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Flags, tears mark 627 dead from COVID-19 in Pima County

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Luis, 7, comforts his grandmother, Lupita Fierro, at the COVID-19 Week of Mourning ceremony at Himmel Park on Oct. 4. Fierro, along with her children and grandchildren, was grieving for her late husband Luis Fierro, 53, who died of complications from COVID-19 in July. - John de Dios/TucsonSentinel.com

More by Paul Ingram

As the sun set Sunday evening, Tucson Fire Department bagpiper Joey Crandall played the first strains of "Amazing Grace," as he stood behind ranks of American flags—627 in all—each marking a person who died from COVID-19 in Pima County.

Installed by volunteers on Sunday evening, the flags were part of a national COVID-19 remembrance, which included an event at the National Mall in Washington D.C. in which organizers placed 200,000 folding chairs to represent those killed in the U.S. by the viral outbreak. All told, nearly 202,000 people have died from the disease, and more than 7.3 million have been infected in the U.S., according to the COVID Tracking Project. This includes President Donald Trump, who was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday, and has been in treatment over the weekend.  

In Arizona, more than 220,000 people have tested positive for the disease, and 5,706 people have died. In recent months, Pima County saw a decreasing number of cases since the peak on July 30 of 640 confirmed cases in a single day, however, in recent week, the county faced a second spike largely attributed to the return of University of Arizona students. Following a spike of 346 cases, Pima County health officials ordered students to "shelter-in-place" until September 29. 

According to the COVID Tracking Project, 2.9 million people have recovered from the disease in the U.S., while nearly 30,000 remain hospitalized, but there remain serious questions about the long-term effects of the disease, including people known as "long-haulers" who continue to suffer deleterious effects months after their initial symptoms. 

At Himmel Park, about 35 people attended the event at the northern end, where a rising grassy hill was covered in the rows of flags. 

The event was organized by Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik, who began the event by noting that the flags would be at Himmel Park for the week, allowing people to take their time, and to celebrate and mourn loved ones when they felt it was safe or comfortable. "One of the most excruciating parts of this is that when people are sick, there's often an inability for people to spend time with them," Kozachik said, sitting on a stool with a guitar in hand. In front of him, a single flag flew representing those who didn't attend Sunday night, either because they couldn't or because they were uncomfortable with being in the public because of the virus's continued spread. 

The day of morning was put together by COVID Survivors for Change, a non-partisan group that describes itself as community of families of victims of the novel coronavirus, as well as survivors from the disease. Among its goals is to share stories about loved ones who have died from the disease and to "advocate for a stronger pandemic response to help save the lives of others." 

Before the event began, a few people placed photographs of loved ones at the base of the flags. Monica Mueller, and her friend Jim, placed a photograph of her father, Gerhard Mueller, who died in Manhattan this past April. Later, Mueller and her friend sat in the grass and listened to Kozachik speak. 

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After speaking, Kozachik played an acoustic guitar version of Lady Gaga's "I'll Never Love Again," from the movie "A Star is Born." As Kozachik worked though the song, singing "Wish I could, I could've said goodbye," Lupita Fierro began to sob. 

Fierro, 51, met her husband Luis when they were nine years old in South Tucson. They grew up together, and fell in love, she said, dating in high school before marrying. Together, they had three children together, including two twin girls, and three grandchildren. Luis, her husband of 38 years, died in July from COVID-19. 

Fierro described her husband as a "teddy bear," a big man with a big heart and a big voice that he used to keep kids in line as a bus monitor for Tucson Unified School District. "He loved the kids," Fierro said, as her grandson, Luisito hung at her side. "He had so much patience for those kids—more than he did for his own kids," she laughed. "He wanted to make sure they were okay, he would bring them cookies, or other snacks, he would bring them cards, or Valentines, so they knew that he cared," Fierro said. "He wanted to make sure they were okay. And, they listened to him, because he had a big voice." 

As the sun began to set, and the flags wavered, Fierro described her husband's love of cooking. "He loved to cook," she said. "He would cook for anyone. Especially for the church, because he wanted to do right by god. The church would call him, ask him to make carne asada, beans, everything, and he'd start putting it together," she said. 

When Luis got sick, she said, so did everyone else in the family. But, Luis, wracked by diabetes and high-blood pressure got sicker and sicker, and then he died on July 13. "For us, it was just a simple cold, but for him...." she trailed off. Her husband spent a week on a ventilator before he died, she said. "It's so hard to lose him," Fierro said. 

After Kozachik sang, Rabbi Scott Saulson, the interim head of the nearby Temple Emanu-El, spoke and asked for a "healing spirit to bring comfort to those who would mourn." 

Saulson also had sharp words for those in charge of the response to coronavirus. The virus, he said had been "abetted by sheer stupidity, misinformation, arrogance, and ill-preparedness," he said. "And, by the belief that duty has no place in a free society." 

After Crandall finished his song, a few people went to view the flags, and Kozachik went to collect his guitar. The event, he said was way to mark those who died individually. "You know 200,000 people have died, north of 200,000 people, and 6 million have been infected, the number is meaningless now," Kozachik said. "So, it was nice to bring people together so they could reflect in their own way on their own loss." 

"We're inviting people to experience their own loss," he said. "Sort of in their own community, and also in their own personal way," he said.  

The sun dipped below the Tucson Mountains, and the sky grew dim, and in the fading light, Fierro's youngest grandchild, 3, laughed and sent his uncle raspberries, each one muffled by his mask. 

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She sighed. "An event like this is hard," she said. "But, I appreciate it. I really do, that someone cares about him." 

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