Cook County public health co-lead Dr. Rachel Rubin loses both her parents to COVID-19 in ‘surreal’ two-week span

When Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said her last goodbye to her father in December, it was through a screen.

After not seeing him in-person since he was hospitalized with COVID-19, she logged onto a video chat, but he wasn’t able to say much. He asked how her mother, who had also come down with the virus, was faring. Rubin was unsure whether he understood most of her responses.

Harvey Rubin, 93, died Dec. 23 of COVID-19 complications, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. His wife Aviva Rubin, 91, died less than two weeks later of the same disease. The Rubins lived in Lincolnwood.

Rubin was able to see her mother in person two days before her death, but like her previous meeting with her father, it was quiet. Her mother slept through much of their reunion as Rubin held her hand while talking on the phone with her sister and brother.

“It’s been extremely difficult. It’s also been very surreal,” Rubin said in a phone interview. “We can’t really mourn or be with family for comfort the way one usually can be after a loss like this. And so it’s still in some ways sort of sinking in.”

As one of Cook County’s authoritative voices on the coronavirus pandemic, Rubin spent nearly all of 2020 crafting mitigation policies as the virus claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives. In Illinois, COVID-19 killed more than 16,000 people and sickened over 960,000 by the end of the year.

Rubin also joined the rest of the nation’s local public health leaders in December to mobilize for the arrival of a federally approved vaccine for the virus, a hopeful reprieve after months of mounting coronavirus cases and deaths. But amid the race to stop the virus’ spread, Rubin was also talking to her parents’ doctors every day, scrambling to keep up with their declining health.

It became draining for Rubin to watch the news on TV and hear each day’s statistics of people dying from the virus. The specter of mortality, ever-present since the pandemic first swept the country, hit home as she thought about her parents who, despite rarely going outside or seeing people beyond their caregiver, could be next. She’s left unsure how her parents contracted the disease.

“I never thought that this would happen to my parents because they were being so, so careful,” Rubin said. “I just keep rethinking what happened. How did this happen?”

Aviva and Harvey Rubin met during the early 1950s in Chicago while they were both ushering for a play. Aviva Rubin was more serious, immersed in political activism, while Harvey Rubin filled the room with his droll sense of humor and grandiose character impressions. The two bonded over their love of theater, art and politics.

“It’s funny, they had a relationship where we would joke at home that they could argue about the placement of a fork on the table,” Rubin said. “My mother wasn’t going to give an inch. She was very much a feminist, and my dad I think really appreciated that in her.”

Aviva Rubin was born in Jerusalem but grew up in Missouri and Iowa before graduating high school at age 16 and attending the University of Iowa. She moved to Chicago following a stint in New York and became a speech pathologist at Chicago Public Schools.

Rachel Rubin remembers the imprint her mother’s political activism left on her when she was a young girl attending Nettelhorst Elementary School in Lakeview during the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, the North Side neighborhood was home to a sizable Puerto Rican population, but threats of gentrification and entrenched school segregation loomed.

Aviva Rubin fought back and protested on behalf of a community group called the Lakeview Citizens Council. She once invited her daughter to testify in front of the Chicago City Council about working-class families being pushed out of Lakeview when she was about 12, one of many formative experiences Rachel Rubin said she had in understanding the fight for civil rights in America.

Harvey Rubin grew up in Humboldt Park, living above his grandfather’s bakery. He attended Wilbur Wright Community College for two years before transferring to the University of Illinois to study journalism. His career path entailed rising up in the advertising industry to become a creative director, but he also performed community theater in his spare time and could recite Shakespeare from memory.

“(His acting was) so alive and engaged,” Rachel Rubin said. “He would be that way anyway in his life, but he would almost be sort of larger-than-life, the way he acted.”

Harvey Rubin gave his performances 100% even when reading bedtime stories to his children during their younger years. When reading Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” he puffed his chest to make the right sound effects of the monsters and embodied each character with well-timed inflections.

The loss of Rachel Rubin’s parents doesn’t change what she’s said from the beginning of the pandemic: That mitigation guidelines such as social distancing, masking and getting vaccinated are the only way the nation can wrest control back from the pandemic.

“That’s sort of the public health message, but when it hits you personally like this, it makes those recommendations turn into imperatives,” Rubin said. “They’re not just, ‘oh you should do this,’ but it’s ‘you must do this.’ ”

The past month has left Rubin at times sleepless, waking up in the middle of the night and reminiscing about her parents. But cleaning out their apartment on Sunday also gave her closure as she and her sister collected photographs of their family to sift through.

One photo in particular caught Rubin’s attention that day: a snippet, cut from a Tribune newspaper where she was quoted giving remarks on COVID-19, laying on their living room table. In that photo, she was doing what her parents had always taught her in speaking up and leading through a crisis, she said.

“I think that they were proud,” Rubin said.