Remembering the 1 million Americans lost to COVID

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A man whose mother died from COVID photographs a COVID Memorial Project installation of 20,000 American flags on the National Mall when the U.S. marked 200,000 lives lost in the COVID-19 pandemic in September of 2020. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A man whose mother died from COVID photographs a COVID Memorial Project installation of 20,000 American flags on the National Mall when the U.S. marked 200,000 lives lost in the COVID-19 pandemic in September of 2020. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

One million dead from COVID-19. The U.S. is fast approaching that grim milestone.

Millions of Americans are figuring out what life looks like without someone they love — a mother, father, sister, brother, friend.

How can we collectively mark this milestone?

"As a nation, to pause, as a nation, to turn toward some collective location, should it be a physical memorial, is a moment of profound unity and recommitment," history professor Micki McElya says.

Today, On Point: Remembering the one million lost to COVID-19.


Micki McElya, professor of history at the University of Connecticut. Author of The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery.

Marisa Renee Lee, writer, speaker and entrepreneur. Author of Grief is Love: Living with Loss. (@MarisaReneeLee)

Also Featured

Barry Joseph, who lost his father to COVID.

Medinah Hagan-Morgan, who lost her husband to COVID.

Interview Highlights: Remembering The Americans Lost To COVID

Medinah Hagan-Morgan reflects on the life of her husband Leslie Hagan-Morgan.

MEDINAH HAGAN-MORGAN: Leslie was extremely funny. He was really, really silly. So he was brilliant. His mind was brilliant, the way he thought about things. It was just beautiful. And his heart was unlike anybody's heart I've ever seen. He was so selfless. He only wanted to take care of his family and make the world a better place. Honestly, those were his goals.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Medinah's husband and her, Leslie Hagan-Morgan, lived in Los Angeles. He died from COVID on January 18th, 2021. Leslie was just 38 years old.

HAGAN-MORGAN: He was a coach and mentor. He started a nonprofit called City of Youth. He really wanted to make South L.A., which is the area he grew up in, he wanted to make it a better place.

So he was affected by how gang ridden it was. And how it was so tough to grow up there, and kind of stay focused and be focused without support. So he really wanted to be the support for the community. He wanted to do that through education and through providing a framework for people to be successful.

CHAKRABARTI: COVID had changed everyone's lives since March of 2020. Over the holidays, though, Leslie, Medinah and their kids wanted to connect with family, so they took a trip to Atlanta.

HAGAN-MORGAN: My mother-in-law is a nurse. And she was one of the frontline workers working in the COVID ward, and she happened to bring it to the home, to her home where we were staying. And she got sick first, and then my kids got it, then I got it. Then my husband got it. Leslie got it. Unfortunately, we all got it. And we all were recovering home and he seemed to be getting better.

But on the 11th or 12th day, I was monitoring his oxygen and it just started dropping right before our eyes. On that day that I called 911, they took him to the hospital and he died maybe like an hour later. It was so fast. It was so drastic, and it was so unpredictable.

You know, I say this a lot. You take your vows and you say, till death do you part. But you never consider that actually happening. And my husband was 38 years young. And we had plans. I mean, you know, like you go through life, you make plans. And honestly, when someone so close to you dies, it's like I've had to reevaluate everything, reevaluate life without him. And what that looks like, dealing with the grief of myself and my children.

He was truly an angel on earth. And we're doing everything to keep that memory alive. For not just for my kids and my family, but for everyone. Because he touched so many lives when he was alive and he was such a dear friend to so many people. You know, I'm thanking God. Because I know God is with me through every step of this. And that's really been helping me and my family just get through it and to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I'm in many grief groups and that's also been an amazing support. And those are the little things that I've looked forward to, those little pockets of hope in the midst of all this that have been extremely incredible in us moving forward.

CHAKRABARTI: Medinah Hagan-Morgan, remembering her husband, Leslie, who was just 38 years old when he died in January 2021. After his death, Medinah took over and continues to reach out to Los Angeles young people through her husband's nonprofit City of Youth.

Barry Joseph remembers his father, Paul Joseph.

CHAKRABARTI: Barry Joseph ... lost his father to COVID. His father was 87 and died April 2020.

BARRY JOSEPH: My dad, Paul Joseph, was a pediatrician for 39 years on Long Island, was a very loving dad, very funny guy. You know, this is a guy who spent his days having to give kids shots. So he had to learn the skills to kind of distract them and make them laugh. And he loved our family, us being together. That was important for him.

On the first night of Passover, April 2020, my dad canceled an hour before. And this was during COVID, so we weren't meeting in person. Everything was being done on Zoom and I was running the Seder, the Seders that he used to run when I was growing up. And when he canceled I knew something was wrong. And when I spoke to him afterwards, he was feeling dizzy and had a number of other symptoms.

They weren't traditional COVID symptoms, so we didn't think it was COVID, but we knew something wasn't right. And by the next day he went to the hospital. So we were quite surprised when a day later they told us he had COVID. The things that we understood at the time to expect from someone with COVID in the hospital, like being intubated, he was not experiencing those things.

A week later he left. He went to a rehab and they told us that after a few weeks of rehab, he should be able to go back to his home. But after 36 hours in the rehab, they called us and said he's going to die and he can't die here. So I ran over to the rehab and I argued with the EMTs, who were very kind to me. To say, don't take him, please leave him here. He's going to be worse in the hospital. And they helped me understand that that was impossible.

But they gave me the space to do what I wanted to do, which was to spend time with him. I couldn't go into the rehab. I couldn't go into the hospital. But he was going to be taken out of the rehab and going into the ambulance. That could happen slowly. So the EMTs let me spend ten or 20 minutes with him. He had a mask on to help him with breathing. So it would kind of fill up with air and then he would kind of breathe it in and the mask would collapse. Then it would fill up again with air. He would breathe it in again.

And while he couldn't speak, I could hold his hand or glove at the time. I covered myself, I think maybe even a garbage bag, so I could throw it out afterwards. And got to tell him I loved him. And got to see his face and squeeze his hand and touch his shoulder and just kind of be with him. And then the EMTs surprised me and said, You can follow us if you want. You can see him again when he comes out. So it's kind of like one of those action movies, when you're like racing down the road with the sirens on.

They turned on their lights. We went through the red light and I followed them all the way to the hospital. And then I got to spend a few minutes with him again when they took him out of the ambulance, but didn't take them yet into the emergency room. And that was the last time I saw him in person.

So when he died, this was right in the beginning of COVID. It was just the first few weeks of Americans passing away. It was very, very strange. So I had this very personal loss, and it was hyperlocal when my dad died, you know, right around the corner from my house. But at the same time, he was number 52,000.

Related Reading

The Atlantic: "Grief, Everywhere" — "On February 28, 2008, my mother collapsed in my arms and had a seizure in my childhood home. As I laid her body on the floor, I knew it was over. She was officially pronounced dead a few hours later. My mom had Stage 4 breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. On that day in February, her diseases won, and I found myself lost."

This program aired on May 5, 2022.


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Meg Dalton Producer/Director, On Point
Meg Dalton was a producer/director at On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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