I remember the morning my Opa died. It was February of 2021. It was a record-cold day in Nebraska where the temperature didn’t get above negative 10. My mom had been keeping our family updated through text messages about my Opa’s health. He had been in a nursing home for several years, and with the pandemic rearing its head, things were not looking good.

The text message came in around 6am. I felt my entire body stiffen. I swear my shoulders touched my ears. The news was a big feeling. The kind of feeling I didn’t want to deal with, process or even think about. So, I worked. I didn’t request time off or ask for the day to lay in bed, even though my bosses insisted. I wanted to keep my mind off the fact that my Opa died, alone in a nursing home, surrounded by no one, by a virus that was preventable. 

I recently visited him the year prior in my home state of North Carolina after I got engaged. We couldn’t touch or be within six feet of each other, but he got the chance to meet my fiancé, look at pictures of our new dog, and I told him all about my new job tracking COVID-19 for one of my favorite newspapers. 

We chatted briefly about how he was doing, and soon our 20-minute visit was over. The nurse came in to get him, and as we blew kisses from behind our masks, my Opa reached out with both his hands to grab mine. He never did any sort of half goodbye. But the nurse quickly intercepted. His eyes fell, and I could faintly hear him say, “I love you.”

“He never did any sort of half goodbye. But the nurse quickly intercepted. His eyes fell, and I could faintly hear him say, ‘I love you.’”

A few months would go by and my Opa finally got his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. It was a huge relief for a few days, until we learned he tested positive. We had no clue how or why, but just that he had COVID and was only a few days out from qualifying for his second dose of the vaccine. Upon his diagnosis his health rapidly declined, and within a few days he passed.

Up to this point I had been tracking and reporting on COVID-19 in virtually every way. I was part of a national data team that kept tabs on every case and death in the United States. We would then go onto track cases and deaths in colleges, nursing homes, prisons, tribal communities and eventually report on the vaccine rollout. Our work even won us the 2021 Pulitzer in Public Service. The work we did made me proud. The work we did helped me go onto report and track COVID for other news outlets. The work we did helped me make sense of a disorienting and life-altering pandemic.

But it also showed me the reality of COVID. 

It forced me to interview parents who lost their children. Partners who lost the loves of their lives. Doctors and nurses who watched people slowly slip away after battling the virus for months. Public health officials who were threatened by their own community for just doing their job. And it also showed me the numbers. 

At its peak COVID killed on average 3,248 Americans a day. Today that number is roughly 400.

During a recent Sunday evening interview with 60 Minutes, President Biden said the words
“The pandemic is over.” He noted that we still have a problem with COVID, but my immediate thought was to the Americans who are sitting in hospital waiting rooms praying for good news: To the children who are worried they might lose a parent. To the individuals who will test positive in the weeks to come, and worry about how they’ll pay their bills as they have to forgo paychecks because they cannot work. 

The numbers don’t lie. That’s why I love journalism — it holds people accountable to the truth — and the truth is COVID-19 is far from gone.  

“That’s why I love journalism — it holds people accountable to the truth — and the truth is COVID-19 is far from gone. “

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Monday that the U.S. is not where it needs to be regarding the coronavirus pandemic. In a talk with the Center for Strategic and International Studies he said, “How we respond and how we’re prepared for the evolution of these variants is going to depend on us. And that gets to the other conflicting aspect of this — is the lack of a uniform acceptance of the interventions that are available to us in this country where even now, more than two years, close to three years, into the outbreak, we have only 67 percent of our population vaccinated and only one-half of those have received a single boost.”

So, for the millions of Americans who lost someone they deeply love to COVID: I hope you had the chance to tell someone all your favorite things about that person. The things that you hold onto. The memories that make you smile. And the stories you’ll tell the next generation.

So, since I have you here, I’m going to do just that. These are my favorite things about my Opa in no particular order, because everything feels important to me in some way: My Opa was born on Valentine’s Day — the only day big enough for the kind of heart he had. He tipped well. He was a sharp dresser. He escaped Nazi-invaded Germany, and when he got to the states he began working in a factory. Decades later when he retired, he owned the factory. He treated my Oma so well. He had a soft spot for animals, especially big dogs. Every time we’d visit, he always made a massive breakfast spread complete with fresh eggs, grapefruit and breads, so many breads. He loved Wheel of Fortune, but I think he really loved Vanna White. He enjoyed a Dewar’s on the rocks every evening. He was the first person I remember reading the newspaper front to back, every morning. He was always clean shaven and tanned impeccably well. He was the hardest worker, and he was the best grandfather I could have ever asked for. 

Before you go, check out these inspiring quotes about coping with grief:

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