‘Faceless death’: After a year of denial and limited public mourning, COVID survivors ask Americans to grieve with them

A former marathon runner gasps for breath in the shower, his lungs destroyed, his red blood cells no longer effectively carrying oxygen.

A son mourns his mom’s death, her life stolen, he says, by incompetent politicians and self-centered Americans.

A family doctor breaks down after losing a patient who survived cancer and a heart attack but died in the surge of COVID-19 cases following Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations.

A wife and new mother watches her husband slip away during a months’-long hospitalization: First his voice. Then his lungs. Then his leg. Then his life.

A year after the start of a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and sickened nearly 30 million, the infection has exposed deep political, economic and racial fault lines that appear unlikely to heal anytime soon.

Complicating any recovery is the largely private nature of the deaths — and political leaders who downplayed the severity of the pandemic from Day 1 — allowing millions of Americans to deny the pandemic’s true threat, leaving survivors and their families angry, disgusted and frustrated.

As vaccination rates rise dramatically, some states are rushing to reopen despite anguished pleas from public health experts to move cautiously because tens of thousands of people are still sick, and more than 1,500 are still dying daily. After hitting a recent low of about 41,000 new cases on March 7, cases nationwide have jumped 50% as of March 10, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with increases coming in states that include Alaska and California.

“The bodies that are littered around us, we are running past them because we can see the end is near,” said Dr. Andrew Carroll, 50, a family doctor in Chandler, Arizona. “When we get to the end, we will mourn. We will look back. But until then, it seems like we’re rushing to the end of the battlefield without noticing the bodies piled around it.”

‘In my core, I can feel this ravaging me’

Corey Queen has a mark on his cheek caused by the line connected to his oxygen tank. He contracted COVID-19 in late January and is still experiencing symptoms, Feb. 24, 2021.

Corey Queen started feeling lousy on Jan. 26, days after his daughter’s volleyball tournament. It was an unusual feeling for a marathon runner who normally bounds out of bed at 4:30 a.m., to begin his workouts.

As a Black family living in Louisville, Kentucky, the Queen family had taken recommended precautions, including wearing masks, and limiting their exposure to other people. But the volleyball tournament was too important to miss, he said.

Queen and his wife were sitting on the couch when the phone rang a few days later. He answered, and heard his doctor’s voice. Not a nurse, not an assistant, but the doctor herself.

“As soon as I heard her voice, I knew what she was going to say,” Queen, 48, said. “You’re positive.”

As a father and a husband, Queen silently pleaded with God that it be him who got sick, rather than his wife or kids. Soon, it felt like a two-ton weight was sitting atop his chest. The marathon runner, the man who worked out every day, couldn’t breathe.

Rushed to the ICU, doctors and nurses stabilized him with supplemental oxygen and eventually sent him home to recover. While he’s no longer COVID positive, the damage is done: his lungs are so damaged he needs a steady flow of oxygen. He broke down crying the other day when a 10-minute shower without his now-constant oxygen tank left him gasping for air.

A patient receives a vaccine at his doctor's office. (Photo: Getty Images)

Exercise is essentially impossible. Laughs dissolve into coughs. And food, he says, still has no taste, just different textures in his mouth. His favorite Kentucky bourbon goes down like water. His brain remains foggy.

“I hesitate saying the word recovery. I sure as hell don’t feel like I’m recovering yet,” he said. “I’m going to spend at least most of 2021 on oxygen. That’s a lot to hold. In my core, I can feel this ravaging me.”

Because he’s no longer contagious, Queen has been trying to get out of the house occasionally. He still runs into people who think the pandemic isn’t serious, even though COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in the United States.

“It’s like, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t hear you over the sound of my oxygen machine,’” he said. “For so many people, it’s out of sight, out of mind. You don’t hear about this being someone’s father or mother or son or daughter. You see faceless death. So it’s easy to sit in your living room and think it’s not going to affect you.”

Queen said he has a new specialist doctor, who is Black, which he thinks will help improve his overall care because she understands the “extra burden” Black men face in the United States. He said acknowledging the racial undertones of how poorly the nation battled COVID-19 is hard, especially when acknowledgment means admitting fault.

His alarm still goes off at 4:30 a.m., but he no longer bounds out of bed. He’s thought about canceling the alarm but keeps it on to remind himself of his past self.

“It’s hard, at the quiet times, to not think about my own mortality,” he said. “Everyone is so quick with their Hallmark card advice to feel better or think good thoughts or to pray on it. The worst part is that they don’t see an ounce of doing something wrong in what they’re saying. Sometimes staying positive means being a little bit willfully ignorant.”

While more white Americans have died from the pandemic than any other group — about 300,000 of them — other racial groups have suffered disproportionally higher death rates. Adjusted for age and percent of the overall population, Native Americans have seen 256 deaths per 100,000, while for Black Americans, it’s about 180 deaths per 100,000. In comparison, white Americans have seen 150 deaths per 100,000, and for Latinos, it’s 147 per 100,000.

Charles Villaseñor prays before the funeral service for his mother, Lois Villaseñor, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church Thursday in East Austin. Lois Villaseñor, who founded Mission Funeral Home in 1959 with her husband, died in July of COVID-19-related complications. She was 87.

Public-health experts say many Americans are ignoring the devastation of deaths and Long COVID in part because they can, and in part because the reality might simply overwhelm them. Instead of seeing sick people walking the streets, or bodies piled up outside funeral homes, COVID has been a quiet killer of often-invisible people.

Roughly 20% of the deaths have been among the elderly and other long-term care residents, warehoused to live out of the public eye — and to die that way, too. Left behind are the empty cafeteria tables where they shared stories.

Another 300,000 deaths occurred in hospital settings: People got sick and simply vanished, never to be seen by their family again, despite frantic efforts by nurses and doctors to save them. Adult children said goodbye in phone calls and video chats, one last conversation before the breathing tube snaked in, before the sedation silenced their tortured breathing. No hugs. No final kisses.

Many of those deaths were among essential workers — the all-too-often invisible meat-packing workers, Filipino nurses — or Native Americans living on reservations. And while the nation at times cheered those essential workers, millions of Americans refused to protect them by following public health guidelines as they ate in restaurants, got drunk in bars or flew to Mexico for vacation.

‘It seemed like they didn’t care’

Former President Donald Trump repeatedly played down the severity of the pandemic, often complaining that the United States was only finding coronavirus cases because it went looking, via testing. Even today, he still calls it the “China virus,” a pejorative allowing people to deny that the problem exists here, now.

President Joe Biden takes off his mask to speak about the COVID-19 pandemic during a prime-time address from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Washington.

President Joe Biden vowed in an address to the nation Thursday night to be honest about the toll the pandemic has taken. He said he carries a card in his pocket, updated daily, with the number of dead, as a reminder.

“Photos and videos from 2019 feel like they were taken in another era, the last vacation, the last birthday with friends, the last holiday with extended family. While it was different for everyone, we all lost something, a collective suffering, a collective sacrifice, a year filled with the loss of life and the loss of living for all of us,” Biden said. “It all has exacted a terrible cost on the psyche of so many of us, for we are fundamentally a people who want to be with others, to talk, to laugh, to hug, to hold one another.

But overall, the small efforts to remember the dead stand in stark contrast to how the nation has previously honored and remembered its deaths. Posters remember the dead of 9/11, statues commemorate long-forgotten Civil War heroes. On a smaller scale, white-painted “ghost” bikes mark where cyclists have been killed by cars, and roadside memorials with crosses and candles remember car-crash victims.

For the pandemic’s victims, there’s been no “race for the cure” 5Ks, no yellow ribbons on cars or trees. Across local communities, the dead have gone largely unrecognized but for the seemingly endless newspaper obituaries. Media coverage has been somewhat muted because federal law severely restricts access to hospitals by journalists.

Experts say focusing on how many Americans died requires the kind of introspection we as a nation prefer to avoid. While public-health experts at first warned the United States could see as many as 2 million deaths without “flattening the curve,” almost all other nations have done a far better job controlling the spread and limiting deaths, most of them by immediately limiting the movement of citizens and barring outside visitors.

“We had a federal government that pooh-poohed it all,” said Carroll, the Arizona doctor. “We have to understand that the people who died around us, maybe they didn’t have to.”

Juanita Lopez poses with Mother's Day flowers in this undated photo.

Juanita Lopez lived a full life before COVID-19 claimed her. Born in El Salvador, she became a seamstress before fleeing with her family to the Boston area, where she raised four kids with her husband, earned a master’s degree and became a social worker. Her son, Juan, knew his mother wouldn’t live forever. But he had hoped for a few more years, even as dementia began stealing her memory, erasing her ability to speak English, making her forget how to use a phone. She could FaceTime with her family, though, always recognizing their faces.

Last April, COVID began stalking through the halls of the Beverly, Massachusetts, nursing home where Juanita Lopez was living. Her family was still learning about the infection, how it was particularly dangerous to the elderly, and to elderly Hispanic people in particular. While his sisters snuck in a visit to the nursing home as Lopez got sicker, Juan was stuck in Los Angeles, unable to safely fly.

His final conversation with her was a video call, a frustrating, unfulfilling goodbye to the mother who shaped his life, from her emigration to the United States to the private Catholic schools she insisted her kids attend. She died the next day, alone in an unfamiliar bed.

For her funeral, Lopez and his brother watched online as their sisters and husbands escorted their mother’s body to her grave, unable to kiss her goodbye or get close enough to each other to share a hug.

“It was like a gut punch. Yes, my mom had Alzheimer’s and yes, she was at the end of her life, but she still would have had many years with us,” Juan Lopez said. “I feel like I was robbed of those years with her. I felt helpless, powerless.”

Juanita Lopez walks with her son, Juan Lopez, in this 2019 photo, the last walk they took together. She died of COVID-19 in April 2020.

At the time of her death in April, Juan Lopez knew the world was still scrambling to understand the new infection sweeping the globe. Deaths in East Coast cities, particularly in New York and New Jersey, were skyrocketing, politicians were arguing over ventilators, and public health guidance was inconsistent.

Lopez, 46, today is infuriated Trump knew from the start how dangerous the infection is, but downplayed it. Instead of leading, Lopez said, Trump sowed confusion, dismissing the guidance of public experts.

“I didn’t think the government was handling things the way they should have, and when it came out that they knew how terrible it was from the beginning? It seemed like they didn’t care,” he said. “The whole thing to me is disgusting, the way it played out. It makes me sick to my stomach.”

Lopez said watching his neighbors throw pool parties last summer, months after his mother’s death, added to his pain. As a Latino man, Lopez knew he was at higher risk than many other Americans for getting sick. He resented how his neighbors flouted the public-health orders intended to protect community health. Even after he told them his mother had died, they didn’t stop. It was only when the partiers themselves started getting sick they took a break, he said. And now that they’ve recovered? The parties are back on.

“That douchebag mentality is festering in this country right now,” he added.

Juanita Lopez hugs her son, Juan Lopez, in 2019, the last time he saw her before the pandemic struck. She passed away in April 2020.

‘Witnessing grief feels unsafe’

Experts say our inability to acknowledge and grieve the nation’s COVID-19 losses will likely have long-term implications for our mental health.

ICU nurse Celia Nieto, 44, has watched patient after patient die, their rooms quickly scrubbed clean so the next dying person can be wheeled in. She’s tried to counsel grieving family members making life-and-death decisions about ventilators and treatment plans and do-not-resuscitate orders.

“Normally, I touch people’s arms, I look them in the eyes,” she said of her patients. “Instead I’ve been wheeling in iPads.”

Nieto said she’s particularly horrified at how the required social distancing and visitation restrictions made it hard for medical staff to adequately convey to family members just how sick their loved ones were. Nurses might be accustomed to death, she said, but to watch patient after patient suffer and then die took a far harder toll than normal.

Nieto and her colleagues were often caring for three patients each at a time, making it harder for them to deliver what they considered proper care. A normal caseload is two patients per nurse.

“We couldn’t watch them as closely as we needed to,” she said. “We couldn’t give the kind of care that we would expect, we just couldn’t, try as we might. And we tried.”

Nurse Celia Nieto, 44, poses for a photo while wearing two masks, safety glasses and a face shield, while on duty at the Las Vegas-area hospital she works at caring for COVID-19 patients.

After finishing frantic, dangerous shifts in her hospital in suburban Las Vegas, Nieto said she’s stunned to see unmasked shoppers in the grocery store, seemingly unconcerned about the virus killing people just a few miles away.

“I really wish people could see how hard we’ve worked this past year to take care of people who were very sick, how much it taxed us,” said Nieto, a member of the National Nurses United union. “The amount of people who got so sick, so quick, was nothing I’ve ever seen.”

As the pandemic eases, she said, nurses like her are finally getting a chance to slow down from their frantic live-saving sprint of the past year. She said that time for reflection is important, as will be counseling.

“There’s a lot of us who can now only just breathe, who are now only being able to process what’s happened,” she said. “As we take a break, as we’re able to breathe and process of this, some of us need to get help processing it.”

Grief expert David Kessler said a major obstacle to effectively recovering from loss is the “bright siding” that Americans tend to adopt whenever there’s a crisis.

“It goes back to this idea that grief must be witnessed. We want to see our pain visible to someone else. And when someone starts a sentence with ‘at least’ and tells you there’s a bright side, not only do you not feel witnessed, but you also feel shamed that you’re not positive enough about things,” said Kessler, an author and bioethicist. “There is no bright side to your mother dying of COVID.”

While family members were largely not allowed to visit loved ones battling COVID-19 at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles, some sent flowers, posters and other mementos to help patients feel closer to their families, like those pictured on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

While that toxic positivity can be a coping mechanism, he said, it obscures and in some cases minimizes survivors’ suffering. He said the pandemic’s toll of mental illness, suicide deaths, PTSD, drug overdoses, the loss of jobs and even delayed medical care adds up to a continuing wave of devastation.

Too many people, he said, are sitting at home alone with their grief, unable to have their losses witnessed by friends and family, and in some cases, confronted by people who insist the deaths aren’t real.

“I think people, really deeply, want to acknowledge the loss. But it’s this strange moment where witnessing grief feels unsafe,” he said. “Rituals are ceremonies and reflect the life and the love that was lost, to bookend a life. And there hasn’t been that for these losses. And then imagine if you told someone that your loved one died of cancer and they say, ‘well, I’m not sure I believe that.’”

Pushing healthcare inequalities ‘under the rug’

Widespread denial of how bad the pandemic is has come, many experts note, from conservative white men and women– a reflection of the reality that they have been less affected than communities of color.

Black, Latino and Native American communities have long understood that their losses aren’t considered as important as white Americans, said infectious-disease expert Dr. Virginia “Dee” Banks, a veteran of HIV/AIDS care based in Ohio.

Banks, 73, said she spent the first few weeks of the pandemic trying to save lives. It was only in April that she had time to fully grasp how disproportionally the infection was hitting minority communities.

What she found, she said, is the same question she’s been asking her whole life: “How do you make people feel that other people count?”

In particular, she said Native Americans have suffered worse than others, and yet there’s been little effective intervention. Instead, many Americans are content to live their lives without thinking how their actions could affect vulnerable people they may encounter and spread the virus to, from elderly churchgoers to Black bus drivers and Native Americans shopping at the same stores.

Banks, who has worked with members of the Lakota tribe, said it’s a pattern she’s seen repeat, starting when she was one of the first Black students to integrate a formerly all-white high school in 1963, and then again in medical school: People of color, including Black or Native Americans, are routinely treated worse than their white counterparts.

“It’s a population that people can push back up on a corner, like they got put on the reservations. It’s a forgotten population because it’s easy to forget,” she said. “If you don’t make these things a priority, it’s easy to push them under the rug and go have brunch on Sunday.”

Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, is interviewed at a food bank set up at the Navajo Nation town of Casamero Lake in New Mexico on May 20, 2020.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said his people knew they were on their own in dealing with the pandemic on the reservation, which sits in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. The Navajo have long suffered from diseases brought by white settlers, from smallpox to tuberculosis, and leaders there have learned not to trust many outsiders. To protect their people, Navajo leaders quickly adopted a mask mandate and instituted curfews designed to limit the amount of outsiders visiting the reservation.

The virus killed more than 1,180 members of the tribe’s approximately 300,000 members, but Nez proudly points out the Navajo Nation only had two waves of the virus, rather than the three most other areas saw. Two-thirds of the Navajo who died were 60 and older, he said, and the community’s mask requirements, curfews and closures protected vulnerable elders who keep the tribe’s knowledge and language.

“We took our ability to govern ourselves seriously and I just wish other governments around us would do the same,” said Nez, 45. “Some of the states around us didn’t take this virus very seriously. That made it difficult for the Navajo people, for other tribes.”

Nez said he and other leaders worked with tribal elders to explain how COVID-19 was the latest in a series of “monsters” faced down by their people, from the creatures of creation stories to modern-day diseases. He noted the reservation never saw significant protests or complaints by people upset they were being asked to stay at home or wear a mask in public.

“None of that happened here because the Navajo people looked at the greater good,” he said. “Yes, we lost some lives, but it could have been worse.”

A nurse takes a swab sample from a Navajo Indian woman complaining of virus symptoms, at a COVID-19 testing center at the Navajo Nation town of Monument Valley in Arizona. Weeks of delays in delivering vital coronavirus aid to Native American tribes exacerbated the outbreak. The pandemic may impact the turnout of Native Americans on Election Day, activists say.

Today, Nez is focusing hard on vaccination, and more than 52,000 Navajo have been fully vaccinated, a level nearly twice that of the United States overall. Nez credits an effective public-information campaign about vaccine safety and efficacy, along with daily mass vaccination clinics. Also helping: broadly defining who was at high risk, which meant more people were eligible to get the shots immediately, and a publicity campaign in which Nez got his first dose during a live TV broadcast, modeling the behavior his people quickly followed.

‘We have to beat this thing’

Although vaccinations are ramping up nationally, people are still getting sick and dying.

Carroll, the Arizona doctor, broke down in tears earlier this month while arguing with an insurance company over whether it would pay for a chest scan of a young woman recovering from COVID. Fighting with insurance companies doesn’t usually make him cry, he said, but it reminded him of just how hard the year has been, how close to the edge of collapse the medical system came.

Carroll said he’s also struggling with his own guilt: A longtime patient he treated through cancer and a heart attack died gasping for breath last month from coronavirus. Carroll suspects he got sick because so many people traveled for Thanksgiving and Christmas, driving up case counts across the state, leading to a surge in deaths a few months later, even among those who didn’t travel.

Dr. Andrew Carroll, a practicing family physician in Chandler, Arizona, and a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians Board of Directors, is pictured in this undated photo.

“This man dodged every bullet thrown at him until COVID came along,” Carroll said. “To have him suffer that way was horrible. You’ve lost a friend who trusted you with everything. Because we had to get together for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, that’s what drove this surge. We just couldn’t hold out a couple more months. It’s very disappointing.”

“We’re reaching a breaking point,” he added. “You just see it over and over and over again. Half a million people are dead and yet people are going to bars and partying and fighting about whether to wear a g–damn piece of cloth over their face.”

Talk-show host and fitness expert Amanda Kloots shares that same perspective: Just hold on a little longer.

Kloots’ husband, Broadway star Nick Cordero, died of COVID-19 after a 95-day hospitalization. As he struggled to survive, Kloots shared Cordero’s efforts to communicate by blinking, the amputation of his leg due to a blood clot, the damage to his lungs and the tracheostomy performed to help him breathe. The valiant efforts by his doctors. Research into lung transplants. And the rush of emotions as he seemed to improve and then flag, then improve again.

“You don’t want this virus. You don’t want your loved one to get this virus,” Kloots wrote on Instagram after Cordero has been hospitalized for 75 days. “I never thought Nick or I would get COVID and we both thought if we did we would be able to stay at home and recover. My heart breaks for him everyday. Please be safe.”

Cordero, 41, died July 5 after 95 days in the hospital. Since then, Kloots has maintained a steady stream of posts urging her fans and followers to adhere to public-health measures. Unlike many, Kloots has grieved publicly and openly, drawing strength from her Christian faith and those around her. Kloots is publishing in June a book about his death and their lives together, “Live Your Life: My Story of Loving and Losing Nick Cordero.”

Amanda Kloots and Nick Cordero at a party in New York City in 2019. Kloots kept Cordero's friends and fans updated on his condition throughout his 95 days in the hospital battling COVID-19 complications.

“It was like this horrible avalanche that just kept falling,” she said. “The loss of my husband will forever be a part of my daily life. That’s not going to go away.”

Kloots, 38, said her friends and fans have helped her work through her grief, not just over the loss of Cordero, but of the lives they used to lead. Kloots is a fitness instructor and a co-host of the CBS-TV daytime talk show “The Talk.” She says she’s had some tough days but deliberately maintained a positive attitude, taking comfort in her faith that God was watching over her family despite the pain.

“It’s been a tough year for everybody. If you haven’t lost someone yourself, you’ve lost your freedom, you’ve lost your job. We’ve all lost. It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “People are tired, people are getting impatient. We all want this to be over. We all want to resume a new normal of life, and we’re all hanging on by a thread. We are all so ready to be back. And we’re almost there. It’s just holding on for those last few months to keep us all safe. We have to beat this thing.”

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