoms the Friday of the same week.
“Not like a party”
Vicente began feeling sick April 10. It was the Friday before Easter, and he was experiencing night sweats, talking in his sleep, kept coughing and had lost his ability to taste and smell things.
Despite having Easter Sunday off, he still called out of work Saturday. The family noticed he was struggling to breathe, and Julia recognized this specific set of symptoms. They were similar complaints that her nephew in Mexico had when diagnosed with COVID-19.
His family pleaded with Vicente to go to the hospital, and on April 13, he obliged. Before leaving the house, Lizeth noticed her dad getting ready for the hospital by taking a shower, putting on nice clothes, shaving his beard and spritzing on some cologne.
“You’re going to the hospital, not like a party,” she joked.
Vicente Corona was admitted to Colquitt Regional Medical Center April 13. The following day, his family heard Vicente’s brother tested positive for COVID-19 and presumed Vicente to be positive, too. He tested positive a few days later.
Since visitors weren’t allowed at the hospital, Vicente – on oxygen at this point – could still speak and called his family Tuesday. He told Julia he felt better and not to worry because he had some money saved in his bank account for them to subsist on while he was away.
Then, Wednesday hit.
Before the sun had risen, Lizeth received a phone call at 4:30 a.m. Her father was being intubated and put on a ventilator.
“And my first thought was, like, ‘he was fine yesterday. What went wrong?’” She wondered. “… I think that made it even worse for me seeing patients (in nursing school) and knowing what it’s like, and then imagining my dad in that position. It’s hard.”
In her final year of nursing school at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Lizeth has a familiarity with the health care field. When the hospital called, she answered the phone and translated medical terminology into a more understandable language for her family.
The ventilator news brought an added level of fear for Julia since her uncle and cousin back in her home state of Hidalgo in Mexico had already died of the coronavirus.
“There’s no reaction (from him), no talking, no nothing so I am scared at this time” she said.
While Vicente remained connected to a ventilator, the family had no other choice but to wait. They entered a limbo where hours and days blurred together. Julia received updates from hospital staff – the standard line being that "he is very sick” – continued but the patriarch’s condition had not improved.
Vacillating between being on and off paralytic drugs to subdue him from fighting the tubes hooked into his body, Lizeth has a stark memory of one day when her dad’s breathing tube slipped out an hour after a tornado ripped through Colquitt County.
The serendipity of birthdays
Vicente was the only father Lizeth ever knew, and as fate would have it, his entrance into Lizeth and Julia’s lives occurred on her birthday.
Living in Dawsonville with her sister in 2005, Julia, a single mother at the time, threw Lizeth a party for her seventh birthday. As the host, she made tamales as a treat for her guests but didn’t expect to be surprised herself. A mutual friend brought Vicente to the birthday and after discovering both Julia and Vicente had grown up in the same Mexican town of El Maye, a romance bloomed.
Another birthday – Vicente’s this time – brought another significant event: a marriage.
On Sept. 27, 2007, two adults and four children put on traditional clothing from El Maye, taupe accented with patterns of blues and flowers, to officially become a family of six. Lizeth, Saul, Julie and Dario had a father.
In an effort to get legal status for Julia, the family left nearly everyone they knew in 2011 to move four hours south to Moultrie. Vicente’s brother and his family had already relocated there and wanted Vicente to join his beekeeping work.
With a green card in hand since 2002, Vicente saw an opportunity for work, Julia said, and for her to complete the process to obtain her own green card with less fear of being arrested or deported by police for being undocumented.
Two years later, Julia got her green card and then her U.S. citizenship in 2015.
Come what May
Vicente’s condition worsened as the calendar turned to May.
On May 2, he was put on dialysis when his kidney started failing. Two days later, right before the strike of midnight, Colquitt Regional Medical Center staff called to inform the family Vicente’s heart had stopped, but they were able to resuscitate him.
Two hours later, his heart stopped again. Already “maxed out on every medication they could give him,” hospital staff invited the family to say goodbye in-person since they did not believe he would make it through the night. Lizeth, Saul and Julia agreed to go, leaving the younger siblings asleep at home.
They immediately made the five-minute drive, donned PPE and went into the room where Vicente had spent the past three weeks. The well-dressed man who walked through the hospital doors now laid unresponsive in a hospital bed with a headband reading “COVID-19 patient.” His appearance – an unkempt beard, giant, swollen hands from fluid buildup, and a seemingly endless number of tubes attached to his body – made him nearly unrecognizable.
“It was awful. Seeing him, you just couldn’t imagine … he just had tubes going everywhere,” Lizeth said.
Julia and Lizeth knew this was the end.
After being informed by doctors the only thing keeping Vicente alive was his cocktail of medications, Julia decided to take him off life support.
As life support ceased, the family noticed a tear form in one of his eyes. Unconsciousness and in the final minutes of his life, Julia and Lizeth interpreted the tear as an acknowledgement of his family’s presence with him.
“He knew,” Julia said.
Goodbyes did not last long. Julia told her husband she loved him and not to worry as she would raise the kids. Lizeth also promised to take care of Julie and Dario.
And in less than 15 minutes, he was gone.
"We know what happens"
Vicente Corona spent his final 22 days at Colquitt Regional Medical Center, 20 of them on a ventilator, according to his family. He is one of the more than 2,600 Georgians and 122,000 Americans to die from COVID-19.
The coronavirus has disproportionally affected the Hispanic and Latino communities in Georgia – 15.9% of COVID-19 cases are Hispanic/Latino, reported Sunday by the state health department, which 150% more than the population of Hispanic/Latino Georgians (9.8%), according to 2019 estimates by the U.S. Census website.
According to Amy Liebman, there isn’t a great explanation for the disproportionate infection rates of the virus on Hispanic and Latino communities.
Liebman heads the the Migrant Clinicians Network as its director of environmental and occupational health. MCN supports and assists clinicians treating migrant farmworkers and advocates for better migrant farmworker health care.
She said a mix of lacking health care access, a drive to work unless severely sick and structural racism in health care systems could be the root of why COVID-19 infects these communities at a higher rate. Interestingly, although infection rates are higher, Hispanic and Latino populations around the country have not seen the disproportionally higher death rates akin to the death rates affecting Black communities.
Just in South Georgia, migrant farmer communities in Echols County and Lanier County have experienced sizable coronavirus outbreak in the last month. Echols, one of the smallest county in the state, still contains the highest COVID-19 cases per 100K by a wide margin, according to the state health department.
Whether due to language or cultural barriers, legal status, lack of education or cost, migrant farmworkers rarely get routine healthcare, said Alma Young.
Young is the director of the Valdosta State University College Assistance Migrant Program which uses federal grant money to provide scholarships to students from migrant farmworking families.
Now an academic, Young is a former migrant farmworker herself, coming to the U.S. from Matamoros, Mexico at age 11 and working around South Georgia farms starting at 16. During her time in the fields, going to see a health care provider was an afterthought because of prohibitive costs, even if it was a small injury.
“The entire time I was a farmworker – from the age of 16 to 21 before I went to college – I never went to the doctor for any injuries I had because my parents couldn’t afford it,” she said. “It’s just something you get used to.”
Those same hurdles can affect how faithfully people follow recommendations by health officials and the CDC guidelines about the coronavirus. For a family directly affected by the virus, they are aware of its dangers.
“It left us scared of going out because we saw what happened. We are taking it seriously,” Lizeth said.
Julia echoed her daughter stating simply, “this virus is real and dangerous.”
But the urgency Julia speaks about COVID-19 has fallen on deaf ears to some around South Georgia.
Two days after her father’s death, Lizeth and her older brother went on a grocery run and were the only shoppers in the store wearing masks. A man asked them why they wore a mask saying “it’s not even necessary.” Lizeth didn’t respond, knowing full well the importance of mask wearing.
“I was just angry because it’s real and people don’t believe in it,” she said. “…We know what happens. We’ve lived through it.”
The average income for migrant farmworkers ranges between $30,000-35,000 annually for a household of seven people, Young said.
Without Vicente’s income, the family simply cannot afford the house, Julia said. She doesn’t foresee them affording the mortgage payments for long, and financial hardship plus a lack of family locally points to one direction: north.
“We’ve talked about moving back (to Dawsonville) just because we don’t want to be here alone,” Lizeth said. “It’s even worse because we feel like because he isn’t here anymore … it’s just quiet all the time.”
The family does not know the move will happen. They want to wait for Lizeth to finish college in December at least. Slated to be the first college graduate in the family, Vicente wanted her to focus on finishing nursing school. He was so excited and proud for Lizeth to gradate, Julia said, that he coordinated their family from Mexico to attend her graduation nearly a year in advance.
When the move does come, Julia said she’ll miss the memories made in the house, particularly birthdays where she sat at their bar with Vicente talking about retirement plans and sipping tequila.
They envisioned their lives as empty-nesters moving back to Mexico to enjoy life near the water. With each pour of Don Julio and each passing birthday, that dream felt a tiny bit more concrete.
But dreams can fade just as easily as they can form.
“We try to be OK," Lizeth said, "but we’re not OK."