The pandemic’s cruel toll: More than 16,000 Illinoisans died from COVID-19 in 2020, disproportionately the elderly, poor and people of color

Christy Gutowski and Jonathon Berlin, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A few weeks ago, as Dr. Marina Del Rios sat in a chair in front of photographers and received the first COVID-19 vaccine shot administered in Illinois, her mind focused on the easy smile of a beloved family friend.

Jose Vazquez’s face was quick to light up, Del Rios remembered, especially when he spoke about his daughters. He was just one of many people she knew, former patients and fellow heath care professionals alike, who died or lost loved ones in 2020 as the pandemic swept through the state and inflicted misery across the country.

As the spread began in earnest in March, the 51-year-old Vazquez was surrounded by thousands of people each day as a passenger service agent at O’Hare International Airport. Del Rios’ friend died March 30, an early casualty in a crisis that in Illinois had killed about 16,500 people and sickened more than 960,000, according to Dec. 31 state data.

The state had the somber distinction of having the sixth most COVID-19-related deaths in the country in 2020, behind Texas, New York, California, Florida and New Jersey, federal data shows. The total means there has been 1 coronavirus death for every 711 Illinoisans — a rate higher than the 1 in every 962 killed across the U.S. in 2020.

In 2019, influenza and pneumonia killed more than 2,100 people in Illinois, according to state public health officials. The coronavirus toll is eight times that tally.

The pandemic has been especially deadly for the elderly, minorities and the poor, who often have less access to health care to treat existing health conditions, making them particularly vulnerable. But the death of a Tinley Park teen one day after Christmas is a painful reminder that young, healthy people are not immune.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Tribune has written about hundreds of COVID-19 victims from all walks of life. They were leaders in arts, culture, religion and politics, and those who led more ordinary lives filled with extraordinary moments, leaving indelible marks on those who loved them.

Jose Vazquez was an outgoing, people person who married his high school sweetheart. They had two daughters, both part of the nonprofit Chicago Cuatro Orchestra in Humboldt Park, where the family met Del Rios, whose two sons also performed there.

“(Vazquez) was always smiling, even under the most stressful situations,” said Del Rios, director of social emergency medicine at the University of Illinois Hospital. “You couldn’t help but shake off any bad mood when he was around. I just loved watching him with his girls. He was so proud of them.”

The virus has claimed veterans, educators, community activists, small-business owners, family matriarchs and patriarchs, and immigrants who came to the U.S. with little more than dreams. Some of the victims had survived the Spanish flu, lived through the Great Depression or the Holocaust.

COVID-19 infected groups of people in nursing homes, churches, prisons and jails, and sometimes families who lost multiple relatives days, weeks or months apart. Due to hospital safety protocols, the sick died without their families at their bedsides. And relatives grieved without the usual memorials.

Some of the victims included the very people who fought on the pandemic’s front line. Scores of health care professionals, first responders and police officers made that ultimate sacrifice. The Tribune has identified and interviewed dozens of their families throughout the pandemic to chronicle everyday acts of heroism.

Public health officials have described the first vaccinations in Illinois as the beginning of the end. Still, December proved to be the pandemic’s deadliest month, with more than 4,200 deaths blamed on the virus in Illinois.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has continued to urge Illinoisans to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines into the new year, cautioning against state residents letting their guards down too early.

“Until the vaccine is available to everyone and until we eradicate this virus once and for all we must continue working to protect one another,” the governor said recently. “Our choices affect the cashier at the grocery store, the janitor at work, other people’s loved ones and our own.”

DEADLY DISPARITIES

The pandemic exposed and exploited the disenfranchisement that those living in economically disadvantaged communities have long faced, with deadly consequences.

Some of the hardest hit communities on Chicago’s South and West sides have struggled with unemployment and health care access for generations. As a result, public health data shows, residents often have higher baseline rates of the existing health conditions that can lead to more serious cases of COVID-19: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and lung disease.

Other socioeconomic factors, such as a reliance on public transportation, and living in denser housing without local access to fresh foods and pharmacies, also may have made residents more susceptible.

Though Black Illinoisans make up 14% of the state’s population, they represented nearly 19% of Illinois’ virus-related death toll in 2020, according to an analysis of state and federal data. They are the only racial demographic whose COVID-19 fatality rate is higher when compared with the group’s proportion of the state’s population.

By comparison, 57% of those killed were whites, a group who make up 61% of Illinois’ population.

In Chicago itself, that disparity for Blacks and Latinos is even more pronounced. About 39% of those who died in the city were Black, though Blacks make up 30% of Chicago’s population. And 34% of those killed were Latinos, who make up 29% of the city’s population, according to city data.

The Rev. Marshall Hatch Sr., pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, has borne witness to the disease’s deadly grasp on his community. He lost an older sister, a best friend and several parishioners, all while trying to comfort a weary congregation.

Hatch said he has often shared the meaning behind the phrase, “This, too, shall pass.” To keep people hopeful that easier days are ahead, his church has stepped up community outreach through efforts such as food giveaways and outdoor holiday services.

“Our goal has always been to be an oasis in the midst of the despair,” he said, lamenting the death toll. “It was just so painfully obvious that something like this was going to be a disaster for a community like ours.”

Only one of Illinois’ 102 counties — Putnam County, northeast of Peoria — did not record a single coronavirus death.

Not surprisingly, most of the fatalities occurred in the Chicago area. The city, suburban Cook and the collar counties accounted for more than two-thirds of the state’s total deaths.

Early in the pandemic, Auburn Gresham and surrounding South Side neighborhoods were the hardest hit. But the virus continued its rapid spread and positive cases were recorded in every Chicago ZIP code by year’s end.

The most virus-related deaths in Cook County were in South Lawndale’s 60623, which includes the Little Village neighborhood, according to public data. There were about 215 deaths there as of late December. The Chicago Lawn neighborhood’s 60629 — near Midway Airport — and Niles’ 60714 also were high, both with more than 180 pandemic fatalities.

THE END OF A LOVE STORY

When 75-year-old Ernesto Duran became ill in mid-November, he and his wife, Elena, assumed it was the same flu bug he caught every year.

The Little Village man went to the hospital as a precaution due to labored breathing. Elena Duran said as her husband’s condition grew more grave, he began to prepare her for the worst, reminding her of what bill was due when and telling her his wishes to be cremated.

“I don’t think I’m going to get out of here,” she recalled him telling her in one phone call.

The couple shared an enduring love story that was the subject of a 2012 feature in the Tribune. She was 13 and he was 16 the first time they saw each other in the summer of 1962 in the small Mexican town of Tabasco, Zacatecas, about 70 miles west of her hometown.

The two did not speak but, she said, his “long eyelashes and these beautiful eyes” stuck with her. A couple of years later, she moved to the U.S. One decade after that first encounter, and after the two had reconnected, exchanging letters, they met for a second time when she returned to Mexico to attend the state fair.

Twelve days later, in May 1972, they became man and wife in a civil ceremony. He joined her in Chicago that November, and the two had a church wedding in January 1973.

As Elena Duran rose to become a prominent community activist and small-business owner, she said, her husband was ever supportive, and even encouraged her to go back to school as a young mother.

He worked in a factory for more than 30 years and fixed cars until his final days. Duran was never one to raise his voice or curse, his wife said. She described him as loving, generous and full of energy.

He died Dec. 15 after a one-month hospitalization. Despite the 10-year delay, the couple often told people they fell in love at first sight. They were married nearly 50 years and have four sons.

“You’re fine one day and then, the next, you are a box of ashes,” his wife said through tears. “He touched so many lives.”

ON THE PANDEMIC’S FRONT LINE

In many ways, health care workers bore the brunt of the pandemic’s fury.

At least 150 died and nearly 34,000 were infected in Illinois from March to Dec. 30, according to state public health officials, who said the exact figure is unknown and likely higher because county health departments often fail to provide occupational information.

An additional 19 deaths and 2,600 infections were tallied across the state among first responders and law enforcement officers.

The caregivers lost worked in hospitals, nursing homes, private offices or on ambulance crews, as well as in homes as health care aides. They included nurses, doctors, medical assistants, technicians, therapists and other support staff who cleaned rooms, served food and provided security.

Their relatives, colleagues and leaders of their workers unions have complained they were at times stuck on the front lines without adequate protective equipment and other safeguards, especially in those early months during a national shortage and as public health officials scrambled to update directives as more was learned about the virus.

Alicia Evans, who lost her mother on April 18, said every day without her is a struggle.

“As time passes, everyone just goes on with their lives, but ours are forever destroyed,” said Evans, of Shorewood. “I would have never in a million years thought this would be my reality. Just trying to go forward with this pain is unbearable.”

Her mother, Sandra Evans-Green, 58, worked as a certified nursing assistant at Symphony of Joliet. The nursing facility had at least 130 confirmed cases and 25 deaths as of Dec. 30, according to state data.

Symphony officials have confirmed a maintenance worker who, before showing symptoms, had set up dining tables in many residents’ rooms, likely became a “superspreader” before the virus killed him.

Evans-Green’s family has protested outside the facility, demanding answers to complaints they say she made about being unprotected at work, including buying her own PPE. “It’s like they sent my mother to war without a gun,” her daughter said.

Evans-Green, who had four children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandson, languished in the hospital for nearly one month before she died.

“We were forced to let my mother die alone,” Evans said. “We couldn’t say goodbye. We couldn’t hold her hand. We couldn’t give her a hug or couldn’t see her again. No one should have to die like that.”

Weeks later, a 35-year-old nurse at a Bolingbrook nursing home died on May 2. The family of Krist Angielen Guzman told the Tribune that the mother of three at times made her own masks and bought her own goggles. Nine days before she died, on her last shift, Guzman posted a selfie on Facebook in protective gear. She included hashtags that said “proud nurse” and “praying for my patients.”

More than 7,900 residents and staff at long-term care centers have died, with nearly 63,000 infections in 2020, according to Dec. 31 data. Those deaths make up nearly half of all Illinois coronavirus fatalities.

The facility with the most pandemic-related deaths was Norridge Gardens in Norridge, with 57 fatalities; followed by Niles Nursing and Rehab Center with 54; and 44 at Villa at Windsor Park in Chicago.

YOUNG AND OLD

At 80 and with a long list of ailments, William “Lee” McInerney was no match for the coronavirus after it reached him in the long-term care facility he called home in Chicago’s Norwood Park West neighborhood.

He died Dec. 21.

“He was very weak and extremely vulnerable,” said James “Bill” McInerney, a younger brother. “If only he could have hung in there another month for the vaccine.”

Nearly 90% of those who died of illnesses related to the virus were older than 60, another disproportionate figure, as that age demographic makes up just 23% of Illinois’ population, according to state data. By comparison, people in their 40s and 50s make up 26% of the population yet accounted for 10% of COVID-19 deaths.

McInerney developed a relationship with the Congregation of Christian Brothers at a young age when he attended Leo High School. Known as “Brother Leo,” he later taught English, writing, religion and film studies at various affiliated Catholic high schools, including in Hawaii.

His brother said McInerney was a dedicated teacher, mentor and life coach to “thousands of young men, many of whom will never forget his efforts to help them.” A longtime volunteer for Old St. Patrick’s Church outreach program in Chicago, he also helped the homeless with reading.

But while older people such as McInerney have been the most susceptible, young Illinoisans also have been vulnerable to COVID-19. Illinois has recorded 10 deaths of people younger than 20 since March. And 52 people in their 20s died of virus-related illnesses.

After months of tests, authorities confirmed that the death of 9-month-old Joseph Myles in March was caused, in part, by COVID-19, making him the state’s youngest victim. The Chicago infant died of viral pneumonia due to coronavirus NL-63 and COVID-19 infection, county medical officials said.

From Gage Park to LaGrange Park, families shared heartbreaking stories of losing a child to the pandemic. Some had chronic health issues before contracting the virus.

A 12-year-old boy who died wanted to grow up to make enough money to buy his dad a truck and allow his mother to stop working, relatives said. A pregnant teen died within days of her high school graduation. Her baby daughter, delivered two months early, died days earlier.

More recently, as Christmas approached, 18-year-old Sarah Simental of Tinley Park complained to her mom that she was suffering from mild, flu-like symptoms. The Lincoln-Way East High School senior died Dec. 26.

Deborah Simental said her daughter did not have underlying health problems. Still, the mother said, “it just took her so fast.”

“Sarah is an example that it can happen to the youngest and healthiest people,” Simental said. “This is real.”

AN INDELIBLE MARK

On Christmas after morning Mass, the wife and daughters of Jose Vazquez visited his grave again and decorated it with flowers.

They had been there just weeks earlier, for what would have been Vazquez’s 52nd birthday.

“The hard part is learning to live without my husband after 33 years of sharing our lives together,” said Maria Vazquez, “but God will guide us.”

Time has marched on in the nine months since his death. The couple’s youngest daughter, Sarina, now 19, plans to take EMT classes this year to try to save others. Marissa Vazquez, 24, is working with fifth graders with a goal of becoming an elementary special education teacher.

Maria Vazquez returned part time to her job. She relies on her faith, therapy and family to sustain her. At times, she feels her husband somehow left things in order for her, she said. Whether the furnace is acting up or something else needs attention, Vazquez said, she has found he had ordered the part or handled things to head off future problems.

“It’s very touching and emotional to think he’s still taking care of us,” she said.

Still, the what-ifs are hard to ignore. The family believes Vazquez’s death was preventable had he been allowed to wear a mask at O’Hare as he wanted. His pleas were denied, his family said, a claim his employer did not refute while noting it was following federal guidelines at the time.

And he died early in the pandemic, when hospitals still were figuring out how to best treat the virus.

As the mass vaccination effort begins across the country, his daughters cannot help but think: “What about Dad?”

If only the timing had worked in his favor, they think. It’s a bittersweet feeling, his family said, one mixed with excitement and relief for others.

And so on that historic day when Dr. Del Rios became the first Illinoisan to be vaccinated, and she spoke to the Tribune about Jose Vazquez, his oldest daughter said another emotion swelled within her.

“It made me proud of the person he was, to have had such an impact on others,” Marissa Vazquez said. “I’m sure that Dad’s story motivated her to continue to fight this virus. It just made me think of all the lives he potentially saved. It was very bittersweet, but I am also very proud.”

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(Chicago Tribune’s Stacy St. Clair and Daily Southtown’s Mike Nolan contributed.)