More than 30,000 dead from COVID, hundreds of thousands more grieve in LA


California National Guard personnel assist in the processing of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) deaths and place them into temporary storage in an LA County Medical Examiner-Coroner Office facility in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 12, 2021. Photo by County of Los Angeles/Handout via REUTERS.

The pandemic isn’t over for Yolie Ballesteros. A little more than a year ago, the 44-year-old lost her brother, Carlos, to COVID-19. Eight days later, her mom, Sylvia, died of the disease. They were treated in the same Riverside hospital room.

“The pain doesn't go away,” Ballesteros says. Her mom and brother were both health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic until the virus caught up to them.

Now, Ballesteros’ life has changed forever. Her sons never returned to in-person school. Her sister left her job – also in health care – over safety concerns. Ballesteros still drives to her brother's house, hoping he’s there. “It really tore our family,” she says. “We don’t celebrate like we used to.” 

Ballesteros is one of thousands of Angelenos left devastated in the wake of the pandemic. Two years ago today, LA County reported its first COVID-19 mortality. Now, the death toll has risen to well over 30,000. It sounds like a high number, and it is, but sociologists have found that nearly 10 times that number of people are close family members of the deceased, and like Ballesteros, they’re struggling with profound grief.

Yolie Ballesteros (bottom right) and her family attend at a March 7, 2022 memorial service honoring the lives of health care workers who died from COVID-19, including her mother, Sylvia Morton, and her brother, Carlos Morton, Jr. Photo courtesy of Yolie Ballesteros.

Using COVID mortality data and information about American families, sociologists at USC are working to quantify how the mortality crisis induced by the pandemic is reverberating through survivors. 

“What this work does is reminds us that it's not just a single life lost, but that each life lost is a special person to numerous others in their social network,” says Emily Smith-Greenaway, an associate professor of sociology and spatial science at the university, and one of the researchers.

Smith-Greenaway and her team created a “bereavement multiplier” – a metric to measure the number of people left grieving after the loss of a close family member. For each COVID-19 death in the U.S., Smith-Greenaway says about nine close family members are grieving. The figure doesn’t include extended family, friends and colleagues, who are also affected.

“As we're approaching 30,000 deaths in Los Angeles County, what this roughly tells us is that there's approximately 270,000 people who have lost a close relative to COVID,” she says. “Even though these numbers are so tragic, just think about what they mean for the many people who did survive, but in no way survived the pandemic without being touched by mortality.”

Grief has tangible impacts on the living. It can “manifest into observable disadvantages,” says Smith-Greenaway, and those disadvantages — physical, mental, economic, and social — may be compounded in Black, Latinx, and Native American communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

“We know that Black families and Hispanic families — economically disadvantaged families — have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19 mortality,” says Smith-Greenaway. “This experience has also revealed these social cleavages between people who have really, truly lived this, versus more advantaged sectors of our population that have not been as intimately affected.”

Now, as policy makers relax mask mandates, and large portions of the country have begun to move on from caution, sociologists are observing a new gap … in grief.

“There’s never going back to normal,” says Smith-Greenaway. “These holes in people's family networks are unpatchable, they're irreplaceable losses. And so I think as a country, we need to really grapple with that.”



Robin Estrin