The News and Observer

March 4, 2021

By Sophie Kasakove

In some ways, the daily routine at Crystal Jones’ house in southeast Raleigh isn’t so unlike what it was a year ago. By the time the sun rises, her husband has already left for his job as a welder at a machine manufacturing plant. Later in the day, her daughter drives to Garner for her shift as a cashier at a soul food restaurant. Her son heads to Food Lion to stock the shelves, and on weekends joins his sister for the afternoon shift at the same restaurant. On most days, traffic slows their commute as crowded buses make their halting trips down Rock Quarry Road.

“At the beginning [of the pandemic] the traffic kind of slowed, I didn’t see as many cars go by,” said Jones, who now does her job managing retirement accounts at a bank from home. “But maybe after that first month or whatever you saw that traffic in the neighborhood still moving — because everybody still had to go to work.”

It was at the end of a shift in late July, Jones suspects, that someone in the family brought COVID-19 home with them. It could have been her husband: There have been outbreaks at the manufacturing plant where he works. But it could just as easily have been her daughter, who is face to face with customers all day, or her son, who works in crowded grocery store aisles.

Her daughter and husband tested positive, too, but Jones, who has sickle-cell anemia, was hit much harder by the virus. “At one point it got kind of scary for me, but I didn’t want to let [my family] know that I was scared,” she said. “I did not have to go to the hospital, but it got really close.”

For weeks, she could barely get out of bed, forcing her to take a leave of absence from her job.

Jones is one of over 7,000 people who have contracted COVID-19 in her ZIP code — 27610 — which has had more cases than any other ZIP code in the state. Since May, 27610 has consistently reported among the highest rates of COVID-19 per 10,000 residents of any ZIP code in the Triangle, according to numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services. As of March 3, 27610 had the third highest in the Triangle, with 1,005 cases per 10,000 residents.

As the pandemic spread, Jones and her neighbors found themselves at the center of a storm of risk factors for contracting and becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. In Jones’ ZIP code, 15% are uninsured, according to census estimates, nearly double the countywide rate. Nearly half are low income, according to analysis of census surveys by the Robert Graham Center, with many working low wage, front-line jobs. Five percent of households are overcrowded, with more than one person per room, according to an analysis by Carolina Demography, compared with about 2.3% of households statewide.

It took three months for Jones to finally feel well enough to get back to work. But then in January, she developed cold-like symptoms. She tested positive again. She couldn’t believe it: throughout the pandemic, she’d only left the house for occasional errands. For months, her husband and kids had immediately thrown their clothes into the laundry and gotten into the shower after work. On Sundays, instead of making their usual drive down Rock Quarry Road to Macedonia New Life Church, they’d crowded around their computer to watch the live-streamed service.

But with her family having no choice but to continue going to work, the biggest risks remained beyond their control.

“It’s fairly impossible to have a tight, close-knit pod for your family when you have essential workers in your household,” said Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a professor of medicine at Duke University. She says that as the pandemic has worn on, the multiple risks associated with low-wage work have become clear.