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As California takes over COVID-19, who still dies?

Claudio Arturo Diaz had a lot to celebrate when he turned 64 in February.

A beloved husband, father and grandfather who held four essential jobs, he was only one year away from his planned retirement.

But just hours after delighting his family with his performance of The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four,” Diaz began to feel sick. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 and, within a month, was hospitalized and put on a ventilator.

He died in San Rafael on Easter Sunday, April 4 – three days after all Californians between the ages of 50 and 64 became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite an optimistic mood statewide as more people get vaccinated and case rates improve, an average of 57 Californians a day still succumb to the novel coronavirus. An average of about 12 of those daily deaths occur in Los Angeles County, according to data from the past seven days.

On the one hand, it is a great cause for celebration. During the worst days of the pandemic, California saw an average of nearly 600 people die per day. But the sharp drop in deaths also raises a question: who is still dying and why?

And for families losing loved ones today, the usual pain of loss is compounded by its arrival at a time when the death rate is collapsing.

“It’s so unfair,” said Diaz’s daughter Lin-Yu Diaz, 36. “Now we are getting phone calls about setting up the vaccination, but it is too late.

Latin American populations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and continue to account for a high number of deaths, albeit less proportionately: for the two-week period ending May 9, around 40% of people died from COVID- 19 in California were white and 34% were Latino, according to state data. About 10% were Asian; 7% were black and 9% were multiracial or other.

And like in the early stages of the pandemic, most of the people who recently died from COVID-19 – around 59% – were men.

Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center chief medical officer Dr Brad Spellberg said many of the recent deaths were from people like Diaz, who fell ill months ago when the infection rate was high and that vaccines were not widely available.

“These deaths are likely from people who were infected in January and February,” he said, noting that the dying process can take as long.

Last week, LA-USC County – the largest public hospital in the western United States – had just 21 patients with COVID-19, Spellberg said, up from a high of around 275 during the week. devastating wave of autumn and winter. Notably, only one of the current patients has been admitted for COVID-19. The others came for other reasons and found out they were positive through routine hospital testing.

“All of the symptomatic patients that we see now have mild symptoms,” Spellberg said. “They have a cold, they have the flu, they have a mild illness… I don’t think we’ve been admitted to COVID in the ICU for probably at least six weeks.

These sunny statistics can make things even more difficult for the small group of Californians who are currently suffering the loss of loved ones.

Guilt, shame and grief

At Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in South Los Angeles, formerly the epicenter of the pandemic, only eight of 169 patients admitted in the last week of April have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to figures provided by the ‘hospital.

Hospital chaplain Reverend Rudy Rubio said some of the remaining COVID-19 patients and families face feelings of guilt or shame in addition to their grief.

“I think there was a lot more support when [the surge] was happening because it was a really real thing everywhere and everyone, in one way or another, had suffered collateral damage, ”he said.

The family of a recently admitted patient, who was on a ventilator and unlikely to survive, told Rubio they had “let their guard down.”

“A lot of people thought we got past that and we were celebrating, and that’s probably how this family member contracted it,” he said.

In California, age also remains a factor in deaths from COVID-19. For the two-week period ending May 9, about 72% of deceased state residents were 65 or older, while 20% were between 50 and 64. Only 8% were between 18 and 49 years old, and none were under 18 years old. The numbers reflect those seen throughout the pandemic.

Qualified nursing homes and assisted living homes, formerly hotbeds of COVID-19 outbreaks, are seeing the case rate improve as more seniors get vaccinated. Of 45,000 COVID-19 tests administered at skilled nursing facilities in LA County the week of April 17, only 26 came back positive, according to the county public health department. For comparison, there were 2,532 positive tests the week of December 28.

But some recent deaths date back to when healthcare facilities simply couldn’t immunize residents quickly enough. In Huntington Beach, 90-year-old assisted living resident Dolores Cracchiolo was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Christmas Day, the same week she was supposed to receive her first dose of the vaccine. She died on March 24.

Dolores Cracchiolo’s family visited her often through the window of their senior citizen facility during the pandemic. She died of COVID-19 on March 24.

(Deanne Mendoza)

“She wasn’t like everyone’s grandmother,” recalls her granddaughter, Deanne Mendoza, 43. “She was young, energetic and lovable, and you could always borrow clothes from her closet.”

The family struggled to be separated from Cracchiolo during the pandemic and often visited him through the window of his accommodation. Originally from Detroit, she had fallen in love with Southern California in her youth and had spent decades building a life rich in children, grandchildren and cousins ​​in the area.

And while Mendoza said she was happy to see the state reopen – and believes her grandmother would be too – she hopes her family’s experience will remind her that the pandemic is not over and that vaccines are on the way. crucial.

“I don’t want other people to have to go through what we went through – it was not an easy passage,” Mendoza said. “It was really, really difficult, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone… If there’s anything we can do to prevent it, I think it’s important.

‘Our world has been shattered’

The family of 82-year-old Maria “Connie” Gamboa had worked hard to get through the pandemic safely and were beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then the unthinkable happened: Despite adhering to strict security protocols, Gamboa was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 24.

The family matriarch had been advised not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 due to a penicillin allergy and other health concerns. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccinations even for most people with drug or other allergies.)

“Our world was turned upside down,” the day of the diagnosis, said his son Arthur Gamboa, “because we thought we had done really well for a year.” She died in Loma Linda on April 3.

As California takes over COVID-19, who still dies?

Maria Gamboa died of COVID-19 in Loma Linda on April 3. She was 82 years old.

(Rosemary Egle-Hopwood)

Her family described Gamboa, a lifelong Californian, as a kind and spiritual person who loved to laugh and enjoyed camping on the beach. When she was hospitalized, her family “knew her chances of coming back and surviving would be very slim,” Arthur said.

And she wasn’t the only one to have been sick with the virus: her husband and four adult children have also all tested positive. No one knows how or when they contracted the virus. Gamboa’s daughter, Rosemary Egle-Hopwood, had already received a dose of the vaccine when she was diagnosed. She also spent several days in the hospital.

The family, Egle-Hopwood said, are happy things are improving in California, but they know only too well the threat remains. “We hear the news on the numbers… but when I left on the oxygen they cheered for me because I was fortunate enough to come home,” Egle-Hopwood said. “It’s very real.”

She is now waiting to receive her second vaccine, she said. Her siblings and father have all been vaccinated and encourage others to do the same.

Column one

A showcase for the Los Angeles Times’ compelling storytelling.

In Southern California, the transition from death and devastation to hope and jubilation has been particularly rapid. The state’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak peaked in January, but by early April, vaccines were readily available to most residents of the state. Governor Gavin Newsom last month said California would fully reopen its economy on June 15.

On Monday in the same week, Los Angeles County marked 24,000 deaths from COVID, public health officials said Los Angeles could achieve herd immunity as early as the end of July.

Americans are already starting to celebrate “having a life that they increasingly recognize,” said Yvonne Thomas, a Los Angeles-based psychologist whose specialties include grief and loss. “Yet these people who have lost loved ones to COVID … are still stuck trying to breathe. It will be an extremely confusing time for them.

Guilt is common among those in mourning, especially when they feel they could have done more to prevent death, she said. Recent reopening and vaccination efforts have provided additional opportunities for these feelings.

Michael Dearie, whose mother died of COVID-19 near the start of the pandemic last spring, said at the time it was as if the world was grieving with him. Businesses were closed, families separated, and the novel coronavirus was still at the frightening center of everyone’s lives.

“Despite how hard it was to be alone, I think it would be hard to lose someone now when the world is back to normal, when we have to get back to work,” said Dearie, 34.

Today, as intensive care units empty and fear subsides, the families of those who have recently died of COVID-19 are grappling with their feelings.

Diaz, the patriarch of the family who fell ill on his 64th birthday, intended to return home to Yucatan, Mexico, after his retirement, and live in “that little house he bought for the family.” and finally to rest a little ”. his daughter said.

“Everyone’s life is getting back to normal,” she added, “but ours will never be normal again.”

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