Kristin Urquiza, 39, was grieving over the fact that her family could only allow about a dozen people at the burial of her father, Mark Anthony Urquiza, after his long battle against the coronavirus.
“It was so heartbreaking — my father deserved to have his entire community there to put him to rest,” Kristin told NBC News about the service on Wednesday, in Phoenix, Arizona. “We have a really large Latino family, and culturally, when there’s a funeral or a wedding or a birth, we like to come together.”
But while her family reluctantly held a small ceremony, “I think that elected officials and the governors can make tough decisions to make sure that we keep as many Arizonans as safe as possible,” she said.
While many families have publicly expressed their grief in the last few months over the deaths of their loved ones from coronavirus, the Urquiza family has touched a nerve for publicly stating their anger — and blasting elected officials for what they see as inactions that have deadly consequences.
“I was gripped not only by grief, but by anger and rage, that his life didn’t seem to matter to the people in charge,” said Kristin. “They have blood on their hands. People are dying.”
In a gesture that has resonated and gone viral, the family wrote an obituary in the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, calling out “the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership, refusal to acknowledge the severity of the crisis and inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize risk.”
She also held an “ofrenda” (altar) ceremony in memory of her dad in front of the state’s capitol and invited the governor to her father’s funeral; she said she hasn’t heard back.
Her father, nicknamed Black Jack because he loved playing the card game as a kid, is one of over 2,150 people in Arizona who have died of COVID-19. Cases have skyrocketed since May, after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey lifted stay-at-home orders, quickly reopened businesses and went on local news “to encourage people to get out and about, to take a loved one to dinner, to go retail shopping.“
“That made it really difficult for me, in talking to my dad and other people about what is actually safe,” said Kristin. “In the case of my father, he thought it was safe because the governor of Arizona said it was safe to go out to a restaurant,” she said. “I don’t know exactly where he contracted the virus, but he contracted it within three weeks of the state opening. At the same time, Gov. Ducey was encouraging people to go back to normal life.”
Ducey resisted allowing cities to put their own measures in place to contain the virus, arguing that statewide directives avoid a patchwork of regulations. It wasn’t until mid-June that he allowed Arizona mayors to make face masks mandatory.
In a letter on July 6 she addressed to Ducey, Kristin said her “father contracted the virus during the period when you forbade local governments from implementing their own safety measures, such as mandating the wearing of masks.”
In response to the family’s criticism, Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for Ducey’s office, told NBC News via email that their “hearts go out to the family and loved ones of Mark Anthony Urquiza. We know nothing can fully alleviate the pain associated with his loss, and every loss from this virus is tragic.”
Available ethnicity data shows that Latinos are being disproportionately hit by the virus in several states across the country. In Arizona, Latinos make up about a quarter — 23 percent — of Arizona’s nearly 120,000 coronavirus cases; they represent about a third of the state’s population.
Mark was 65 and had no pre-existing conditions, said Kristin. He became ill with a high fever and a cough on June 11. He was hospitalized and later transferred to the ICU.
“Every time we tried to call him, I could barely hear his voice because of the machines in the room,” said Kristin. “I don’t think the public quite realizes what this living nightmare is like. You can’t see your loved one once they’re hospitalized.”
Mark was then put on a ventilator and he passed away on June 30.
“He ended up dying alone in an ICU room with a nurse holding his hand. My father did not deserve that and nearly 2,000 Arizonans who have died from COVID-19 do not deserve that,” said Kristin.
Looking for a “consistent mandate”
On Thursday, Ducey started requiring “restaurants with indoor seating to operate at less than 50 percent capacity,” weeks after encouraging people “to take a loved one to dinner.” He also took action “to prohibit large gatherings, cease the issuance of new special event licenses and pause the operations of bars, gyms, movie theaters, waterparks and tubing rentals.” There are no statewide mandates on wearing masks.
Diego Lozano, 28, said his grandfather was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 at a time when “he already requires a lot of medical attention. He’s diabetic and needs dialysis as well.”
Lozano said his family doesn’t know how their grandfather, who is 75, contracted the virus, but they believe he was exposed to it at church or by someone who works at the transportation company that picks him up for his dialysis
“Some of them would show up with no mask. While we were wearing masks, our leader was not mandating masks,” he said about Gov. Ducey. “I feel like if there was a consistent mandate being enforced by our leaders, people would act more responsibly.”
Lozano said all the places where his grandfather normally went to treat his preexisting conditions were not equipped to deal with a COVID-19 patient. They tried reaching out to hospitals for help, but most of them were at capacity and wouldn’t take their grandfather in unless he was “experiencing the most severe symptoms of COVID-19.”
“He was constantly being denied and denied and it was very frustrating and stressful,” said Lozano.
Over a week later, the family found a hospital willing to treat their grandfather, but “they’re trying to discharge him already,” said Lozano. “Our biggest worry is that we’re not equipped to take care of our grandfather at the house while he has COVID and is experiencing all these other medical conditions.”
Arizona is the state with the highest rate of coronavirus-related hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It became the first state to trigger “crisis care” standards, giving hospitals more leeway on how to allocate resources and decide who gets treatment. About 90 percent of the state’s intensive care unit beds are occupied, according to Arizona’s Department of Health Services.
Mark Urquiza’s death and the circumstances surrounding it compelled Kristin to start a social media campaign called “Marked by Covid” to amplify the stories of families that have gone through her same pain.
“I’m completely enraged by the lack of decisive clear direction, the downplaying of this virus by both the Ducey administration and the Trump administration,” said Kristin. “Their actions have put needless people’s lives at risk.”
“I’m compelled to speak up, not just to rectify my father’s legacy,” she added, “but to be able to draw attention to how core leadership and terrible policy is responsible for these surge in cases that we’re seeing here in the United States.”