| Arizona Republic
Todd Bailey discovered Marked By COVID not long after his mother returned from the hospital in late July and his aunt, unfortunately, did not.
It was one of his harder days, and he was aimlessly scrolling through Facebook when he came upon the page created by Kristin Urquiza in honor of her father, Arizona native Mark Urquiza, who died from complications with COVID-19 in July.
Bailey saw how people all over the world had commented on the page or used the #MarkedByCOVID hashtag to share their own experiences with and losses to the disease. He decided to join them and post his own story online.
“It felt important to not let my aunt disappear,” he explained to The Arizona Republic.
Bailey is one of the thousands of Arizonans, and hundreds of thousands of Americans, who have felt the devastating impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic firsthand since it first began metastasizing throughout the country in March.
Marked By COVID has united numerous people touched by the virus, at times serving as a grief group, an advocacy organization and a growing political force.
Less than a dozen, distanced and wearing masks, gathered alongside Bailey in person on Thursday for a local Marked By COVID event as part of the group’s nationwide Week of Mourning from Oct. 4-11. The event, organized by Valley local Bill Whitmire, meant to commemorate the more than 5,700 people statewide who have died of COVID-19.
Two sisters in two ICUs, miles apart
Bailey assembled several photographs of his aunt, Kathy Jones, before a bouquet of flowers atop a table in the courtyard of The Teapot in downtown Phoenix, a small event space on Roosevelt Row where others had assembled. Fairy lights and other people’s photos hung from string above his little memorial.
He stopped at the quaint café on his way to his job at the Arizona Historical Society from his home in Mesa, where he was born and raised. He now lives with his 76-year-old mother in the house his grandparents built in the Washington-Escobedo Heritage Neighborhood after they arrived in 1941 during the era of massive migration of Black families from the South. When they built their home, the area was still segregated.
On their humble means, his grandparents sent each of their four daughters to Arizona State University. Three of them became school teachers. One of them was Bailey’s mother, Joyce Bailey, who taught in the Roosevelt School District for over three decades before retiring. She is also a well-known gospel singer, Bailey said proudly, affectionately called “Joyce the Voice.”
Bailey left the Valley for two decades to travel the world as a professional dancer but returned to care for his aunt in the mid-2000s after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Jones, Bailey said, was the “beloved, spoiled, smart, beautiful, baby sister” of her family. Earlier in her life, she had worked for Motorola and moved to Chandler, the first Black woman on her block. She used a wheelchair for the last several years of her life and had kidney failure alongside her MS.
“She was very vibrant, very important,” Bailey told the others mingling outside The Teapot. He recounted her love of music and her extensive vinyl collection, and laughed about how he would find her yelling at whichever politician or pundit was on TV.
Despite the family’s best efforts, she got sick on June 27. She went to the hospital as a precaution, but told Bailey she felt fine. Days later, she was on oxygen.
On June 29, Bailey’s mother’s hip surgery was canceled because she had also tested positive. He was positive, too, but was experiencing no symptoms.
Within a few days, the two women were in intensive care units a couple miles apart, and the nightmare began. Bailey was forced to sit at home, barred from visiting either of them, as he fielded calls from both hospitals and waited.
Then, Kathy died.
“That’s the worst part — not knowing what’s happening, and then getting a phone call
that your relative is dead,” Bailey said.
His mother, meanwhile, learned that her sister died over the phone while hooked up to machines, alone in a hospital room. She was in the ICU, then rehab, for a month.
“She walked out, like an alien, like she just landed on the planet. I watched her just waddle out into the sunlight,” Bailey remembered.
She was exhausted — both physically, having fought off COVID-19, and emotionally, losing her sister while isolated for several weeks.
“She’s definitely traumatized,” Bailey said, now that his mother is back home. “She’s in pain. She doesn’t have the energy she used to. But man, what an impressive woman, she’s come back from these things. She’s been through a lot, but she’s resilient as always.”
‘My mom never saw him again’
Tara Krebbs got involved with Marked By COVID’s Week of Mourning because of how difficult processing and grieving has felt.
“I was looking for a community of people who have experienced what I experienced,” Krebbs told The Republic. “People who understood what I was going through, who trust science, that believe our president and our governor let us down by not putting in a mask mandate, by not giving the people a cohesive message to follow and instead were dividing us.”
Her family had also treated the pandemic seriously from the get-go, she told the others at The Teapot through tears from behind a mask. She had taken special care to distance from her father and mother, both in their 70s. The last time the 41-year-old had seen her father awake and well, they had gotten together at the park, but she maintained 15 feet of distance between them and refused to hug — a decision she now regrets.
Charles Krebbs, her father, had gotten sick in June, despite their efforts. Amid the state’s summer surge, he couldn’t get a COVID-19 test until he was already seriously ill several weeks later. When his doctor finally ordered him a test, it took another four days to secure one.
“We were told that tests were available to everyone, but they weren’t,” Krebbs said, her voice shaking.
Then, it was another nine days before he received his positive result. By that time, his daughter said, he has already been in the ICU for two days.
“He was rushed there in an ambulance, and my mom never saw him again,” she said.
Krebbs had seen her father for the last time the last day of his life, the hospital allowing one visitor in the event a patient was dying. Sedated and hooked up to a ventilator, he was so different from how she knew him — a gardener, home cook, lover of jazz and a loving, hands-on grandparent to her teen son.
She thanked the nurse who had switched her shift to be there with her and hold her hand.
Andrea Barlow came to Thursday’s event to support Krebbs, her best friend for nearly three decades, and mourn her father. Barlow remembered how he would ask her every time she visited and at any age, “Andrea, what do you think? What do you have to say?”
“He always made me feel like my opinion mattered,” she shared.
Event is a respite for people struggling with impacts of COVID-19
“The grieving process is just so hard because it’s constantly shoved in your face everyday,” Krebbs explained.
For Bailey, his months-long ordeal with COVID-19 makes him feel deeply alone, especially as others around him or on TV downplay the virus that has devastated his family and community.
“To see people not take it seriously and then to go to the news and then find out that Black families are suffering the worst is gaslighting … at it’s worst,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people are more than twice as likely to catch COVID-19 than white people, nearly five times as likely to be hospitalized from it, and more than twice as likely to die from it. Lack of access to healthcare and increased potential exposure due to occupations are among a variety of factors that exacerbate disparities in COVID-19 contraction and outcome.
“I’m angry, I’m very very frustrated, I’m kind of numb … and disappointed, because I think we could have done such a better job,” Bailey said. “The dangers could have been articulated better and shutting down would have made more sense to people.”
The Marked By COVID event was therefore a welcome and needed respite from what Bailey and others saw as rampant ignorance and cruelty in response to an ongoing public health crisis.
“Connecting with other people with the same experience is kind of all we have right now,” Bailey said.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @vv1lder.