framed photos of people lost to COVID set up on a table with flowers Loved ones lost to COVID-19
(Photo by Jessica Swarner)

“We can see that memorials and gatherings are necessary in needed ways to bring family and friends who lost loved ones together in a sense of solace and unity.” 

Community members gathered at the Arizona Heritage Center in Tempe on Monday to honor the nearly 28,000 Arizonans who have died from COVID-19. 

The event, hosted by the Arizona Historical Society, Marked by COVID, and the COVID Memorial Quilt, also debuted two art exhibits at the Heritage Center that serve to honor COVID victims. 

The first, the COVID Memorial Quilt, began as a seventh-grade project in California. It now includes quilt squares dedicated to lost loved ones and healthcare workers from all over the world. 

The second, called Remarkable Presence, includes thousands of paper suitcases made by Phoenix artist Jen Urso. The origami inside each is made of printed obituaries. 

Tara Krebbs, an Arizona activist with Marked by COVID who lost her father to COVID in 2020, saw her own experience with grief in the art. 

“[Remarkable Presence] is especially impactful to me as I remember packing up my father’s clothes, and the clothes that I still haven’t been able to pack up,” Krebbs said. 

An item from the Remarkable Presence Project. (Photo by Jessica Swarner)

Reflecting on the Pandemic

Speakers at the event reflected on how the pandemic has affected life since 2020. 

Todd Bailey, special projects coordinator for the Arizona Historical Society, talked about losing his aunt to COVID. His mother, who was hospitalized but survived, sang “I Can Only Imagine” to kick off the event. 

“One of the more frustrating things about this experience for me personally was folks minimizing the impacts of COVID … while the rest of us are trying to do end-of-life tasks for a loved one who’s passed away,” Bailey said. 

The COVID Memorial Quilt on display at the Arizona Heritage Center. (Photo by Jessica Swarner)

Krebbs said it was especially hard to lose someone during a “quiet and lonely” time when families couldn’t gather to mourn. 

“We can see that memorials and gatherings are necessary in needed ways to bring family and friends who lost loved ones together in a sense of solace and unity.” 

National Day

Krebbs spoke about how it’s important to acknowledge the pain of loss and the suffering of COVID survivors on a national scale. 

She and others have called on Congress to designate the first Monday in March as “COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day.” 

US Rep. Greg Stanton last year introduced a resolution last year to create this day of remembrance. Reps. Raúl Grijlava, Ruben Gallego, Ann Kirkpatrick, and Tom O’Halleran of Arizona co-sponsored it, along with 63 other Democratic House members.

US Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona last week signed on as a co-sponsor of the companion resolution in the Senate. 

Government Criticism

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and former head of the state health department, spoke at the memorial event about how he believes the state missed opportunities to intervene with policies that would have decreased the spread of COVID. 

“Sadly, we didn’t need to lose as many lives as we lost,” he said. “I think all of us here know that.” 

Humble noted that in the summer of 2020 and the winter of 2020-2021, businesses were asked to operate with US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety measures in mind, but those measures were not enforced. During both of those periods, Humble noted, Arizona was named a global hotspot for the virus. 

“Those same environments, closed indoor environments with alcohol, with poor ventilation, we knew by then … that those were the real amplifiers of this virus,” Humble said, “and yet they were open with impunity.” 

Humble also criticized the lack of requirements to show proof of vaccination before entering “fun places” like bars, nightclubs, and more. 

“Simple policy interventions could have made such a difference, and yet the governor refused,” Humble said. 

Unfinished Business

The event’s speakers also cautioned that the current decrease in cases does not mean the pandemic is over. 

Raymond Embry, CEO of Embry Health, talked about how his women’s health company ramped up to operate drive-thru COVID testing. He said his company has had to fight to convince government officials and other organizations of the importance of testing whenever COVID case numbers have gone down. 

Embry stressed the importance of keeping testing free to battle any future jumps in cases. 

“If there’s another surge, our country will not be prepared two months from now as COVID-19 funding dries up,” Embry said. “ … I encourage every person here, write your congressmen, write your senators, tell them to not get caught in partisan politics and to ensure that COVID-19 funding for vaccines, testing, and antiviral treatment continues.” 

Dr. Carmen Hill-Mekob, Embry Health’s chief nursing officer, was hospitalized with COVID herself and described “bargaining with God” for more time to live. She said she keeps an oxygen tank next to her bed to remind her that the fight is not over. 

She also warned that the country must stay vigilant to prevent more suffering due to the virus. 

“I know that if we’re not proactive about this, and we wait for it to tap us on our back, then we will have many more of these situations where we’re honoring COVID survivors and family members that we lost,” Hill-Mekob said, “and that’s just too much to bargain.”

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