Shame and guilt as Californians are still dying of COVID: ‘Why couldn’t we have just held out a little bit longer?’

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

In California, events are being rescheduled, restaurants are increasingly full, and vaccinated residents will soon be able to get rid of their masks. The state is averaging about 1400 new cases daily and about 51 deaths — numbers that are significantly lower than months ago when COVID peaked here. 

But that joy and relief aren’t being felt among those who are losing family members from the disease. Hayley Smith wrote about this for the LA Times. 

KCRW: Who are the people who are still catching COVID? And very sadly dying from it?

Hayley Smith: “It feels like there's this sort of statewide mood of celebration and optimism and almost like the pandemic is over. But the data that we found is that in California, there's still anywhere from 40 to 60 people who are still dying of COVID every day, and about 12 to 14 of those daily deaths on average are here in LA County. So it is still very much a real thing.” 

Do they share any characteristics/demographics? Are they in particular neighborhoods?

“Demographically, a lot of the trends that we're seeing of the most recent deaths mirror the larger trends we've seen throughout the pandemic. More men than women, about 58% men and 42% women, I think, for the previous two weeks or so. Older people also are making up about a quarter of the COVID deaths. And the numbers kind of improve as you move down each age bracket from there. 

… For a while it looked like the Latinx population was the sort of racial demographic that was having the highest death numbers, but in recent weeks, it shifted. And now we're seeing a little bit more of the white population. But again, these numbers sort of change and fluctuate daily.”

I thought that more older people were getting vaccinated than younger people.

“Yeah, you would think so. But one interesting finding … is that a lot of the people who are dying of COVID right now are people who got sick months ago. … Some of these people ... got sick in January and February, during the height of the surge, and right as the vaccines were starting to roll out.

They were really sick this whole time? Or did it fluctuate?

“I think a lot of these people are really sick the whole time. I mean, if you get to the stage of COVID where you are in an ICU, and you're on a ventilator, the body can sort of sustain itself for a while in that phase. But again, it's about the families having to come to terms with that, and possibly make some really difficult decisions about when to say goodbye, and when to let go. 

Of course, there are exceptions, there are people who have gotten sick and died in the span of a week or two weeks. So it's still unpredictable in that way.”

Families who are experiencing the worst of this disease, how are they affected by seeing others celebrate vaccinations, loosened restrictions, and low positivity rates? 

“We spoke to someone who lost his mother a year ago when things were really starting to get bad. And it seemed like the whole world was grieving with him. You remember, we were all banging on pots and pans and clapping for health care workers. It was sort of like ‘all in this together.’

But now everyone's peeling off their masks, and they're going to bars, and they're going to restaurants. And then here you are dealing with the death of a loved one. It feels like we were almost so close to the finish line. So I think that it adds a complicated sort of layer to the grief that people are experiencing at this phase in the pandemic.”

There’s also a feeling of shame, right?

“I was speaking to the chaplain at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital here in LA, which was previously one of the hardest-hit hospitals in LA County. I think this week, they have maybe eight patients who are COVID positive. And the chaplain was saying that there was a family there whose loved one is on a ventilator, most likely will not survive. And they said to him, ‘We let our guard down. We started celebrating. We thought it was over, and we were wrong.’ And so there is that sort of shame and guilt and questioning of like, ‘Wow, why couldn't we have just held out a little bit longer?’

The CDC last week said fully vaccinated people can take their masks off in most instances. But that could lead to unvaccinated people taking off their masks. Are these health professionals worried about possibly seeing another spike?

“I think absolutely. … The CDC made this very sort of broad sweeping announcement, and then all the local and state health departments were like, ‘Hey, hold on, wait a second.’ And so here in California, our health officials have said they're not ready for that yet. We need a little bit more time to figure out a safe way to do this, because not only are you going to have unvaccinated people mingling with vaccinated people, but think about children, people who aren't even eligible for the COVID vaccine, 12 years and younger — what kind of exposure it could create for them as well. … That's a big portion of the population where COVID will continue to circulate, could possibly create new variants, or continue to threaten people in that way.”

And we are seeing more children getting sick now than in the past. 

“The American Association of Pediatrics just found that like a quarter of recent cases have been in children. So unfortunately, as more adults get vaccinated, it's almost like the virus is being pushed down onto that younger unvaccinated group. 

So I think the takeaway here is that we really can't let our guard down just yet, even though it's so tempting. And even though we all want to just hug our loved ones, and be with our friends, and go to the restaurants and the movies and all that, we're in the home stretch, but we're just not quite there yet.”