As US marks 500K COVID deaths, Chicagoans reflect on loss, hope

Push to vaccinate ramps up in Chicago's highest-mortality neighborhoods
CHICAGO (WLS) -- The United States has reached a grim milestone: 500,000 people have died from COVID-19.

Half a million people is greater than the populations of Aurora, Joliet, and Naperville combined. The national day of remembrance comes exactly a week after Illinois marked its own grim milestone of more than 20,000 lives lost.

SEE ALSO | US COVID death toll tops 500,000, matching the toll of 3 wars

There have been 20,303 deaths in Illinois, with 4,447 killed by COVID-19 in Cook County and 4,831 deaths in Chicago.

The Cook County and Chicago total of 9,278 deaths is second highest in the U.S. The human toll here is surpassed only by Los Angeles County, which has approximately 20,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracking data.

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The Cook County and Chicago total of 9,278 deaths is second highest in the U.S., surpassed only by Los Angeles County.



But the staggering figures don't begin to account for what so many families have lost.

"I miss them every day. I mean, I think about them every day. I'm sad every day. It's just, you know. I just, I didn't expect this to happen," said Abigail Andres Medina, whose parents died from COVID-19.

The Grayslake woman lost both her parents, Dan and Connie Andres, before Christmas, days apart to a pandemic that, for many, remains hard to reconcile.

"I can't grasp that. They're part of this. They're part of that," she said. "I just struggle. I struggle with that."

For so many families, milestones mean nothing because time has stood still.

Tomorrow will mark 10 months since Joyce Pacubas-LeBlanc of Darien lost her battle with COVID-19.

"Do I ever think it'll get easier? No. Do I want it? No. Because I don't ever want to forget her," said Lawrence Le Blanc, her husband.

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Each death has left untold numbers of mourners, like Tommy Gonzalez, whose father was among the first casualties of the pandemic in the Chicago area last March.



Each death has left untold numbers of mourners, like Tommy Gonzalez, whose father was among the first casualties of the pandemic in the Chicago area last March.

"He was my best buddy. That was a big thing. Me and him were best friends," he said.

It was St. Patrick's Day weekend when Louie Gonzalez was rushed to the hospital. The 60-year old could barely get out of bed and was finding it hard to breathe. Finally, his wife called an ambulance.

"When he went into the hospital, I knew something was more serious because he was more of a 'I don't need doctors" or anything like that," his son said.

Gonzalez was put on a ventilator, but after a couple of days, he died. His loss has been devastating for his family and their surrounding community.

SEE ALSO | When will herd immunity happen?

Gonzalez coached football teams at schools in their Northwest Side neighborhood. Last summer, as a tribute, a food pantry was named after him.

"He was always there for me. I had a fantastic relationship with my father," his son said.

Gonzalez said he's not sure how his father, on medical leave from the Chicago Park District, contracted COVID. As the death toll continues to rise, he said he hopes people continue to take steps to keep others safe.

"People should do what's right for surrounding people," he said.

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Vaccination efforts are ramping up in Chicago's Belmont Cragin neighborhood, which has one of the highest mortality rates in the city.



In the Belmont Cragin neighborhood on Chicago's Northwest Side, there is a lot of pain - and a lot of need also. The immigrant, LatinX community has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Countless jobs have been lost, and the neighborhood has one of the highest mortality rates in the city.

"I think it's a lot of fear in the neighborhood. A lot of absence of being outside. And just not knowing," said Nicholas Pereira, of the Northwest Side Housing Center.

According to the Chicago Dept. of Public Health, at least 217 people have died in the 60639 zip code alone over the last year, which is 4.5% of the total deaths in the city of Chicago.

SEE ALSO | Chicago COVID vaccine map shows how many residents vaccinated by zip code

"You're trying to do the best of your ability, with what we have to help these families and sometimes it's just not enough," said Robert Torres, with Parents for Peace and Justice.

But there is hope. Part of a rapid response team for Belmont Cragin's Northwest Side Housing Center, Pereira, spent the day handing out food at Steinmetz High School, which over the weekend played host to a temporary vaccination clinic with the aim is to inoculate anyone over the age of 18 who resides here.

"This is about getting shots in the arms of people who are raising their hands, but don't necessarily know how to get their hands seen," said Dr. Ali Khan, with Oak Street Health.

In partnership with the City of Chicago and Oak Street Health, the clinic is set to run for eight weekends total and has set aside enough vaccine to fully inoculate 8,000 people in Belmont Cragin.

"We have community-based organizations that we partner with knocking on doors safely, we're calling on people. We're texting people proactively. This is not a web-based solution. This is you have to go, hit the ground running. Shoe leather. And we see the gratitude," Dr. Khan said.

In the two weekends since the clinic started, Belmont Cragin has more than doubled the number of people vaccinated. It is one of 15 hard-hit Chicago neighborhoods being specifically targeted for similar efforts over the coming weeks.
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