Communities in San Diego County's South Bay have seen incredible losses since the start of the pandemic. While progress is being made, there are still more COVID-19 cases being reported in that part of the region.
NBC 7 took a closer look at the community of Chula Vista; the lives lost, the small businesses that have had to close and the healthcare workers who have been on the frontline for more than a year now.
"It was surreal. I think that’s the best word to use for it,” said Charlotte Thoms, an ICU Nurse at Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista.
“Chula Vista has been hard hit,” said Thomas’ colleague, Juan Manuel Tovar, M.D. He’s the Physician Chief Operations Executive and ER Physician at Scripps Mercy.
NBC 7 also spoke with a lead clinical nurse at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, who like Thomas and Tovar, has seen more loss in one community than they could have imagined.
“It was just moments when we needed a little bit of time, take five minutes, cry if we need to. It was intense,” said Valdez, as he looked back on the challenging year.
Healthcare workers have had to deliver heartbreaking news to family members about the loss of their loved ones. Some who passed include grandparents, like Antonio Arellano; fathers, like Raul Martinez, a veteran and retired CHP officer; and essential workers, like Gerardo Gonzalez, a father of four.
Disparities became more obvious through the pandemic.
“We knew that we were going to have our hands full,” said Tovar.
“Many of the essential workers are Hispanic. Many of us live together,” said Valdez, as he explained the increase for exposure in multigenerational homes.
Some people have been working through the pandemic, often, with hours cut and pay slashed.
“We had five servers that were close to losing their apartments. One did,” shared Joseph Raso, an owner at La Bella Pizza Garden on Third Avenue.
Other people lost their jobs and many small businesses shut down for good, like Mangio Italiano, a well-known restaurant on Third Avenue.
“We’re tired. We really are. When they said no, I had no more fight left in me,” said Adam Sparks, owner of Mangio Italiano.
But even on the darkest days for businesses and in the hospital, when Thomas said they had filled every bed and merged onto another floor, the Chula Vista community always rose above.
“That’s the amazing thing about Chula Vista, everyone wanted to help and they sent food," Thomas said with a shining smile.
Some loved ones made making miraculous recoveries.
“They call me the miracle,” said Rosario Rodriguez, a grandmother who fought for her life in the hospital nearly 50 days. “It was a challenge and I made it.”
Matilde Perez, also a grandmother from Chula Vista, spent roughly the same number of days in the hospital. She also overcame the virus. “There was a big chance that I wasn’t going to make it.”
Perez said her family is what pushed her through the fight. “My grandchildren are the most beautiful babies in the world,” she said.
Thomas, Tovar and Valdez said it’s the success stories that help keep them going through difficult days. The three now relieved to see fewer patients in the hospital. And a decline in cases.
“It’s more of a feeling like, wow, this is how it’s supposed to be. Things are more relaxed,” said Valdez.
Because of encouraging numbers, more restrictions have been lifted. Businesses have reopened and people have been able to return to work.
“Thank God we were able to stay afloat,” said Chula Vista Brewery head brewer, James Hodges.
Limited indoor operations have resumed at some restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and at Chula Vista Brewery.
“It’s nice to get back to what we used to call a normal lifestyle,” Hodges said.
Valdez said a close-to-normal lifestyle is on the horizon, with the help of vaccines.
Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salis said she’s proud of the progress being made.
“We are so thankful to the county for really focusing so much here in the South Bay to get us through this,” Solis said.
“We’re such a strong community, we have the passion, we have the love to keep moving forward,” said Valdez.
The three healthcare workers stressed how important it is to continue following safety precautions, like physical distancing, wearing masks and wash hands often.