In summary

From the first documented case of COVID-19 to the search for a vaccine, the coronavirus pandemic has touched the lives of every Californian in 2020. Here are some of their stories.

“The system needs to be changed.”

Rickishia Crockett, Vallejo
Daughter of Dorothea Taylor, 58, who died of COVID-19

“We have straight-up lost the line between work and home.”

Katie and Anthony Zelensky, 32 and 34, Salinas
Parents and public school teachers

“It’s been just a horrible experience trying to survive as a homeless person.”

Bonnie Sue Eisner, 57
Homeless in Sacramento

“I thought I’d be sitting by his bedside holding his hand.”

Adrian Wantt Jr. with sisters Joanna Tonkin and Debbie Dickson, Willow Creek
Children of Adrian Douglas Wantt Sr., 89, who died of COVID-19

“Where are we going to live if I can’t pay the rent, when the (eviction) protections are gone?”

Irma Ramirez, 55, Cudahy
Out-of-work single mom
The Aleman family in the backyard of their home in Reseda, CA, on Dec. 17, 2020.

“In my family, we’ve lost that sense of joy.”

Evelyn Aleman, 50, Reseda
COVID-19 swept through extended family 

“It hurts in small ways you wouldn’t even think about.”

Delario Woods, 44, Oakland
 Lost his job and living in a friend’s car

There’s no comparison that I learn more in an actual classroom than at home.”

Mario Medina, 18, Oakland
High school senior

A Year of Loss: Reflections on the pandemic in California

The coronavirus pandemic touched the lives of every Californian, killing and sickening thousands, destroying livelihoods, isolating the young and old and devastating those already in need. These are some of their stories.

A Year of Loss

A year ago, this was all unimaginable. To many of us, the realities that now populate our daily headlines would have seemed, back then, like something out of a horror movie: Overwhelmed ICUs. Millions infected. Thousands dead in California alone.

Even as the virus stealthily spread within our state borders, few of us fathomed its existence. 

There was so much we took for granted. Remember? The apolitical innocence of a day trip to Laguna Beach. The harmlessness of sharing kettle corn at an afternoon A’s game. School inside classrooms. Packed Cal State graduations. Hugs. Handshakes. The mindlessness of breathing.

Even once we learned about the virus, it felt — at least briefly — like someone else’s problem. China’s, then South Korea’s, then Italy’s, then those poor travelers trapped aboard stranded cruise ships — some of which eventually docked in the Port of Oakland. Even in February, once doctors detected the virus transmission in Solano County, and then in San Jose, our leaders seemed ready, our health system seemed strong.

Then, suddenly, it was everywhere.

Within weeks, the schools and businesses that anchored our daily lives were closed. As commuters stayed home, the Bay Bridge emptied. In the resulting silence, birds shifted their songs. From Susanville to San Diego, we held our collective breath. 

In the months since — has it only been months? — our losses have ranged from the infinite to the minute, from painfully specific to unnervingly diffuse. 

Angela Miller lost the Ukiah nail salon she’d owned for 11 years. Sara Dove of San Diego lost the morning cup of coffee she once savored, since the lingering effects of COVID-19 make her heart race. Gwyn Zelensky of Salinas lost her eighth birthday party.  

In California alone, we have so far lost nearly 25,000 people who were our grandparents, our parents, our siblings, our children; our teachers, our nurses, our neighbors, our friends. They took with them their quirks, their stories, their dreams. Too often, we suffered through their deaths at a distance, offering comfort and saying goodbye — unimaginably — over Zoom.

We lost Adrian Wantt Sr., a retired sawmill worker from Willow Creek who couldn’t stand to see anyone get picked on. We lost Efren Coronel, a police officer in El Centro with a talent for de-escalating tense situations. We lost Sandy Oldfield, a Fresno nurse who loved to decorate for holidays and baked pies for charity. 

For those who have survived an infection, the virus has exacted an uneven toll. Whims of fate and biology mean some struggle for oxygen on ventilators, while others feel only the slightest tickle in their throats. The official tally of the infected in California stands at more than 2 million, although the true number is probably much higher,  as many cases likely have gone unrecorded. The pandemic’s current acceleration is simultaneously straining the limits of our health care system and of our collective imagination — how high will our numbers go? How can we conceive of that much loss? 

With so much trauma and grief, our mental health has been affected, too. Our collective stress has been so high for so long, dentists say we’re facing an epidemic of cracked teeth. Paula Boyd of Danville who has struggled with depression, at times lost her desire to get out of bed. Evelyn Aleman of Reseda, who fell ill along with many members of her family, lost her sense of joy. Mary Lynne Briggs, a Bakersfield nurse who held the hands of patients so they wouldn’t have to die alone, lost her optimism.

In the past year, many have lost faith, too, in the institutions we’d trusted to protect us. The leadership of the nation’s wealthiest state at various points scrambled to find Q-tip style swabs for testing, and gowns and face masks for frontline health workers. With no other options, some resorted to dressing in trash bags

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who entered office with an ambitious priority list and a flush budget, has attempted a difficult balancing act: reopen the economy too soon and hospitals and morgues fill; reopen too slowly and small businesses shutter. His phased-in, color-coded approaches and exhortations to “bend the curve” seemed promising at some points, but recently have proven no match for a fed-up public and a rampaging virus. 

Some Californians who were initially grateful for Newsom’s leadership have since become disillusioned since reports of his maskless French Laundry dinner were quickly followed by orders to stay home for the holidays.  

That incident became national news perhaps because it served as a stark reminder: We have not borne our losses equally. Those who face greater exposure, whether at work or at home, are disproportionately Latino and Black Californians. They are more likely to be infected, and more likely to die. Latinos, who make up about 40 percent of the population, have comprised more than half of all tallied infections and deaths. Neighborhoods in East Los Angeles or Oakland’s Fruitvale District have emerged as hot spots. 

These disparities exist educationally, as well. Indefinitely closed public schools have resulted in growing achievement gaps. In some neighborhoods, children are failing classes and dropping out because they can’t log on to their virtual classes. Meanwhile, the governor’s own children have attended an elite private school in-person.

Working class women have been disproportionately affected. They are more likely to work in child care, restaurants, hospitality and retail careers that have shattered under the weight of the pandemic. They are more likely to face the same choice as Irma Ramirez of Cudahy, who left her job to care for a child stranded by closed schools. 

Despite the suffering, some have discovered shards of meaning glittering in the wreckage of this awful year.

Adia Romaine, who moved in with her mother in Jackson after losing her job as a veterinary technician, has found an opportunity for stillness and reflection. Christian Moreno, who has had to do college remotely, is enjoying time with his family and home-cooked meals in their Torrance home.

But some silver linings appear unevenly — working remotely isn’t an option if your job is in a warehouse or nursing home. Enjoying time with your children during distance learning is tough in an overcrowded apartment with spotty Wi-Fi.  

Silver linings only exist because clouds block the sun. As we enter this darkest winter, California has already ordered thousands of body bags. 

But with the first vaccines touching down in LAX earlier this month, the promise of spring glimmers just out of sight. 

By the time we emerge from this nightmare, our state must grapple with some painful questions: Not just what we have lost and what we could have done better. 

But how can we heal? And where do we go from here?

– Jocelyn Wiener and Ana B. Ibarra

the lost

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Californians lost to COVID-19

represents one person

Source: California Department of Public Health as of December 29, 2020

The numbers are staggering. In California, as of Tuesday, 24,526 are dead from COVID-19. Men, women, non-binary. Seniors on down to two teenagers. Latino, white, Asian, Black. The coronavirus has swept across our state, touching communities in every corner. Families are in mourning, employers are missing key workers and many children face a new reality without their mom or dad — or both. It has ravaged low-income communities of color where many of our essential workers – in health care, factories, restaurants and city jobs – have continued to work during the pandemic.  And it’s not over. The state bought 5,000 body bags and dozens of refrigerated units to help counties store the dead.

Efren Coronel was his family’s rock. According to his wife, Sandra, he was funny, caring, humble and hard-working. A beach-day family portrait shows him in the center— their teen daughter, Galilea, with her arms around him, his wife hugging him on the left. His son, Sebastian, is smiling right behind him. 

On Dec. 13, he and his wife would have celebrated 23 years of marriage. 

COVID-19 took that away.

An Imperial Valley native, Coronel lived his dream — he was an officer for the El Centro Police Department for 24 years. He served in several units, including traffic and investigations. At one point, he was part of the crisis negotiations and SWAT teams.

His wife said he loved it all, but earlier this year, he had applied to go back to being a high school resource officer.  “I think he really loved helping and mentoring kids,” she said.

Throughout much of the pandemic, the border county of Imperial has been a hot spot — and it continues to have one of the state’s highest case positivity rates.

In a June 26 memorial for Coronel, El Centro Police Chief Brian Johnson told mourners that Coronel had a talent for de-escalating situations with words. Once, Johnson said, Coronel spent five hours talking an individual out of committing suicide.  

“Service before self is who he was,” Johnson said at the memorial. 

In honor of his dedication to youth sports and the community,  El Centro’s city council recently voted to rename a park after him, the place where his soccer team had practiced. 

Coronel tested positive for the virus after arresting a COVID-positive suspect on April 29. But he didn’t start to feel sick until about 12 days later, his wife said. Having brought the virus home, she and their son also tested positive, but their symptoms were milder. 

Coronel, who was diabetic, began having trouble breathing and was taken to his local hospital before being transferred to San Diego. This was in the middle of Imperial County’s spring surge, when its two area hospitals were inundated. 

Coronel spent about three weeks in the hospital, seven of those days in the ICU. He died June 3.

Deepening the pain was the fact that his wife and kids couldn’t visit because they were still recovering. Coronel’s brother and sister-in-law paid him one last visit, while Sandra and their children said their goodbyes over the phone. 

The nurse at his bedside told Sandra that, when Coronel heard their voices, his heart rate went up. “So that made me feel better, that he heard us,” she said.

– Ana B. Ibarra

Adrian Douglas Wantt Sr. was doing well for 89. Sure, his hearing was fading, and he used a walking stick after knee and hip replacements. But he could still drive. His memory was sharp.

 “He was in darn good shape,” said his youngest son, Adrian Wantt Jr.

Wantt Sr., a proud member of the Round Valley Indian tribe and a devoted father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, died on Oct. 25 of COVID-19.

He had grown up poor. At just 6, he joined his family picking hops in the fields around Ukiah. He left home at 16, hopped on a freight train and went to work for the railroad and then in the timber industry until he was drafted during the Korean War. Stationed in Germany, he met his beloved wife, Elisabeth, a beautiful German woman who smoothed his rough edges and to whom he remained married for 62 years. After she died of cancer three years ago, their children took turns visiting every day. Wantt Jr., the youngest of four, visited Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sundays after church.

One weekend in early October, Wantt Sr. started feeling unwell. A family member who had visited him had gone on to test positive. Now they were worried.

Wantt Sr. didn’t have a fever and hadn’t lost his taste or smell. But he had diarrhea and a cough, so his son called the county nurse. She said to rush to the nearest ER, more than an hour away from his home in Willow Creek.

Wantt Jr. spent the night in the parking lot. At 2:30 a.m., a nurse said they were releasing his father. The following day, Wantt Jr. found his father struggling to breathe, with a blood oxygen level of 74. His father didn’t want to return to the hospital.

“You won’t make it if you stay home,” his doctor told him over the phone. He listened to her, “almost like a little boy.”

“What was rough was, for him and for us, that was the last time I got to talk to him in person,” his son said, choking on tears. 

Wantt Jr. and his sisters had always imagined sitting at their father’s bedside at the end. Instead, they had to beg to get into his hospital room. Tubes snaked into their father’s mouth and nose, just like the images on the TV news. Except completely different.

In a small act of mercy, a doctor told them to leave for an hour, then unhooked him, so all those machines wouldn’t color their final memory.

After his father died, Wantt Jr. said people in town have continued to approach him, insisting they won’t wear masks. Wantt Jr. dislikes the way the virus has become political.

“I tell them, ‘I just hope and pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through,’” he said.

– Jocelyn Wiener

Rickishia Crockett shares the pain of so many Californians who lost loved ones in nursing homes to COVID-19 this year. Her mother, Dorothea Taylor, died July 11 at the Parkview Healthcare Center in Hayward, which drew headlines for an outbreak that month that affected nearly half the home’s residents.

At 58, Taylor was younger than most other residents of the skilled nursing facility, but her daughter said she suffered from breast cancer, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In her room at Parkview, Taylor kept the rose quartz “healing crystal” and teddy bear that her daughter had given her.

Taylor is one of the more than 8,552 frail Californians who died of COVID-19 in skilled nursing facilities this year.

More than 43,000 nursing home residents were infected in 2020, along with many of their caregivers. Nursing homes across the state locked down almost completely, banning indoor visitors to protect residents who were left isolated and bereft.

Crockett, a BART train operator who lives in Vallejo, said she was concerned about the care her mother received even before the pandemic. Health officials had previously cited Parkview for its care in the past three years, including failing to provide doctor-ordered lab tests to a resident, staff abuse of a resident, and food safety violations, according to state and federal inspection reports. The family of a man who died of COVID a month earlier at that same nursing home has sued, accusing the facility of poor quality care and persistently failing to meet staffing requirements.

Reached by phone, Parkview administrator Kent Chambers declined to answer questions from CalMatters.

Crockett said she was particularly worried about her mother after she returned to the 121-bed facility after a June hospital stay to treat a breast cancer-related infection. Crockett said her mother tested negative for COVID-19 before leaving the hospital, as required by the nursing home. But she said her mother told her later that the nursing home had placed her in a quarantine room with a roommate when she returned. Unable to visit in person, Crockett found it nearly impossible to see how her mother was doing, she said. 

On July 11, an outside hospice worker who had been caring for Taylor called Crockett to let her know her mother had died. So far this year, 104 Parkview residents have been infected and 15 have died of COVID-19, state records show.

“My mom had a really big heart, she would always just laugh,” said Crockett, adding that she worries that no one is being held accountable. “It wasn’t only my mom that was going through this. The system needs to be changed.”

– Barbara Feder Ostrov

In his last email to his sister-in-law, the Rev. Bernard Bush said he was relieved that COVID-19 had not struck the Los Gatos retirement residence for Jesuits where he had lived for a decade. But the disease came for him as it did for so many other Californians in 2020.

On Dec. 7, the 86-year-old priest and psychologist died in a COVID-19 outbreak that claimed the lives of four other Jesuits living at the retirement home.

Bush, born in rural Garberville, entered the Jesuit order shortly after graduating from high school, said his sister-in-law, Jean Bush Guerin. In nearly 70 years as a Jesuit and 55 as a priest, Bush worked in campus ministry at the University of San Francisco and as a spiritual director at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. He golfed and took flying lessons. But he was perhaps best known for ministering to hit men and gangsters at the infamous Alcatraz prison before it closed in 1963.

Guerin just knew him as “Corky,” nicknamed for the red corkscrew curls he inherited from his Irish mother. He stood 6-foot-4.

“He told me once, “if I wasn’t a priest I’d probably be in jail,’” Guerin, who lives in Mill Valley, told CalMatters. “He had a big presence in the room – physically, you noticed him.’’ He was a very effective communicator, a serious man but a pleasant, fun guy to be around.”

– Barbara Feder Ostrov

The sign on the front door of Bessie Miller’s Fresno home was clear and direct:

“Please wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water as soon as you enter this home. If you  are running a fever or not feeling well, we ask that you do not enter.”

Bessie Miller, 77, was avoiding COVID-19 at all costs. So was her family who took care of her, said her oldest son, Daren Miller, 54. 

“We were very cautious about the virus and exposing my mom because we knew it would be deadly to her,” he said.  “My mom was not going to be able to handle a ventilator, and she was deathly opposed to it.”

Bessie Miller had multiple health issues, including advanced diabetes and a lung condition that already had her on oxygen.

When she got the virus in November, however, it did not come through her front door. Miller said his mother was infected at a rehabilitation facility, where she had been sent for three weeks after two amputation surgeries – from the knee down – due to diabetes.

“I get there and it’s like,’Here’s your mom, by the way she’s got COVID…,’” he said. “I thought that I had taken care of everything I needed to take care of, and you get this curve ball.”

All their hard work and vigilance – and coronavirus still found her, said Daren Miller,. 

Instead of going home, Bessie Miller went to the hospital.  She died four days later, two days before Thanksgiving. 

In California, as in the rest of the nation, African-Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. According to state data, African-Americans account for 7% of deaths in cases where race is known, but they make up only 6% of California residents.  Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Blacks are dying from COVID-19 at a rate 2.8 times higher than whites.

“I’m thankful for 54 years with my parents — they were married 56 years,” he said. “I’m going to miss my mom but she is in no more pain, no more suffering, no more doctors’ appointments.”

Her death has been felt throughout Fresno. She was a leader in the city’s African-American community, a pastor’s wife and a retired job developer for the state’s Employment Development Department. For decades, she took groups of local African-American students to the South to visit historically black colleges and other sites.

For now, Daren is taking care of his 80-year-old dad, sorting through 14 boxes of bills and household paperwork that Bessie had handled for the entire family, throughout nearly six decades of marriage.

“She was that person,” her oldest son said. “She was Big Momma to both sides of the family.”

– Elizabeth Aguilera

Sandra “Sandy” Oldfield and Liza Aquino worked together in the telemetry unit at Kaiser Permanente’s Fresno Medical Center for 18 years. They were a constant for each other. Work family.

In late March, not long after California’s first stay-at-home order, both nurses tested positive for COVID-19 after being exposed to an asymptomatic patient in their unit. Both fell ill. But their outcomes were different. 

Aquino’s symptoms were mild at first — it felt like allergies, she recalled. Then she developed body aches and a sore throat. Within a few days she was coughing and short of breath. 

“I was so scared that I might die because on TV I was watching everything that was going on in Europe and New York. People were dying,” said Aquino, 48. 

She found solace hearing by phone from her friend, Oldfield, who also was isolated at home.

Oldfield’s health, however, was deteriorating more gravely. About a week after her positive test, she was admitted to the same hospital where she had cared for others for years.

Even after Aquino recovered, she couldn’t visit Oldfield because of strict isolation guidelines. Instead, the ICU nurses caring for Oldfield drew on her glass window with colored markers, played music in her room and talked to her often so she would know she wasn’t alone. 

“There are a lot of feelings of guilt,” said Amy Arlund, one of the ICU nurses at Kaiser Fresno who cared for Oldfield. “We are supposed to advocate as hard as possible for our patients, and this was one of our own, and we were advocating as hard as we could to try anything and everything.

“But toward the end, you’re standing there wringing your hands and knowing that nothing you’ve done is going to help.”

After more than a month in the ICU, Oldfield died on May 25. She was 53. 

At Kaiser Fresno, 10 nurses tested positive around that same time, according to the California Nurses Association. It prompted picket lines, in which union members demanded more personal protective equipment for all nurses, not just those handling confirmed COVID-positive patients. 

In California, 67,573 health care workers have tested positive and 251 have died as of Sunday, according to the state’s public health department. 

Aquino misses her friend’s positivity. Her prayers. She misses how Oldfield would invite her to short casino getaways. And how she would decorate their workspaces on holidays and birthdays. She was the department’s go-to “Avon lady.” And she’d bake pies that she’d sell for church or charity. Aquino always ordered one to help her friend’s cause, even though she doesn’t like pie.

“I miss her friendship.”

– Ana B. Ibarra

the sick

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COVID-19 infections in California

represents 10 people

Source: California Department of Public Health, Dec 29, 2020

In February, when California reported its first sprinkling of COVID-19 cases, most of us could not envision the devastating trajectory. Now, 10 months later, more than 2.1 million Californian’s have become infected. And, while many have had no or very mild symptoms, thousands have fought for their breath in maxed-out hospitals. In some areas, intensive care units have become so inundated that COVID-19 patients had to be transferred to hospitals hundreds of miles away from home. And a full recovery isn’t guaranteed, as many have reported lingering headaches, fatigue, joint pain and having to rely on inhalers — even though they haven’t tested positive in months. People with ongoing effects have been identified as COVID-19 “long-haulers.” How long they will feel sick is unknown.

Barbara Flores admits that early in the pandemic, she was a COVID-19 skeptic. Even as two of her adult children who work at nursing homes warned her about the virus that was sickening their patients, she wasn’t convinced. 

Eso es cosa del gobierno” — that’s a government thing, she’d tell them. 

Then in early June, her husband fell ill with the virus. He spent about three weeks in the hospital before returning home. Almost two months after her husband’s positive test, it was her turn. It was time to believe. 

“It was very hard for me, but I do think it was a lesson,” said Flores, 48.

A farmworker for many years, Flores has worked in the fields picking lemons, strawberries, and harvesting lettuce and radishes. For the last three years, she’s grown succulents at an Oxnard nursery.

She doesn’t know where she caught the virus. At work, people are usually good about keeping their masks on and maintaining their distance, she said. There was no outbreak to blame.  At home, her children tested negative. And her husband was no longer testing positive by the time she fell ill.

Most of her symptoms fell in line with what she’d heard about COVID-19 — fevers, body aches, intense headaches and a persistent cough. But she said she also experienced some other effects, like a rash on her chest — and at one point, her ears bled.

Flores decided to go to the hospital, but was turned back because her symptoms, she was told, weren’t severe enough.  “I didn’t know what to do. I took it day by day with aspirin and prayers,” she said. 

One day, she wrote a goodbye note to her family. “I thought this was my end, too,” she said.  Just weeks before, she had lost her brother in Mexico to COVID-19.

Flores said she tries to use her experience to teach others. She is especially concerned about fellow agricultural workers — there’s a lot of misinformation out there, she said. She took her paid time off, but she knows some may feel a need to continue working despite feeling sick. 

One UC Berkeley study of farmworkers in the Salinas Valley showed that 58% of people who were infected continued to go to work despite having symptoms. Reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in nut processing plants, poultry plants and other agricultural labor have showcased the vulnerability of these workers.

In recalling past jobs, Flores said sometimes bathrooms in the fields are cleaned only once a week, if that. There were times when there wasn’t even hand soap available, she said. “It’s the most basic thing.”

– Ana B. Ibarra

Last year, Sara Dove was named “nurse of the year” at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, just south of San Diego. But in July, the once healthy 30-year-old became infected with COVID-19 after working six days straight in a coronavirus unit. She has not been able to return to work since, despite desperately wanting to help her hospital colleagues.

“I can’t help but feel horrible and guilty for not being able to fight this virus alongside them,” Dove wrote in an email, because talking too much hurts her lungs.

Dove, who lives in San Diego with her husband, considers herself a “long-hauler,” one of the many patients whose serious COVID-19 symptoms appear to continue long after the virus has left their bodies. Researchers believe about 10% of all COVID patients fall into this category.  

“It felt like the worst flu I’ve ever had in my life, plus shortness of breath and piercing headaches,” Dove wrote. “When I hit the one-month mark and was still out of work and continued to suffer from lingering symptoms, I started to think, ‘Will this ever go away’?”

The simplest exertion – just getting up from the couch – causes tachycardia, a racing heart. She lives with crippling fatigue, difficulty breathing and “brain fog.”

Dove tries to remain optimistic. A growing online community of fellow long-haulers helps. But she can’t help but consider the many things she has lost this year, particularly small pleasures like a once-routine morning cup of coffee. It now makes her heart race.

“I am uncertain of the things I will get back and that is a very real fear that long-haulers are left to grapple with,” Dove wrote. “You never know how much the little things in life mean to you until they are gone.”

– Barbara Feder Ostrov

Fever. Dry cough. A splitting headache. 

The symptoms came on in July as Tom Lackey returned home to Palmdale from Sacramento, where he was in his third term as a Republican assemblymember. Lackey was shocked when a COVID-19 test came back positive, but figured he could ride out the illness isolating at home. 

A few days later, though, his headaches had grown worse, and Lackey had so little energy he could barely sip a Gatorade. 

“I didn’t realize how critical I was getting,” said Lackey, 61.

His wife Linda was staying with her sister a couple of hours away, but she’d been talking to Lackey’s ex-wife, who was closer to him in Palmdale. Both women were worried. They knew Lackey was too stubborn to take himself to the emergency room. So they made a plan.

Theresa, Lackey’s ex-wife, called 911 and then called Linda Lackey: “‘I can hear the ambulance,’” she told her. “He’s not going to be happy with us, but better mad than in peril.’”

Lackey had worked as a highway patrol officer for 28 years. Now sirens were blaring outside his own home. “It was incredibly embarrassing,” he said.

Lackey spent the next eight days in the hospital. Intense pain radiated across his scalp. His body burned with fever and shook from chills. He said he felt like “a bag of hazardous material” because he couldn’t have visitors, and doctors and nurses were encased in protective gear. 

Then anxiety attacks set in: “I felt like I was a complete failure, like I deserved to have this virus, I was not going to recover, I was going to disappoint my family.” 

Anxiety medication calmed him. Morphine dulled the pain. Text messages from friends who were praying for him powered Lackey through the toughest nights. 

Eventually his fever subsided and doctors said he could go home. The Assembly delayed lawmakers’ return to Sacramento because Lackey’s infection was part of a COVID outbreak that afflicted several others at the Capitol. 

Lackey returned to work in the statehouse once he was no longer contagious. Then he came back home to his swing district north of Los Angeles to campaign for reelection as a Republican, distancing himself from President Donald Trump’s cavalier approach to the pandemic. Lackey wore a mask while talking to constituents and acknowledged the dangers of the coronavirus. 

“I’ve never minimized the severity of this thing,” he said. “There are some in my party who are taking a different position. That’s on them, it’s not on me.” 

Though he’s recovered, COVID still has a grip. The virus left Lackey with a lingering heart problem, ongoing fatigue and a dulled sense of taste. Still, he chokes up with gratitude for the nurses and doctors who risk their own health to care for strangers. 

“And I fear to think: What would have happened if I didn’t go to the hospital?”

– Laurel Rosenhall

Evelyn Aleman may never know exactly how she contracted COVID-19 in early March, when fewer than 400 cases had been reported in Los Angeles County. Maybe at a yoga class, or the supermarket? A visit with a doctor friend? 

The public relations consultant, who works from her home in Reseda, experienced the classic symptoms – a persistent cough that morphed into profound fatigue, difficulty breathing, body aches, sweating and blurry vision.

Aleman went to the emergency room several times, but she was never quite sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. By the time she was able to get a COVID-19 test – so difficult to obtain in the pandemic’s early days – her results were negative. For eight weeks until her symptoms resolved, Aleman isolated herself in her bedroom, away from her teenage daughters and her husband, who slept in the hallway outside her room.

“Because I was getting all of these symptoms at the same time, I felt like I was going to die,” said Aleman,  50.

COVID-19 battered not only Aleman, but her extended family of Latino heritage in Southern California. In August, her father-in-law died from the disease in August. Her mother-in-law was hospitalized but recovered. Her husband’s two uncles fell ill. Her own brother and sister-in-law, too, were infected.

Aleman and her family are among the many California Latinos disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Latinos make up nearly 40% of the state’s population, but they have accounted for 57% of cases and 48% of all deaths, according to state public health data.

“We go through our lives trying to do the next thing, get to the next place, but for the time being that’s been clouded,” Aleman reflected. “In my family, we’ve lost that sense of joy. We keep going, going, going and there’s no place to mourn or process what’s happened.”

– Barbara Feder Ostrov

the strained

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Californians unemployed as of Nov 2020

equals 0.1% unemployment rate

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan 2016 – Nov 2020. Nov 2020 is preliminary and may change.

In March, California’s economy fell off a cliff. Pandemic closures shuttered many of our businesses and pushed millions out of work. The turbulent months since have ushered in impossible trade-offs for essential workers and left parents to fend for themselves with schools closed. Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Californians caught in the state’s tattered job safety net have struggled to get badly needed relief money, and millions face eviction in the new year. While some Californians’ savings have survived the pandemic so far, no one can tell us if the COVID-19 recession can be cured with a vaccine.

Every morning until the world stopped in March, Delario Woods left his Oakland apartment and took the train under the bay to work as a dishwasher. He helped feed hundreds of tech workers a day at Dropbox’s San Francisco office. 

Now, Woods is living in a friend’s borrowed Honda Accord in West Oakland, worrying about nearly $4,000 in unemployment benefits that he says were fraudulently drained from his account at faraway casinos and ATMs. His new routine: scrolling the headlines on his phone for any word on when he and countless other jobless Californians trapped in unemployment limbo might get help.

“I look at it every day now,” Woods said. “It’s just like stuck in the back of my head — when’s it gonna get better?”

Woods, 44, knew there was a problem when his state-issued Bank of America unemployment debit card suddenly got declined after he took his daughter out for burgers in late September. Still unable to withdraw money to pay his October rent, staying in the car became his only option. Soon, auto-payments connected to the frozen unemployment card for things like his phone bill and daughter’s car insurance also stopped. 

“It hurts in small ways you wouldn’t even think about,” Woods said, like chipping away at the credit score he’ll need for a new apartment, or threatening Christmas for his grandchildren.

Woods has survived dire situations before. He moved to California after Hurricane Katrina hit his home state of Louisiana. Unemployment in the COVID-19 era has forced him to rely on an informal safety net. T-Mobile granted a grace period that allowed him to keep calling the bank. Since he’s only eligible for $16 a month in food stamps, community groups provide meals and supplies like hand warmers. 

In mid-December, Woods learned that his debit card had been credited for some of the disputed funds, and he asked the state for paper checks for his remaining benefits. Each payday, he watches the mailbox at the apartment where he used to live from the car that now serves as his home of last resort.

– Lauren Hepler

In November, after paying rent on her shuttered nail salon for months — and losing nearly half of her clients when she did reopen in July — Angela Miller decided it was time to close her 11-year-old salon space in Ukiah.

She tried to hang on by delivering pizzas. She did nails from a windowless room she rented at a local spa, which was allowed to remain open. She used a paycheck protection loan to float her storefront salon, but that ran out.

And when she did get to open her shop back up this summer, things still didn’t pencil out — especially when she had to do manicures and pedicures outside only.

“Finally, we get to open back up and I’m like, I don’t have enough clients,” she said. “I can’t keep paying all the bills, utilities and rent here.”

Miller, 44, is one of thousands of California small business owners who have been forced to close due to the pandemic.

“I can’t blame people, because a lot of my clients don’t have income or their income has been severely cut,” she said. 

In early December, the state issued a new stay-at-home order for the Northern California region where Miller lives. Under it, she would have been forced to shut down her salon again if she wasn’t already closed.

The loss for Miller and her husband – a school bus driver and plumber – has been so great the couple is scouting cities in Montana for a summer move. They have lived in Mendocino County in Northern California their entire lives.

“We can’t make it here, we are barely keeping our nose above water and the government keeps stepping on our heads,” Miller said. “It doesn’t make any sense to stay. I’m scared to move but I’m terrified to stay.”

Miller said she already suffers from depression and has taken antidepressants for years. She felt she was doing well, but now, the pandemic has brought more stress.

“I’ve had a horse for years and he’s out in the field and I don’t have time to ride him because I’m too busy trying to keep my head above water,” Miller said.

Her horse, Peanut Butter Two, is part of a menagerie of pets and animals including two dogs, three cats, two goats and 63 chickens.

 “They bring me a lot of happiness,” she said.

– Elizabeth Aguilera

When the pandemic shuttered schools in the spring, Irma Ramirez faced a tough choice: Keep working, or stay home with her 13-year-old daughter, an eighth-grader who is easily distracted.

“I had no one to take care of her,” said Ramirez, 55, who rents an apartment in Cudahy, a city southeast of Los Angeles. “The situation came all at once. No more pay, more bills, behind on the rent.”

Ramirez, who is undocumented, worked as a contractor helping low-income people register for free phones. She earned about $2,000 a month before leaving her job in early March. 

She joined the ranks of thousands of immigrant women who left or lost their jobs since the pandemic began. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 46% of all working-age immigrant women were employed in September, down from 53% in January.

Unlike in previous downturns, when men were hardest hit, this time working women have borne the brunt –  pushed out of jobs or voluntarily leaving the workforce to provide child care or manage their kids’ virtual schooling, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The National Women’s Law Center found that of the more than 1.1 million workers over age 20 who left the workforce in September, 80 percent were women.

In March, Ramirez started sitting with her daughter through virtual classes; Her daughter has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and suffers from anxiety.

To combat the anxiety, Ramirez and her daughter go on daily walks in the park or the youngster will jump rope while her mom counts.

“Exercise was really calming for her at school, so I try to make sure she still gets to move,” said Ramirez. “Life is going to continue after this, and she is going to have to do well in school, so we are doing all we can to help her do the best she can.”

Ramirez also has a 25-year-old daughter who attends community college virtually and who lost her job at a gym early in the pandemic.

For her girls, Ramirez presents a brave face. When she’s alone, mostly at night, her mind spins.

Ramirez owes four months of her $1,475 apartment rent and is concerned about the eviction moratorium ending on Jan. 31. The cash aid she receives for her middle-schooler only covers essentials and basic groceries, not the berries or avocados they love. Ramirez canceled her car insurance and has parked her 1995 gold Toyota Camry in favor of walking.

“Where are we going to live if I can’t pay the rent, when the (eviction) protections are gone?” she asked before answering her own question. “I think maybe the car if we have to. It’s the only thing we have.”

– Elizabeth Aguilera

For Ellie Dote, her job was all about the magic. She loved seeing the eyes of kids boarding “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland, where she was a ride operator, sending them on a cruise through a land of singing dolls..

The magic ran out, however, when Disney closed its parks in mid-March as the pandemic descended. Disneyland had been shut down only two other times, and for far less time — after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Tens of thousands of cast members were placed on furlough in April, including Dote, 43. She received notice in October that she would be laid off Dec. 31, along with more than 11,500 others at Disney’s California theme parks, according to the Orange County Register. Disneyland and California Adventure employed more than 32,000 before the layoffs.

The parks are likely to remain closed well into 2021, as the state has refused to budge on reopening theme parks despite heavy pressure from Disney and local leaders. 

Dote had moved home to Cerritos about two years ago from Fresno to resume work as a Disneyland cast member, the company’s term for its employees. She had worked at the park as her first job out of high school from 1995 to 2001.

During the furlough, Dote has mostly relied on unemployment benefits, but has been able to find gigs as a freelance website and graphic designer. One bright spot: she found a partner through a dating app, which has been “wonderful,” she said.

Her union negotiated that laid-off cast members would be first to be rehired, though it’s uncertain if and when that will happen, she said. 

As much as she’d love to return to her job, Dote said she has a compromised immune system and doesn’t feel safe interacting with guests who might refuse to follow coronavirus safety precautions. While she feels Disney would do its best to protect her, “we’re dealing with humans,” she said.

“With the politically charged environment that we live in right now, it scares me to think of reopening,” she said. 

Meanwhile, she says, she misses her Disneyland “family.”  

“When we worked together through the summers, holidays, we became family,” she said. “It’s been hard not to see some of the best friends you have.”

– James Bikales

First came the virus, then came the fires. At the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Kunchock Rabgee kept the doors of his River Café open as smoke filled the air and sirens blared.

“People came in and said, ‘We lost our house,’” Rabgee said. “That was a scary time.”

The August fires sparked by a freak lightning storm were another harsh blow in what was supposed to be a year full of festivities and new customers after Rabgee bought the Santa Cruz café. In early 2020, he’d quit his job at Whole Foods to open the first brick and mortar outpost for his Nomad Momo food truck, which specializes in the dumplings he grew up making in a remote corner of Tibet. 

While restaurant industry groups fight dining room closures and warn that as many as 30% of California’s eateries could close for good, Rabgee has opted against loans and tried to weather the storm himself. 

“I just try to be here seven days a week,” he said. “When I need anything, I just feel like I gotta work harder.”

The first shutdowns in March hit as Rabgee moved into his airy, glass-walled café. He kept serving momos at the farmer’s market, then went back to hanging prayer flags, a portrait of the Dalai Lama and a sweeping aerial photo of the Himalayan hometown he left two decades ago.

Summer brought hazy reopening guidelines and bickering about masks, then an encouraging rush of outdoor dining before a retreat back to more winter restrictions. Rabgee is still planning a grand opening party pairing his fiery hot sauce with fresh local beers, but he’s gone dark on the social media channels where he used to post smiling emojis and photos of packed festivals.

“I always try to be positive,” he said, “and there’s not a lot of good things you can say about this year.”

– Lauren Hepler

the vulnerable

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14.3 million

Californians experiencing food insecurity

represents 1,000 people.
experiencing food insecurity

Source: U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey Week 20, Nov 25 – Dec 7

The pandemic has been especially hard on those who – by dint of their occupation or economic status or living situation – are least protected from its dangers. While many of us started working remotely, frontline medical workers, nursing home staff, grocery store cashiers, bus drivers and others have never stopped going to work. Prisoners have been exposed to massive outbreaks. Existing economic disparities also have worsened in recent months. Demand at food banks has skyrocketed, with some having to turn away hundreds of hungry Californians. Many homeless people, who haven’t been able to shelter in place, have now lost access to shelters and public restrooms.

Sonia Sanchez and Audrey Lopez met 20 years ago while working at Target in San Jose. When Sanchez joined the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority as a bus driver in 2007, she convinced Lopez to join her. Their badge numbers were one digit apart. 

This year, while both continued to drive as essential workers during the pandemic, Sanchez lost her friend to the deadly virus. Lopez died Oct. 11 at age 53 after a two-month battle with COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, Sanchez has continued to work throughout the pandemic, shuttling passengers across San Jose on Routes 23 and 25. The mother of five boys, Sanchez also lives with an elderly family member and worries about bringing the virus home. She has an underlying health condition that puts her at higher risk.

“Those passengers, you never know if they’re going to get in your face, or if they have COVID,” she said. “That is something that sits in the back of your mind.”

Sanchez’s routes were the transit agency’s second and third most popular last year, meaning she sometimes had to bypass riders at stops to comply with reduced capacity requirements.

“It’s kind of frustrating when you have to turn down people and you see it’s your regulars that are going to work,” she said. “Your hands are tied, you have to maintain social distance.”

In addition to limiting capacity, the agency has provided gloves, masks, face shields, sanitizer, seat covers and plastic barriers to drivers. 

Audrey Lopez, Sanchez’s friend, is the only Valley Transportation Authority driver to die of COVID-19 this year, according to an agency spokesperson.  Sanchez said she believes her friend, who was “very paranoid” about COVID and went straight home from work, caught the virus on the job. 

Agency spokesperson Brandi Childress said in an email that a third-party workers’ compensation claim administrator did not determine that Lopez “contracted the coronavirus on the job.” 

“We have been extremely supportive of Audrey’s family throughout their healing process and the investigation process…,” Childress wrote. 

Sanchez said transit workers may not leap to people’s minds as essential workers, so she hopes riders will do their parts to keep drivers safe. 

“I think everybody forgets about us,” she said.

– James Bikales

Mary Lynn Briggs, a nurse for 28 years, always thought of herself as an optimist.

“I used to be a glass-half-full kind of person.” she said.

“Not anymore.”

The pandemic stripped that away for Briggs, a 63-year-old intensive care nurse at Dignity Health’s Mercy Hospitals in Bakersfield. “I don’t think there will be many of us who aren’t going to have PTSD when this is all said and done,” she said.

Several of Briggs’ COVID-19 patients have died without a loved one nearby — no one at the bedside but her. Strict visitation rules to minimize exposure often means family and friends aren’t around.

She holds their hand. Sometimes she places an iPad at the bedside, so family members can say goodbye.

“Having a patient die by themselves is just absolutely the worst,” she said. “I tell them ‘your mom loves you, your sister loves, your brother loves you’; it is just heartbreaking.”

She works night shifts, and when she gets home in the mornings, she takes her scrubs off in her garage. Her clothes go immediately in the washer. She uses disinfectant wipes for her phone and badge. 

“There was about two and a half months where I slept in a different bedroom from my husband just to maintain some distance,” Briggs said. “That was much easier for me to do than for my coworkers, who have small children.”

In her almost three decades of nursing, she’s never seen anything like it. “It’s like going from one crisis to another to another,” Briggs said in an interview in mid-November. “I don’t think any of us are ready to go through that again.”

But by Thanksgiving, California’s COVID-19 hospital admissions were once again in a rapid rise. By mid-December, 1,100 more people were in ICU beds than at the peak of the summer surge.

Briggs has encountered the occasional patient who doesn’t believe COVID-19 is real, even as they fight to breathe in the ICU. 

One young man refused to believe he was infected, despite his positive test, she said.  Both he and his grandmother died in the same ICU, after likely contracting the virus at a family gathering, Briggs said. 

For frontline workers it’s both shocking and frustrating to know some people still believe the virus is a hoax. If only they could see what she has seen.

“Until people accept that COVID is a real thing, it really is a danger,” Briggs said.  “There’s nothing I can say to them about how to protect themselves if they’re not willing to listen.”

Briggs said she is grateful for every day she gets to walk out of work healthy. Four of her fellow nurses in the ICU have been infected and, luckily, all have recovered. 

“When you hear about a nurse getting it, you look around and think, ‘Who’s going to be next?’” she said. 

– Ana B. Ibarra

Freddie Cole is 80 years old, has a pacemaker and spends his days in San Quentin State Prison, terrified of COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, more than 2,000 San Quentin inmates have been infected and 28 have died, among them several of Cole’s close friends.

“My anxiety level is through the roof,” he said.

People in prison face high risks of COVID. According to one study, they are four times more likely than the rest of the U.S. population to be infected, and twice as likely to die of it. 

San Quentin was home to a massive outbreak this summer after infected inmates were transferred there from another prison. In October, an appeals court ordered San Quentin to reduce its prison population by half, citing “deliberate indifference” to inmate well-being and saying that, “by all accounts, the COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin has been the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.” A department spokesperson said this week that the prison currently has only four active COVID-19 cases.

Cole says sharing a small cell with another person, and having open bars in a poorly ventilated space, makes protecting himself from the virus extremely challenging. For older, medically fragile inmates like him, he said, he doesn’t believe there is a safe place in the whole prison system. He passes his days reading and praying.

Although he has not tested positive for COVID-19, he sometimes wonders if he might have had it early on.

“By the time I got tested, people were dying from it,” he said. 

Adnan Khan, the executive director of Re: Store Justice, a non-profit prison reform advocacy organization he founded while incarcerated in San Quentin, said he worked with Cole  in the prison’s education department. He describes Cole as being “very, very, very, very high-risk from COVID.”  

Cole entered the state’s prison system in 2007 after being convicted in Los Angeles County of first-degree murder and arson, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Cole said in a 15-minute phone call that he transferred in 2016 to San Quentin, where he works in the college program and is active in a group for Vietnam veterans (he himself served for seven years, he said).  He’s also active in his church.

As debate rages about which populations – including prisoners – might be prioritized for a vaccine, Cole is hoping for his. He feels nervous, since he has a few allergies. But he said he is desperate for the protection it offers.

“I’m going to still try it,” he said. “Whenever it’s offered to me, I’ll take it.”

– Jocelyn Wiener

For Bonnie Sue Eisner, 57, the pandemic has ruptured many of the small, essential lifelines that she and other homeless people depend on to preserve their dignity.  Because of the virus, she said, “it’s been just a horrible experience trying to survive as a homeless person. It’s a real battle.” 

The downtown Sacramento 24-Hour Fitness where Eisner used to shower had to close due to the pandemic – now she depends on sponge baths in public bathrooms. 

Many of those bathrooms are harder to access, too. Gone are the days of popping into a Starbucks to use the bathroom, charge her phone and escape the elements. The public library also closed, taking with it a refuge where she could sit and read when it was cold and rainy, or when the searing summer heat became too much to bear.

Before COVID-19, Eisner also liked to sit in the cafeteria at the state Capitol, making jewelry, charging her phone, sometimes popping into legislative hearings. During the pandemic, she can still access the bathroom – but only during limited hours. 

This summer, with the sun blazing overhead, she would sit as still as she could on a bench under one of the big shade trees outside the Capitol, trying not to overheat. She discovered an outside outlet where she could charge her cell phone – itself an essential lifeline. But she has been ticketed twice for doing so; the yellow paper citations list the violation as “theft of utilities.”

Sister Libby Fernandez, founder and director of The Mercy Peddlers, met Eisner more than a year ago. At the time, Eisner was sleeping in her car near the Capitol, picking up trash during the day to help keep the area clean. (Eisner’s car recently caught fire, so she can no longer sleep there).

Because of the pandemic, some homeless shelters run by the county and local churches are not opening this winter, Fernandez said. “It’s going to be miserable.”

Eisner tries to stay strong and stay positive.

“We just have a humanitarian problem in this country,” Eisner said. “It’s very sad.”

– Jocelyn Wiener

Mario Medina has a mantra. 

“I’ve always said – it’s very corny – I always like to focus on what’s ahead,” said Medina, an 18-year-old high school senior in Oakland. “I tell myself that life is like a car ride. You may see one ugly view on one side of the window, and if you focus too much on that, you may miss the pretty sight out the other window.”

The ride this year has been especially bumpy. Medina’s family lost their home to a fire in February. They lived in a motel for a week, then crammed into his aunt’s two-bedroom apartment for a few months, eventually finding a three-bedroom home in the Fruitvale neighborhood. Medina lives there with his mom,  three younger brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandfather: 13 people total.

In the early days of the pandemic, Medina, who is Laotian-American, experienced discrimination for being Asian-American. One day, as he and his brother walked down the street, a group of people drove by and yelled: “Coronavirus!”

Since March, Oakland schools have remained virtual. At any one time, at Medina’s house, there can be as many as 30 devices connected to the internet. The connection is often very spotty. His mom is deaf, and Medina tries to lighten her burden, especially since much of the technology is unfamiliar to her. In addition to keeping up with his own classes — and holding down a part time job as a cashier at The Habit hamburger restaurant – Medina rouses his younger brothers in the morning and takes charge of their education. 

Medina, who has always prioritized schoolwork, worries about his brothers, who he says were good students before the pandemic began. He, too, has struggled with motivation and focus during remote schooling. He doesn’t have a desk, so he does his work sitting on his bed in the basement. 

Sometimes Medina feels sad to be missing out on the hallmarks of a senior year—the senior projects, the school dances. He also worries that his challenges with distance learning will affect his ability to get into any of the eight colleges to which he’s applied. Someday, he wants to become a park ranger.

“In terms of plans, I don’t think they have changed,” he said. “It’s just been set back a little bit.”

– Jocelyn Wiener

the isolated

Your browser doesn’t support canvas.

13.7 million

Californians feeling down, depressed or hopeless over the past several days or more

represents 1,000 people.
feeling down, depressed or hopeless

Source: U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey Week 20, Nov 25 – Dec 7

For many Californians, 2020 will be remembered as the Year of Isolation. The year we cancelled Thanksgiving. Stayed home. Shunned crowds. Those of us who aren’t essential workers could choose the safety of isolation, despite its attendant anxiety and loneliness. For others, isolation was imposed. Nursing homes locked down completely, frustrating family members who saw their beloved frail elders wither. Students spent the school year hunkered down at home, missing friends, team sports, band practice. Researchers know that social isolation can lead to higher rates of mortality, depression and cognitive decline. But the new COVID-19 vaccines bring hope that next year, we can safely gather again.  

Christian Moreno has never set foot on the college campus where he’s enrolled as a junior.

Moreno was excited by plans to move up to San Jose State this fall after two years at El Camino College in Torrance, but the coronavirus pandemic has left him marooned in the home he’s grown up in his whole life. 

“I’m attending online classes from a campus I’ve never even visited,” he said. “Everything just feels disconnected — it feels like I’m still at community (college).”

The 21-year-old attends many of his classes from his childhood bedroom, still adorned with high school track and field medals.

“Now it doesn’t matter if I’m at community college, San Jose, or Harvard — it all looks the same because it’s on Zoom,” he said.

The California State University system, which includes San Jose State, was one of the first in the nation to announce a virtual fall semester, setting a precedent for many other universities in California and elsewhere. It’s already announced that the spring semester will remain largely online.

The virtual semester has been particularly rough on California’s transfer students, and Moreno said it’s been even harder as a first-generation college student. 

“Transferring my units over, picking classes, and just the whole ins and outs of getting to a new school — I jumped into the deep end,” he said. He couldn’t just walk into an advising office; instead, he could only rely on email, which he said was plagued by delays.

He thought about taking the year off but decided to push through, especially since he was laid off from his retail job early in the pandemic. He’s since returned to work, but this fall, he’s also juggling his own classes with those of his 7-year-old niece, whom he babysits during her virtual second-grade classes. 

Still, there are some pluses: He’s surrounded by family, eating home-cooked meals, and saving on housing costs. Living blocks from the beach also allows him to wake up for an early morning run or surf before class.

And one experience he likely never would have had without virtual classes: asking Dr. Anthony Fauci a question about the coronavirus vaccine as part of his media diversity class.

“I guess you lose some, but then at the same time, you also win some,” he said.

– James Bikales

On a weekday morning at their home in Salinas, Anthony Zelensky fixes eggs or oatmeal for their three daughters, while Katie Zelensky talks to teachers struggling to connect with students online. She’s the one they call with password problems, technology glitches or other questions about pandemic-era teaching. 

After breakfast, 8-year-old Gwyn heads to her room for her online lessons, while 5-year-old twins Seraphina and Felicity play on an app for practicing Spanish. Then Anthony sits down at a computer in the corner of the living room where he’ll teach high school science for the next few hours. Behind him a bed sheet hangs from the ceiling, so students see a plain blue background — not the chaos of a house that’s also a classroom for two teachers and three young children.

This is the reality for many California public school teachers and students during the coronavirus pandemic. Though the state allows districts to open campuses when virus transmission is moderate, many have remained shuttered since March. It’s left millions of students and more than 100,000 teachers to navigate education online — without the human connections that have defined the school experience for generations. 

When Anthony begins class, he doesn’t see a single face on his computer screen — just a few cartoon avatars that show students have logged in without turning on their cameras. 

“I’ve been a teenager. You don’t want to wake up and go to class at 8:10, especially if you go to class in your bedroom,” Anthony said. 

In the dining room, Katie Zelensky takes a break from work around 9 a.m. to help the twins log in to kindergarten. If they’re fighting, she separates them. When the internet gets spotty, she moves them onto the same laptop. In between, she answers emails from her colleagues. 

After class, the children play in the backyard where the Zelenskys built a set of monkey bars. Katie fixes PB&J or salami sandwiches for lunch. Then she sits back down at the dining table to take another round of calls from teachers needing help. 

The hardest adjustment for Katie has been feeling that she is both working and parenting every minute. 

“We have straight-up lost the line between work and home,” Katie said.

“You don’t just walk away from your cubicle, or close the door to your classroom, and say, ‘Have a nice weekend.’ That just doesn’t happen. That line is gone.”

– Laurel Rosenhall

In October, Adia Romaine-Figueroa quit smoking. It wasn’t so much a matter of health as safety, since even handing over her ID felt like a risk after moving back to her sleepy, conservative Sierra foothills hometown.

“The person on my driver’s license is not the same person,” she said. “That inevitably forces me to out myself as a trans person.”

Romaine-Figueroa, 30, was half-way through a legal name change when the pandemic hit. After her job as a veterinary technician in Sacramento disappeared, the only option was to leave the friends and life she had been building for her childhood bedroom in the woods outside the Gold Country town of Jackson, population 4,860.

In the process, she became one of millions of Californians forced to put life on hold while the gears of bureaucracy grind. It took four months to get delayed unemployment benefits. Changing her name with courts closed became another rabbit hole of drawn-out paperwork and snail mail. 

Moving back in with her mom, like many others who have consolidated living costs in the nation’s second-most expensive state, has raised big questions about success, purpose and what to do next. “I have a life to live,” Romaine-Figueroa said. “My whole life.”

But in the stillness, she’s also found empowerment — a “cocoon” to reflect after a decade of working her way up from a shy cat lover to a seasoned vet tech. If recent years have brought radical transformation, she hopes the turmoil of 2020 will help clear a path forward. 

Just before Christmas, Romaine-Figueroa received her new birth certificate. After that will come a new driver’s license. Next year, she’s thinking about moving to Seattle with a friend.

“I have hopes,” she said. “I don’t have any plans.”

– Lauren Hepler

Paula Boyd found herself slipping into a serious depression. As the pandemic wore on, Boyd, 61, struggled not just with the threat of the virus, but with the ensuing isolation in her hometown of Danville.

“Not being able to hug, that’s a huge loss,” she said.

Boyd, who landed in the hospital for depression and bipolar disorder repeatedly in years past, had not returned to the hospital since 2015.  But as the virus has raged on, she sometimes finds herself struggling. During the election, things got even worse.

“It’s a challenge, every day, trying to get out of bed,” she said.

Rates of depression and anxiety have been escalating in recent months– a CDC survey from the summer found that 41 percent of respondents were struggling with mental health during the pandemic. Many experts have described the accumulating mental health impacts of the pandemic as a coming “tsunami.”

For those already living with mental illness, the challenge has proven especially acute.

Boyd knows she should meditate, and do other things for herself, but says she struggles with self-care. Instead, she pours herself into her work at Putnam Clubhouse in Contra Costa County. At the clubhouse – a peer support community that serves over 1,000 individuals recovering from mental illness – she drives other members to doctors’ appointments, the bank, the grocery store. As many services and supports have migrated to Zoom, she’s also made more than 500 phone calls checking in on people.

“That has lifted me up, helping other people,” she said. 

She feels lucky compared to many – some afraid to leave their homes, some reliant on public transportation, many living within extremely limited incomes. As a result, she’s been especially frustrated watching shoppers hoard toilet paper and other goods, knowing that for some people living with a mental illness, visiting two or three stores can feel impossible.

“The hard part about it for me is the empathy I have for people in the mentally ill community that I know can’t get out,” she said.

Her husband, a corporate trainer, has been out of work since March; his unemployment runs out this month. Her 17-year-old son has struggled with distance learning.

Still, she says: “We consider ourselves extremely lucky.”

– Jocelyn Wiener

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