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Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia On Losing His Mother To COVID-19

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, pictured in 2016, says his mother "found" the American dream. She died of COVID-19 in July.
Carlos Delgado
AP Images for Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau
Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, pictured in 2016, says his mother "found" the American dream. She died of COVID-19 in July.

For most public officials, battling the coronavirus and keeping their constituents safe is an incredible professional challenge.

For Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, it's also personal: His mother died of COVID-19 complications last month at age 61.

His mother, Gaby O'Donnell, was a medical assistant for more than 25 years in Southern California. She immigrated from her native Peru with 5-year-old Garcia and other family members in 1982.

"My mom was not just an amazing woman, but she was my best friend and lived such a great and joyous life," Garcia tells NPR's Noel King. "And to lose her is very difficult. But I also know that her work as a health care worker was so important to her, especially in this moment. So we'll do everything we can to honor her and to continue to keep people safe."

The number of coronavirus cases in Long Beach is slightly lower per capita than in Los Angeles County as a whole. The latest data show more than 8,300 total cases in Long Beach; 178 people have died as of Monday. Long Beach is a city of about 460,000.

Discussions with his mother about her experience in health care influenced Garcia's approach to mitigating the coronavirus in Long Beach, he says.

"She understood, early on, that this was a very serious virus and she would talk about that to me," Garcia says. "And that also informed our policy. ... In Long Beach, we had the slowest reopening plan of any city in Southern California. We were a week or two behind everyone else. And we were very cautious. And I think a lot of that was because the seriousness of how my mom took it."

Garcia's stepfather also has COVID-19 and remains on a ventilator, he says. Garcia doesn't know how they contracted the virus, but he says his mother was very cautious: full protective gear at work, always wore a mask, rarely left the house outside of work.

"She understood the dangers of COVID-19," he says. "And if someone like my mom can get it, anyone can."

While his mother was in a hospital on a ventilator, Garcia spent time talking with doctors and nurses. It underscored the gravity of the situation. "They need our help," he says. "They need to keep hospital beds empty."

Hospitalizations in Los Angeles County were down by about 12% over the weekend from the weekend before.

Still, Garcia says he's been "incredibly frustrated" that a significant number of people seem to not take the threat of coronavirus seriously.

It's "completely irresponsible and quite frankly, shows no compassion or kindness to helping the people that are the most vulnerable."

But Garcia notes that his mother came to the U.S. in pursuit of the American dream — and "found it." She had a "lot of hope and appreciation for the country."

As the U.S. confronts both a pandemic and a reckoning over racial injustice, Garcia says that optimism from his mother remains.

"I think that we're in a moment that we're learning that a lot of our institutions or values are not as strong as we thought they were or imagined them to be," he says. But "I am still optimistic and very proud of our country. I think that we are going to look at this moment and learn and get better."

NPR's Taylor Haney and Simone Popperl produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
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