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Many Are Thrilled California Has Reopened. How Do COVID Survivors Feel?

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Nurses, health care workers and firefighters hold a candlelight vigil in memory of those lost during the coronavirus pandemic, on May 18 2021 in Woodlands Hills.  (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

For Gina Vitelli, who lost her father to COVID-19 last December, California's so-called return to pre-pandemic normal will never really be possible.

Vitelli, who is based in Los Gatos, is a member of COVID Survivors for Change, a grassroots, nonpartisan group of COVID survivors across the country. The group aims to help survivors find ways to use their experiences to drive policy and cultural change.

Vitelli, 53, said she wishes people would be a little bit more empathetic during this time of reopening.

"A lot of what I see today on our support page is that people are just having an incredibly rough time having to listen to 'going back to normal,' " she said. "For us it will never be the same. My dad lost his life in a very horrific way."

When people talk about COVID so casually, she said it feels demoralizing.

Seeing the flood of social media posts and news about reopening and taking trips, Vitelli said she'd also like to see more done for those who have lost their lives, whether it's a national holiday or something similar.

She said it's important to acknowledge all that was lost.

“It’s difficult to see people that are not impacted by COVID just laughing and traveling here and there," Vitelli said. "It’s just really difficult."

'Everybody's Starting to Forget'

Some survivors of COVID-19 are calling for direct financial support and more medical leave to help those hurt by the virus.

Rachel Maurice, who lives in Southern California, would have benefited from paid family leave last year when her 15-year-old daughter tested positive for COVID-19.

Maurice, 36, left work to care for her daughter and then had to quarantine for a total of three weeks, which she said resulted in her losing her job. Her daughter still has weak lungs due to COVID and has had to go to the hospital another two times due to the disease's long-term effects.

"I just wish that there would be some laws and protection that would allow survivors to take the time off," Maurice said.

She also worries that many people are already forgetting.

"I think we just have a short-term memory," Maurice said of the feeling that many Americans have mentally moved beyond the pandemic. "All the struggles we went through as a nation — everybody's starting to forget."

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Maurice participated in a virtual event on June 12 called “Summer 2021 COVID Survivor Summit,” a gathering for people who’ve had direct experiences with COVID-19, like getting sick from the virus and suffering long-term effects, or who’ve lost a loved one to coronavirus virtually.

COVID Survivors for Change, which organized the event, is calling for national paid family and medical leave, funds for COVID memorials and programs supporting COVID survivors, including scholarships for children impacted.

There have been over 62,500 COVID-19 deaths as of June 16 in California since the start of the pandemic, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The nation and the pandemic are “at an inflection moment,” said Chris Kocher, an event organizer with COVID Survivors for Change.

“There is this emotional shift in the nation. People are looking to move on," he said. "We hear a lot about this ‘get back to normal,’ right? These are very heartbreaking terms that are not available for millions of Americans."

“Yes, the pandemic is beginning to come to an end," Kocher added. "But 40,000 children have lost a parent, [and] millions of Americans are living with the symptoms of long-COVID.”

At the summit on Saturday, survivors expressed concerns about lifting COVID restrictions, like masking and social distancing requirements, especially when young children remain unvaccinated and when it’s still unclear how to check an unmasked person’s vaccination status. Summit participants also learned how to lobby lawmakers and organize local marches and awareness campaigns.

"I would have liked the reopening to happen with a little more caution," Maurice told KQED on June 15, California's reopening day. "I would have liked it better if there were more people being vaccinated and more education around the vaccine."

For Maurice, the impacts of COVID on her family are still being felt today and she wishes everyone would do their part to take care of one another.

"I wish people would do something to be an advocate for positive change for the whole country," she said. "We've been saying that we're in this together, but people now are acting like they're not in this together anymore."

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