NEW YORK — Norma Saunders doesn’t know exactly how many neighbors at her public housing development in the Bronx have died from Covid-19 — she just knows there have been many.
She’s lived at Bronx River Houses, run by the New York City Housing Authority, her entire life and serves as the tenant association president. But since the start of the pandemic last year, she’s had to rely mostly on word of mouth to track Covid cases in the nine-building public housing complex. In one instance, a woman alerted Saunders in April 2020 that she hadn’t heard from her 81-year-old neighbor in a week. When NYCHA didn’t have a spare key they called the police, who broke down the door to find the man had died.
It would be another month before the health department published numbers showing that 21 of the 2,915 people living in Bronx River had succumbed to the disease and 101 had tested positive — the most Covid deaths of any NYCHA development in the borough, and the second-most deaths throughout the housing authority’s 302 developments citywide.
The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has not released specific data on Covid-19 cases and deaths since May 2020 and some tenant leaders said they didn’t know the numbers had been released at all. Many people living in some of the hardest-hit complexes across the city said in interviews that the lack of information has exacerbated anxieties around the virus and stymied their ability to combat Covid in their communities.
The confusion over pandemic-related deaths in the city’s public housing authority comes amid a legacy of mismanagement under outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, who oversaw a department that ultimately had to be placed under a federal monitor and has only modestly stabilized since. NYCHA is likely to become the responsibility of Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams in January, and he has pledged to reform the long-embattled agency.
But residents, tenant leaders and elected officials are calling now on the city health department to share the latest data on cases and deaths across NYCHA’s vast network of buildings and blaming the city for yet again failing to pay close attention to the problems plaguing the housing authority.
“It could change behavior in a way that other things aren’t,” said Ramona Ferreyra, a community organizer and resident of Mitchel Houses in the Bronx. “If we finally had real numbers, what we could do with education would be amazing.”
Residents of NYCHA — who number an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 — have endured a litany of crises that emerged under the de Blasio administration after decades of disinvestment on the federal, state and city level. In the winter of 2018, most residents were subjected to heat and hot water outages; NYCHA was plunged into scandal after previous leadership lied about the extent of lead in the homes of children; and mold, mildew, infestation and dilapidation are a regular reality for New York’s public housing residents.
And while many residents are particularly susceptible to Covid-19 because of preexisting health conditions more common among low-income communities of color, the city has not focused on the housing authority as a separate entity when it comes to tracking cases and deaths. Once again, NYCHA residents say they are being treated as an afterthought.
The last time the city released NYCHA-specific Covid data, the health department had a different commissioner, the state had a different governor, the country had a different president and the devastating Delta variant had not yet emerged.
“We need to be updated, because out of five people who pass away, I’ll know three of them,” Saunders said.
The health department regularly updates its citywide and geographic Covid-19 data, aggregated based on a person’s home address, but it has not published new NYCHA figures since it shared a summary on May 18, 2020 of cases and deaths from March 1 to May 11 that year, during New York’s devastating first wave.
“We are and have been and will continue to be committed to transparency,” said former Health Department commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot at that time. “It’s important for us to make sure that we are transparent in this, in that we give communities the opportunity to interrogate the data and ensure that we are not missing ways in which we can further help support all New Yorkers, and especially those living in NYCHA.”
She resigned as health commissioner in August 2020 amid an internal dispute with Mayor Bill de Blasio. There has been no new NYCHA-specific data on Covid rates and deaths since then and no data on public housing vaccination rates at all.
“Generally, we publish information by race/ethnicity, ZIP code, sex, age, neighborhood poverty levels — not by specific address,” said health department spokesperson Patrick Gallahue. He did not respond to questions about NYCHA’s Covid vaccination data.
As of May 2020, Grant Houses in Harlem recorded 127 Covid cases and 22 deaths among its 4,258 official residents, the highest numbers of any NYCHA development in the city. But Grant’s tenant association president, Carlton Davis, said he wasn’t aware of the numbers until he was asked about them by a reporter.
“It was almost a shock, you know, because nobody said nothing,” Davis said at a recent Family Day event at Grant. “It’s just a failure to communicate.”
When he did have the numbers, he said he was able to mobilize resources such as organizing food distribution and cleaning efforts.
“From there we went right to work,” he said.
Baruch Houses — the largest NYCHA complex in Manhattan and home to 4,731 residents — recorded five deaths and 80 cases, according to the same data. But Jasmin Sánchez García, a lifelong Baruch resident and organizer, said tenants had to rely on word of mouth and social media to track Covid rates at the Lower East Side complex.
“I think that if we would have gotten that information we would have been able to disseminate it, get it out there,” she said, adding that the data could have been shared through social media or email lists popular with residents. “I think that there’s a lot of messaging that could have been placed on this, and we didn’t have the opportunity to do so.”
The lack of NYCHA Covid data is not a new issue. State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) called on the health department to share its NYCHA coronavirus numbers in April 2020, about a month before the data summary was eventually published. Sixteen months later, he reiterated those concerns to POLITICO.
“My hope is that there aren’t nefarious reasons for the lack of transparency,” he said. “But I’m dubious because it took a certain level of advocacy to make this data public. And the fact that we’ve only been getting more information from the city on non-NYCHA demographics really begs the question as to why that same continuity and same level of transparency is not good enough for residents and staff in NYCHA.”
Council Member Mark Levine, who chairs the health committee and represents Grant Houses, said updated figures also need to include vaccination rates.
“We need data on incidence of Covid as a sickness and also on the rate of vaccination for NYCHA as a whole and for specific NYCHA developments,” said Levine, who is likely to become Manhattan’s next borough president. “I just want to emphasize how important transparency on the data is so it can focus the attention of the city… This missing data on NYCHA really is critical.”
According to the May 2020 data, nearly 8,000 public housing residents were infected and 1,241 died of confirmed or probable Covid-19; the 943 lab-confirmed NYCHA deaths represented roughly 6 percent of confirmed fatalities citywide as of May 11, 2020. The health department deemed the NYCHA rates “proportionate” to the rest of the city when they shared the numbers on May 18, 2020.
But an analysis of the data published by Gothamist soon after found that about 2 percent of the official 400,000 NYCHA residents had contracted the virus and were dying at more than twice the rate of the rest of the city. (According to the federal monitor charged with reforming the struggling agency, the number of people living in NYCHA is likely closer to 600,000.)
Most of those residents were already at a disadvantage. Ninety percent of NYCHA tenants are Black or Hispanic, demographics twice as likely to die from Covid as white and Asian New Yorkers. Many NYCHA tenants suffer health issues and comorbidities associated with poor living conditions such as asthma, which can increase the likelihood of getting severely sick from Covid. Approximately 15 percent of those residents are senior citizens, who are at a particularly high risk for serious illness and represent eight out of 10 Covid-19 deaths in the United States, according to the CDC.
One of those seniors who fell to the coronavirus was Carmen Perez Abreu. The retired seamstress was a fixture at Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx for 30-odd years, where she lived with Ferreyra, her granddaughter.
“She retired and absolutely loved living in public housing,” Ferreyra said. “She loved Mitchel. She loved this building.”
Mitchel, where Abreu lived in a building for seniors, recorded 10 deaths and 82 Covid-19 cases out of its 3,924 tenants in spring 2020. Ferreyra knows of several more at Mitchel who have died since, and thinks having NYCHA-specific Covid data would be a powerful tool for the community.
“It’ll also force the health department to actually respond to places where numbers are not declining,” she said. “And if we continue to be in the top 10 or whatever we were in before, we should be getting the support that we need to reverse that trend. But they can’t give us that support if they don’t know what’s really happening.”
As crucial as the data itself can be, equally important is sharing it properly, according to Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of health policy and management at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.
“You can’t just collect data in communities, you also have to engage with the communities and let them know the data, etc. It would be equivalent to a doctor doing tests on a patient and never telling the patient what the results are,” Lee said. “You have to tell the communities, show them the information, show them the data and then work with the communities together, jointly, to find ways to actually tackle the problem.”
The housing authority says it does not track any Covid data. Its website states the agency “has very limited involvement” in Covid testing efforts and that they are not notified when residents or staff test positive because of health privacy concerns.
“NYCHA is not a public health organization; it is a Public Housing Authority and a landlord, and as such, it has never requested health information from its residents, nor has it required residents to provide such information,” NYCHA spokesperson Nekoro Gomes said in an emailed statement. “The [May 2020 health department] data was based on COVID impacted individuals who provided NYCHA addresses, compared to all authorized NYCHA tenants, and does not reflect residents who are not on the lease. Therefore, it is not possible to accurately determine overall positivity and mortality rates.”
Myrie dismissed NYCHA’s policy of not tracking Covid as “another instance of finger-pointing.”
“Any time we try to hold NYCHA accountable for an array of services to constituents, there is always the point raised that it is someone else’s responsibility. And at some point the buck has to stop with NYCHA,” he said. “And the hope here is that they would take the helm on some of this data collection and provision to the public. I’m not sure why this would be a terribly difficult logistical lift for them, and certainly for the protection of residents and staff alike it’s important that they be as hands-on as possible.”
Davis said he thinks Grant Houses is doing better than it was last year — but has no way of knowing for sure.
“We need the data to see if we’re doing well,” he said. “We need that communication, we need the data.”
“I think information is really empowering and it also creates accountability,” Ferreyra said. “And we don’t have either going on right now when it comes to Covid.”