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‘Numb’ and ‘Heartbroken,’ the U.S. Confronts Record Virus Deaths

DALLAS — Lillian Blancas was a fighter, a proud daughter of immigrants, part of the first generation in her family to attend college and a lawyer in El Paso who was on the brink of fulfilling her dream of becoming a judge.

Instead, Ms. Blancas, 47, died alone in her hospital room this week, just before a runoff election on Saturday in which she was the favorite, becoming part of a grim cascade of Americans who have died from the coronavirus as it rages out of control. More than 3,000 deaths were reported on Wednesday for the first time since the pandemic began.

“We’re completely devastated. Heartbroken. We can’t find a reason,” said her sister, Gabriela Tiemann, who recalled staring through the glass doors of Ms. Blancas’s hospital room, wishing that she could stroke her hair one last time.

Credit…via Blancas family

The new daily death record — 3,055 individuals who blew out birthday candles, made mistakes, laughed and cried before succumbing to the virus — far surpassed the spring peak of 2,752 deaths on April 15 and amounted to a stunning embodiment of the pandemic’s toll. In a single day, the country, numbed and divided, lost more Americans to the coronavirus than were killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks or the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Catherine Troisi, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, said she had cried watching the faces of coronavirus victims on “PBS NewsHour” and expected the death toll to accelerate, in part because current numbers likely do not reflect infections from Thanksgiving gatherings.

“The worst is yet to come in the next week or two or three,” she said. “What happens after that is going to depend on our behavior today.”

The most recent deaths come as the country is recording more new cases and hospitalizations than ever before. More than 290,000 people have died in the United States during the pandemic.

With a current average of more than 2,200 deaths per day, Covid-19 is, for at least this moment, surpassing heart disease and cancer as the leading killer in the United States. About 1,800 people on average die from heart disease each day, and 1,640 from cancer, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2018, the latest full data available.

During yet another week, the virus took the lives of the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, the prominent and the ordinary people known best by those who loved them.

Jamie Neff, 50, of New Castle, Pa., was a cook who tinkered with his recipes to perfection and loved cheering for the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to his obituary.

Richard Hinch, 71, a Republican and the new speaker of the New Hampshire State House, died on Wednesday, just a week after he was sworn in.

And then there was Ms. Blancas, whose story struck a nerve in the tightknit border town that has been devastated by a surge of coronavirus deaths.

Ms. Blancas, who had no known underlying health conditions, first grew ill with mild symptoms at the end of October, when cases were climbing steeply in El Paso. By Nov. 3, the night she secured enough votes for the runoff election, she was exhausted in bed. And by the next week, she had been hospitalized with major breathing problems.

She never left the hospital.

Born and raised in El Paso, Ms. Blancas was described as a force of nature, fierce and unapologetic, but with an infectious, snorting laugh that brightened any room. A former teacher, she worked as a prosecutor and deputy public defender before running for municipal judge.

“She was a titan,” said Kaitlyn Urenda-Culpepper, who was in Ms. Blancas’s seventh-grade science class years ago. “She created a space for me to know, that at any age or stage of life, you can be whatever you want to be.”

Now, Ms. Blancas may still win her election even as her family plans her funeral.

Ms. Blancas, who got about 40 percent of the vote in November, the most of any candidate, is still on the ballot for Saturday’s runoff election. Her opponent, Enrique Alonso Holguin, a private defense attorney and associate judge for the city of El Paso also considered Ms. Blancas a friend, and told The El Paso Times that he was shocked by the news. “I am still numb,” he said. “I am just very, very sad right now.”

Should Ms. Blancas win, the El Paso City Council would vote to appoint a candidate.

The loss of a figure at the center of a contested election reflects the steep toll the virus has taken in El Paso, a city of 680,000 that has become the face of a reverberating virus crisis in West Texas and around the country. The city had to expand its supply of mobile morgues and deploy people from the county jail to help transport the dead. At one point in November, El Paso Matters, a nonprofit newsroom, estimated the city was averaging one coronavirus death an hour.

“There’s not enough of us to go around,” said Linda Azani, the assistant manager of Perches Funeral Homes, where she said about 70 percent of the death calls coming in are related to the coronavirus.

“Not enough directors to see families,” she said. “Not enough facilities to have funerals. Not enough chapels.”

But the virus surge is no longer isolated to any one place. Across the country, officials and funeral homes are sounding the alarm.

Barbara Ferrer, the seasoned public health director in Los Angeles County, who has been giving briefings since the earliest days of the pandemic, choked up this week while recounting the cumulative death toll in her area.

“The more terrible truth is that over 8,000 people — sorry — over 8,000 people who were beloved members of their families are not coming back,” she said, her voice shaking in a display of emotion that was all the more poignant set against the usual charts and data points of health briefings.

Almost every call coming into the Bauer Funeral Home in Effingham, Ill., involves a request for a service for a Covid-19 victim. In the last week, nine of the 13 deaths were from the coronavirus, said Brian Young, a funeral director, and the other funeral home in town was equally busy.

“It seemed like every time I answered the phone it was somebody passing at a nursing home or a hospital from Covid,” said Mr. Young, noting that there were sometimes two or three a day. With cases rises after Thanksgiving, he is bracing for even more.

The disease has altered the entire choreography of the funerals.

Previously, it was not unusual for anyone who died in the close-knit community of corn and soybean farmers to have 50 to 60 relatives show up at a funeral. No longer. The funeral home tries to arrange a quick viewing of just 10 people at a time, all asked to wear masks — although those who refuse are not barred — and to leave the building rapidly.

More than 800 miles away, in Amarillo, Texas, Shafer Mortuary Services has been equally inundated. Tasked with transporting, embalming and cremating bodies, the company has seen demand triple in the last few weeks, with about three in four deaths related to Covid-19, said Candice Shafer, a co-owner.

“It is overwhelming,” said Ms. Shafer, who is maxing out capacity in her in-house refrigerator for the first time and has had to call in three mobile morgues.

So many people are dying, there is a two-week wait to be cremated. Two of her embalmers have quit, she said, for fear of catching the virus and infecting their families. Other employees are physically and emotionally spent, as they don masks, body suits and shoe coverings in homes where everyone in the family — not just the person who died — has the coronavirus.

In the latest blow, she said, they have had to go back to the same families again and again, as multiple loved ones die.

Yet there is barely time to process the grief, Ms. Shafer said. “The hospitals are calling us directly and saying, ‘Come get this person, we need the bed.’”

Sarah Mervosh reported from Dallas, and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio and Neil MacFarquhar from New York. Erin Coulehan contributed reporting from El Paso and Mitch Smith from Chicago.


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