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Twice denied testing, UMass Amherst scholar dies after long battle with coronavirus

Some who knew Rana Zoe Mungin say the very biases she sought to bring attention to ultimately played a role in her death.

Rana Zoe Mungin, a graduate of both Wellesley College and UMass Amherst, died Monday from complications associated with COVID-19. On two occasions prior to her death, her family said, Mungin went to a hospital seeking a coronavirus test but was unable to get one.
Rana Zoe Mungin, a graduate of both Wellesley College and UMass Amherst, died Monday from complications associated with COVID-19. On two occasions prior to her death, her family said, Mungin went to a hospital seeking a coronavirus test but was unable to get one.Mia Mungin

As the first member of her family to attend college, Rana Zoe Mungin quickly stood out for her work on race and class.

At Wellesley College, where she majored in psychology, she wrote about her family, and her upbringing in Brooklyn. At UMass Amherst, where she later studied creative writing, those at the school said her work added to the national discourse about institutional racism within MFA programs.

And so when Mungin, 30, died Monday from COVID-19 complications — after, her family said, she was twice denied coronavirus tests during trips to a Brooklyn hospital — some who knew her saw a tragic irony: The very biases that Mungin, who was Black, sought to bring attention to in her work ultimately played a role in her death, they say.

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The circumstances surrounding her death have left those who knew her reeling. Though her sister believes the doctors and nurses who eventually treated Mungin did the best they could with the resources they had, she is also left to wonder whether earlier testing would’ve resulted in earlier treatment — and a different outcome.

“I felt like she had no fighting chance," said Mia Mungin, who works as a registered nurse in Brooklyn, in an interview Thursday.

“Rana Zoe’s battle with coronavirus unfortunately sheds light on the systems of racial, gendered, and class bias — entrenched power dynamics — that she sought to expose and change in her work,” read a statement this week released by the English department at UMass Amherst, where Mungin earned her master of fine arts in creative writing in 2015.

“The dismissal of her symptoms is a register of the long history of economic and racial barriers to healthcare faced by Black women in this country."

Dr. Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College and a former chief of the division of women’s health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said that Mungin’s experience highlights the longstanding disparities that exist when it comes to minorities’ ability to access health care — and the manner in which they’re treated once they’re there.

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"This is historic — we have data points overall for many years, and I think this pandemic has really brought to light these disparities in the most profound way,” said Johnson, who also is Black. “Here’s a young woman, a teacher, and she can not get the care she needs.”

COVID-19 death rates in communities of color have been vastly higher than overall mortality rates in many cities. Black people in New York have been twice as likely to die as white people; and at one point earlier this month, Black people in Chicago reportedly made up nearly 70 percent of the city’s coronavirus-related deaths, despite making up just 30 percent of the population.

Mungin, who worked as a social studies teacher in Brooklyn, was hospitalized in New York. But in Massachusetts, where data on the race and ethnicity of those who’ve died has been spotty — the ethnicity of half of the state’s 3,562 deaths is unknown — Black and Hispanic people have made up about 22 percent of the deaths for which race and ethnicity is known. That’s about the same percentage the groups represent in the population of Massachusetts.

But Black and Hispanic people also make up a disproportionate share of the confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state — roughly 40 percent of cases and 33 percent of hospitalizations for which race and ethnicity data is available.

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“I think the take-home point is that we are seeing the same story repeated over and over,” Johnson said. “It’s time to end. We’ve known this data, we’ve known that these barriers exist. . . . And it’s this moment where we must move forward differently to reduce these inequalities.”

Mungin’s five-week-long battle with the virus began March 12, her sister said, when she first developed symptoms commonly associated with the virus.

According to her sister, Mungin visited Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn on two separate occasions between March 15 and March 19 with fever, chills, and shortness of breath. On both occasions, Mia Mungin said, her sister was told that the hospital wasn’t conducting COVID-19 testing.

Prior to one visit, her sister said, an EMT suggested Mungin was simply suffering from a panic attack.

“What they did was give her some Tylenol and sent her home,” said Mia Mungin.

On March 20, after her symptoms worsened, Mungin returned to the hospital for a third time, this time by ambulance. The following day, according to her sister, she finally received a test for the virus — which came back positive.

Brookdale Hospital did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

The next five weeks would prove a back-and-forth battle. Mungin would receive care at three different facilities — Brookdale, Mount Sinai, and Select Specialty Hospital, said her sister.

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As Mungin’s battle with the illness dragged on, Mia Mungin’s social media updates generated considerable attention to her sister’s case — and reportedly helped facilitate a transfer to Mount Sinai Hospital.

But despite the attention, her sister died Monday, following a 37-day hospitalization.

“It was a roller coaster,” said Mia Mungin. “She was doing better, she got worse. She was doing better, she got worse.

“There’s only so much that the body can take.”

For Mia Mungin, one of the hardest aspects of her sister’s death has been the what-ifs. By the time her sister was admitted, she said, her illness had progressed to a point that she was ineligible for at least some experimental drug studies; a new drug from Gilead Sciences, for instance, has been shown to significantly reduce recovery time in patients.

But she also wonders how many others are going through a similar situation.

“Part of me believes she stayed alive as long as she did because I was making so much noise with the media, and ruffling a lot of feathers," said Mia Mungin.

“There’s so many people that didn’t have anybody to advocate for them. What happened to them?”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.