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San Diego County residents lost to COVID-19: 1,000 and counting

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 12/2/2020 Gary Warth, Paul Sisson
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: A crowd gathers to mourn the death of Victor Ray Cruz, who died from COVID-19 after an outbreak in jail, outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in September. (Kristian Carreon / For the San Diego Union-Tribune) © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune A crowd gathers to mourn the death of Victor Ray Cruz, who died from COVID-19 after an outbreak in jail, outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in September. (Kristian Carreon / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

It began March 22 with news that a San Diego County resident in his early 70s had died in a Santa Clara hospital of COVID-19.

The death was reported with a banner headline on the front page of The San Diego Union-Tribune, along with information that the county had banned all gatherings at parks and beaches.

That was just the 30th death in California at the time.

"Our sympathies and condolences go out to the individual's family and friends," county Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten said in announcing the man's death. It was a phrase she would repeat many times in the months to come.

On Tuesday, San Diego County reached a grim milestone, reporting on the first day of a new month that COVID-19 deaths have now passed 1,000.

It is impossible, at the moment, to say exactly who was the 1,000th person to succumb to the disease because it often takes days, or even weeks, for COVID-related deaths to make it into the county health department's daily updates.

That's because the county does not release information to the public until after a death certificate has been issued, and various factors can delay the process.

At the moment, the 1,000th entry on the saddest list that the county has maintained throughout the pandemic is a 71-year-old East County man of Asian heritage who died, with other complicating medical conditions present, on Nov. 24.

But it's quite possible, perhaps even likely, that the health department will receive notification of a death that occurred before that date, changing the specific order of things a bit.

The official count hit four digits Tuesday, reaching 1,019 on a day when the number of new cases jumped by 1,378, pushing the region's 14-day positive test rate to 6.3 percent, more than double the rate sustained for months after the last significant spike in July.

chart: Another grim milestone: 1,019 COVID-19 deaths © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune Another grim milestone: 1,019 COVID-19 deaths

Local deaths announced Tuesday were among 1,251 additional pandemic-connected fatalities nationwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pushing the national total to 267,302.

San Diego County's latest COVID-19 update included an additional 50 people with confirmed or suspected coronavirus infections who were admitted at hospitals across the county Monday, the largest single-day gain shown in county records since the pandemic began.

Even with COVID-19 now taking up 732 local hospital beds, there was still significant bed capacity available, allowing medical centers to continue treating more than 4,000 admitted for reasons other than the coronavirus.

Perhaps the saddest part of the latest pandemic milestone is that it took three zeros for the total to become shocking again.

Surpassing 700, 800, 900 local deaths — numbers that would have caused blaring headlines were it the flu, not coronavirus involved — were relative footnotes among the latest trends in positive tests, state tier reports and businesses reopenings.

Though the death rate has dropped somewhat since the spring due to an overall younger group of residents getting sick, on average, the county has seen four deaths a day related to COVID-19 since the first fatality in March.

Two days later, health officials announced another elderly San Diegan had also died of COVID-19. By the end of the week, an 87-year-old woman became the third county resident to die of the disease.

On March 30, health officials in Riverside County reported that a pharmacy technician who had died of COVID-19 earlier that week was a San Diego resident. At 25, his death was a reminder that the virus could be fatal to all ages.

And then on April 1 came news that five more county residents, with ages ranging from 71 to 83, had died of COVID-19.

Considering the toll death was rising globally and nationwide, the first local deaths seemed inevitable. Still, there were skeptics, including some who believed the virus was no worse than the flu.

Some people also suggested that the media was trying to artificially inflate the number COVID-19 deaths by including the men who died in Santa Clara and Riverside.

That claim faded away as the local death toll continued to rise, especially among older residents. Within four months, the death toll had reached 478, surpassing the 343 local influenza deaths reported in the entire 2017-18 flu season, July through June 30, one of the deadliest seasons in recent memory.

But the deaths are more than numbers. They're family members, friends and neighbors to county residents.

They include Tom Dempsey, an alumnus of San Dieguito High and Palomar College who played 11 seasons in the NFL.

Chief Petty Officer Charles Thacker, who was based in San Diego and became first sailor and first active-duty service member to die of COVID-19.

Juan Encarnacion Estrada, who was 69 and one of several nursing home residents who contracted COVID-19 this year. He died July 7.

Shipyard worker Ignacio “Nacho” Uribe was 53 when he died in early July.

Air Force veteran Derik Williams was one week shy of turning 55 when he died in July. Otherwise healthy and fit, Williams participated in obstacle course events known as Spartan races, and the La Mesa gym he attended held an outdoor workout to raise funds for his family.

And they include Mary Myers, who would have been 96 years old on Thanksgiving.

"She was a great person all around," said her friend and former neighbor Allen Stanko, a retired high school algebra teacher who taught at Santana High School. "She wouldn’t do anybody wrong."

Myers was no celebrity, but was known by many San Diegans over the past several decades. She once owned a popular Pacific Beach bar near Crystal Pier in the 1970s, an Ocean Beach bar named M&M, the Hillcrest bar The Flame and another bar on 5th Avenue in downtown San Diego.

Stanko knew her as the owner of the Canyon Inn, a bar the Los Angeles Times once referred to as the the de-facto town hall of Harbison Canyon, a rural community west of Alpine. The Canyon Inn burned down in the 2003 Cedar Fire.

Stanko said Myers didn't have a family other than a nephew she occasionally mentioned. He didn't know much about her personal history, but knew her father was in the Navy and the family lived in Florida for a while.

Stanko said Myers used to tell him stories about life in San Diego from the days when it was easy to walk across the border to Tijuana. She would make what he called Mexican meatloaf for patrons at the Canyon Inn and sometimes dim the lights and hang out after hours to drink with her customers.

"Talk about interesting," he said. "How do I describe Mary? In the Canyon Inn, everybody was friendly. It was the local bar. Everybody knew each other."

Myers lived next to the bar and Stanko lived across the street. The two become close friends over the years, and he continued to visit her after she sold the Canyon Inn.

A few years ago, Myers fell and badly injured her leg. Stanko said she moved into Villa Las Palmas Healthcare Center in El Cajon, which this month had the greatest number of active COVID-19 cases in the county.

Stanko said he thinks he was the only person who visited her, but those visits stopped in March as congregate facilities prohibited guests because of the pandemic.

"I got a call maybe two weeks ago," he said. "They said, 'We just want to let you know that Mary Myers tested positive for coronavirus.' I said, 'Oh, no,' but what am I going to do? I haven't been able to see her since March anyway."

A few days later, a staff member called to tell Stanko that Myers died Nov. 11.

Stanko had read that The San Diego Union-Tribune was asking friends and family members who had lost someone to COVID-19 to share memories of their loved ones, and he wanted people to know about his friend, Mary.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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