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'To Me He's Not A Number': Families Reflect As U.S. Passes 500,000 COVID-19 Deaths

Feb 22, 2021
Originally published on February 23, 2021 5:45 am

How do we wrap our minds around the fact that more than half a million people have died of COVID-19 in the United States alone?

The nation just passed that milestone: 500,000 lives lost, in one year.

Shafqat Khan was an organizer in the Pakistani immigrant community in New Jersey. He died of COVID on April 14, 2020. "Every day is a milestone for me," says his daughter Sabila Khan.
Sabila Khan

For the families of those who died of COVID-19, each successive milestone of this pandemic may seem irrelevant to their particular, punishing loss.

"Every day is a milestone for me," says Sabila Khan. "These round numbers don't really mean anything to me. Every day is just as shocking."

Her father Shafqat Khan was an organizer in the Pakistani immigrant community in New Jersey. When he died of COVID-19 at age 76 last April, near the beginning of the pandemic, the virus had claimed the lives of some 32,000 Americans.

Now, with COVID deaths topping half a million, Sabila fears the country has grown numb.

"We don't have that privilege of growing numb to the numbers," she says. "We're in it. I wish people would think about this every day."

And so, each morning, Khan has a ritual. Before she even gets out of bed, she reaches for her phone and checks the latest COVID-19 numbers on the Johns Hopkins University tracker.

"I feel like I have to somehow bear witness to the trauma that continues," she says. "By looking at the numbers every day, I'm sitting in the grief."

Josh Hollifield with his father Alan Hollifield of Ellenboro, N.C., who died on Nov. 28, 2020. "If there are 500,000 deaths, that's probably 3 million people who've experienced an incalculable tragedy," Josh says.
Josh Hollifield

A few days after her father died, Khan created a support group on Facebook for family and friends of those lost to COVID-19.

What began with a few members has ballooned to more than 7,000.

A lesson in exponents

One of those support group members is Josh Hollifield. His father Alan Hollifield, a maintenance mechanic, was 60 when he died in North Carolina just after Thanksgiving. "[COVID] took him from healthy to dead in three weeks," Josh says.

When he thinks about the magnitude of the losses, he frames it this way: "It's almost the population of Wyoming that we've lost. We've almost lost a state's worth of people."

Hollifield has watched the COVID-19 numbers grow exponentially, with U.S. deaths nearly doubling since his father died.

"I remember when it was really starting to catch on that this was out of control," he says. "I posted on social media: 'America is about to get a hard lesson in exponents.' And by the time of my dad's death, I was like, apparently America didn't learn from its lesson in exponents."

In his job as a flight attendant, Hollifield has had to deal with passengers who refuse to wear a mask. It's disturbing, he says, that people can go about their lives and feel no connection to these hundreds of thousands of deaths.

"The larger the numbers are," he says, "the harder it is to feel the empathy anymore. And I don't know how we make that empathy personal again. ... Our brains are not good with big numbers."

"It just won't stop growing"

The sheer weight of those numbers can tend to dwarf the individual stories behind each person who died. What does it mean when you're just one of half a million?

"I try not to think of my husband as a number. Because to me he's not a number," Carol McIntyre says.

James McIntyre and his wife Carol in 2017. James was 70 when he died of COVID on July 20, 2020, in Pensacola, Fla. "I refuse to attach him to a number," Carol says. They were married for 36 years.
Carol McIntyre

Her husband of 36 years, James McIntyre, a retired county bus driver in Pensacola, Fla., died of COVID last July at age 70. "I mean, I'm sure he is in that count," she says. "But I just refuse to attach him to a number."

When McIntyre hears the latest tally of COVID deaths, she can't help but wonder how many more people will die from this disease.

"It's like it just won't stop growing," she says. "And I know that there's somebody every minute, every second, every hour that's going through what I'm going through."

McIntyre doesn't go to stores unless she has to, and when she does, she sees a lot of people not wearing masks. "It hits me very hard," she says. "I try to share my story with them. I say, 'It's real.' I say, 'My husband passed from COVID.' ... A couple times, people kinda got a little iffy-iffy with me, so I backed off, you know? But it makes me so mad. I'm like, dag! They don't get it? Is it gonna take them to get COVID before they realize 'Hey, I should have worn my mask?'"

"A brutal form of gaslighting"

Like Sabila Khan, Jennifer Spitzer of Ithaca, N.Y., checks the COVID numbers daily, and is angered every time a new threshold is reached.

Her mother Abby Spitzer, a psychotherapist in the New York City suburbs, died last May at 78.

Abby Spitzer of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., with her grandson Auden White in 2013. Abby died on May 5, 2020. "Many of us feel the compulsion to prove over and over again that our tragedies are real," says her daughter Jennifer Spitzer.
Jennifer Spitzer

"It's devastating, this sort of accumulation of lives, and the way we keep waking up to another 100,000 people lost," Jennifer says. "One of the fears that a lot of us have is that as that number climbs, we all just become statistics. There's almost a callousness to the individuality of those losses."

What's worse, she says, is realizing how many people doubt that COVID-19 could have been the real cause of death. Or who, even after half a million lives lost, doubt that COVID-19 even exists; who think it's all a hoax, or a conspiracy.

Spitzer calls it "a brutal form of gaslighting," and she's pained by one alarming incident in particular.

"Shortly after my mother died," she recalls, "I remember walking down the street right by my house in a rather progressive upstate college town, and a man driving up to me and rolling down his window and coughing at me, in a kind of jeering cough, to mock me for wearing a mask."

Spitzer was too stunned to respond before the man drove away. "It was really a kind of horrific enactment of how many people don't take this virus seriously," she says. "I have been mocked or jeered for wearing a mask no fewer than four times. ... I actually think there's a lot more people walking around who still don't believe that this virus exists, even after 500,000 deaths, than we would like to believe."

"It's just too much"

At the coffeehouse she owns in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, Ga., Cherie Johnson has set up a table in her mother's favorite window seat, with her mom's photo, a bottle of her favorite chai and some tulips.

Joan Beaubien was 78 when she died of COVID on Nov. 18.

Joan Beaubien of Conyers, Ga., died on Nov. 18, 2020. "When I think that in the three months since she's passed away that it's been double the amount of deaths, I'm blown away by that," says her daughter Cherie Johnson.
Cherie Johnson

"When I think that in the three months since she's passed away that it's been double the amount of deaths, I'm blown away by that," Johnson says.

Beaubien was a mother of six, a former art teacher and store manager. She had a family history with deadly pandemics: her grandfather and great-grandmother were killed in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

The milestone of 500,000 COVID deaths is noteworthy, Johnson says, but she wonders, "If we're at a half a million now, when are we gonna be at a million? I have stopped following it as intently as I was, because it's just too much."

Johnson adds, "I try to say her name, Joan Beaubien, as much as I can. ... Just to put it out there that she existed."

"That's my ma"

When Carmen Gardner-Jackson's mother, Diane Butler, went to the hospital with COVID last fall, her family kept their hopes up.

Diane Butler surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren at her graduation ceremony from Bryant & Stratton College, 2013. Butler died in Milwaukee on Dec. 4, 2020. She was 66.
Carmen Gardner-Jackson

"You see on television that hey, the president of the United States took that drug and he got better, so my mom's gonna get that drug and she's gonna be better," Gardner-Jackson says. "But that wasn't the case for us."

Butler died in Milwaukee at age 66, a recent retiree. She had gone to college and proudly got an associate degree at 59. "Education is the one thing that no one can take away from you," she would preach to her children and grandchildren.

"How do you get other people to realize that she was someone special?" asks her daughter Carmen.

Sometimes, she will watch the rising death toll scroll by at the bottom of her television screen, "just always remembering that ma is one of those numbers," she says. "That's my ma. That's my mother. That's the woman that gave me my name. She's one of those numbers."

A fresh loss

Now that there are vaccines and the death rate is dropping, a new loss to COVID can feel doubly cruel.

Danny Volce (left) on his fifth birthday with brother Jay Volce, in 1973. Danny was 52 when he died on Feb. 6, 2021. "To get so far into this and then to lose him here at this point... it feels especially hard," says his sister Lori Baron.
Lori Baron

"We're so close to the finish line, it seems like," says Lori Baron, who lost her brother Danny Volce to COVID earlier this month. He was 52. "To get so far into this and then to lose him here at this point... I think it always feels unfair, but it feels especially hard," she says.

Volce was a drummer, father of three and a constant joker, Baron says: "like having Jim Carrey as a brother."

She feels compelled to look at the COVID dashboards to frame her own loss in the context of all the others.

"I look at the number of deaths in the United States," she says, "and I just stare at that number, and I think, if Danny was still here, that number would look different. Just by one, but it would look different."

Baron focuses on the last digit of that rising number and thinks to herself, that's him.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The night before he took the oath of office, Joe Biden held an event to mark 400,000 dead from the pandemic. That was in January, hardly more than a month ago. Yesterday, the president and vice president held an event to mark 500,000 dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They're never truly gone. They'll always be part of your heart. I know this as well, and it seems unbelievable, but I promise you, the day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye. It will come, I promise you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Melissa Block interviewed some loved ones who remember the dead.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Sabila Khan has a ritual. Every morning before she even gets out of bed, she reaches for her phone and checks the latest COVID numbers.

SABILA KHAN: I feel like I have to somehow bear witness to the trauma that continues. By looking at the numbers every day, I'm sitting in the grief.

BLOCK: Sabila's father, Shafqat Khan, was an organizer in the Pakistani immigrant community in New Jersey. When he died of COVID last April, near the beginning of the pandemic, the virus had claimed the lives of some 32,000 Americans. Now with COVID deaths over half a million, Sabila fears the country has grown numb. But she says...

KHAN: We don't have that privilege of growing numb to the numbers. We're in it. I wish people would think about this every day.

BLOCK: Sabila created a support group on Facebook for family and friends of those lost to COVID. What began with a few members has ballooned to more than 7,000. One of them is Josh Hollifield. His father, Alan, a maintenance mechanic, was 60 when he died in North Carolina just after Thanksgiving. Since then, Josh has watched the COVID numbers grow exponentially.

JOSH HOLLIFIELD: It's almost the population of Wyoming that we've lost, so we've almost lost a state's worth of people.

BLOCK: It's troubling, he says, that people can go about their lives and feel no connection to these deaths.

HOLLIFIELD: The larger the numbers are, the harder it is to feel the empathy anymore. And I don't know how we make that empathy personal again because now - our brains are not good with big numbers.

BLOCK: The sheer weight of those numbers can tend to dwarf the individual stories behind each person who died. What does it mean when you're just one of half a million?

CAROL MCINTYRE: I try not to think of my husband as a number because, to me, he's not a number. I mean, I'm sure he is in that count, but I just refuse to attach him to a number.

BLOCK: Carol McIntyre's husband, James, a retired county bus driver in Pensacola, Fla., died last July at age 70. They'd been married for 36 years. Now she wonders how many more people have to die.

MCINTYRE: It's like it just won't stop growing. And I know that there is somebody every minute, every second, every hour that's going through what I'm going through.

JENNIFER SPITZER: It's devastating, this sort of accumulation of lives and the way we keep waking up to another 100,000 people lost.

BLOCK: That's Jennifer Spitzer of Ithaca, N.Y., who gets angry every time a new threshold is reached. Her mother, Abby Spitzer, a psychotherapist, died last May at 78.

SPITZER: One of the fears that a lot of us have is that as that number climbs, we all just become statistics. There's almost a callousness to the individuality of those losses.

BLOCK: What's worse, Jennifer says, is realizing how many people doubt that COVID even exists, who think it's all a hoax or a conspiracy. She calls it a brutal form of gaslighting.

SPITZER: Shortly after my mother died, I remember walking down the street right by my house in a rather progressive upstate college town and a man driving up to me and rolling down his window and coughing at me, you know, in a kind of jeering cough to mock me for wearing a mask, it was really a kind of horrific enactment of how many people don't take this virus seriously.

BLOCK: Last fall, when Carmen Gardner-Jackson's mother, Diane Butler, went to the hospital with COVID, her family kept their hopes up.

CARMEN GARDNER-JACKSON: You've seen on television that, hey, the president of the United States took that drug and he got better. So my mom's going to get that drug and she's going to be better. But that wasn't the case for us.

BLOCK: Butler died in Milwaukee at age 66. She was newly retired, had gone to college and got her associate degree when she was 59. Sometimes, Carmen will watch the rising death toll scroll by at the bottom of her TV screen.

GARDNER-JACKSON: Just always remembering that Ma is one of those numbers. That's my mom. That's my mother, that's the woman that gave me my name. She's one of those numbers.

BLOCK: Now that there are vaccines and the death rate is dropping, a new loss to COVID can feel doubly cruel.

LORI BARON: We're so close to the finish line. It seems like to get so far into this and then to lose him here at this point, I think it always feels unfair, but it feels especially hard.

BLOCK: Lori Baron lost her brother Danny Volce to COVID just this month. He was 52, a drummer, always joking.

BARON: I was looking at the number of deaths in the United States, and I just stare at that, that number. And I think of if Danny was still here, that number would look different, just by one, but it would look different.

BLOCK: I look at that last digit, Lori says, and I think that's him. Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.