Instantly, Vanielle Blackhorse knew something was wrong — as if someone flipped a switch. Although she was born one year and 10 months after her sister, Valentina Blackhorse, most people assumed they were twins. It was more than a family resemblance; the sisters also had that type of deep connection associated with those who share a womb, including the ability to communicate without actually saying a word.
“We were so close to each other that if there was something wrong with her, I would know,” says Vanielle. “And she was the same: if something was bothering me — if I was hurt, or sad — she would know. We had that really strong bond.” In recent years, they’d both become mothers, further strengthening their connection. “Our daughters were born two weeks apart,” Vanielle says. “To be able to experience being pregnant together was awesome, and something that I cherished.”
On April 22, 2020, Valentina tested positive for Covid-19. The following day, Vanielle says that feeling she shared with her sister suddenly disappeared. “As soon as that strong connection was gone, I felt uneasy,” she tells Rolling Stone. “That’s when my mom got the call from the clinic saying she had passed.” Valentina was 28.
Two years later, Vanielle, now 28 herself, works for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, and still lives in Kayenta, Arizona — the town where she, Valentina, and their older sister Victoria grew up. Located within the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, the city of roughly 5,500 people is about 20 miles from the familiar red sandstone formations of Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii, or Monument Valley.
“It’s been two years, and I’m still trying to adjust to life without my sister,” Vanielle says. “She was my rock. We could tell each other anything — secrets we never told anyone else. She literally took my secrets to her grave, and I’m taking hers to mine as well.”
But Vanielle still feels her sister’s presence — especially through Valentina’s three-year-old daughter Poet, whom she is now raising with help from the rest of her family. “My niece is a spitting image of her mom,” says Vanielle. “They even have similar facial expressions.”
And while Poet was always going to be a big part of Vanielle’s life, this isn’t quite what she envisioned. “I remember texting my sister when she was in the ER, saying ‘You’re going to be OK, you’re going to come back,’” Vanielle recalls, “because we had things planned as sisters, as moms.”
Valentina is one of the thousands of Americans in their twenties who have died from Covid-19: a demographic dismissed throughout the pandemic as being relatively safe from severe illness or death resulting from the virus. Now, two years and at least one million Covid-19 deaths later, much of the country is acting as though the pandemic is a chapter of the country’s history that has been closed. Seemingly, a death toll that’s already unimaginably high has made some people willing to accept additional human losses as unavoidable casualties in their crusade for normalcy.
But to Vanielle and thousands of others, their loved ones who died from Covid are more than numbers. And no matter how many times public health officials stress that people in that age group who are otherwise healthy will survive a Covid infection, their losses and grief are real.
When Angela Padula gets into her car, the first thing she does is make sure that her “safe playlist” is queued up. It’s got music from Tom Petty, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Modest Mouse, but it’s not a carefully curated collection of her favorite songs. In fact, Padula put far more thought into the music she wanted to avoid — particularly, “Truly Madly Deeply” by Savage Garden.
Soon after she and Dennis Bradt got engaged in February 2020, they chose the 1997 hit as their wedding song, and set their date: June 18, 2022. But their plans quickly changed, when Bradt, an addiction counselor at an inpatient treatment facility, contracted Covid-19 in early April, and died a month later at the age of 29. “Music is still really hard,” says Padula. “So I have my little playlist with songs I can listen to that won’t bring up our wedding song or anything else we listened to together.”
Padula and Bradt met in June 2018, and moved in together two months later. “I think subconsciously, we knew we didn’t have a lot of time, because things moved really fast,” Padula tells Rolling Stone. “But it also felt like we knew each other forever.” They soon began making plans for the future. “We were going to start trying to have kids this year — after we got married,” she adds.
In addition to sharing a sense of humor and a love of Nineties music, Bradt and Padula, a special-education teacher, both understood the joys and demands that came with careers centered on helping others. “He loved his job, his patients — everything,” Padula says.
Bradt first got sick on April 5 and was finally hospitalized on April 14, after being turned away once because he didn’t meet the criteria to even get tested for Covid-19, Padula explains. On the morning of April 17, she got a call from the hospital letting her know that Bradt had been put on a ventilator.
By mid-May, Bradt’s condition had improved enough that his doctors decided that he no longer needed to be on the ventilator, and scheduled him for a tracheostomy. “After his trach surgery, we got a call saying it went great, and we were all excited and so happy,” Padula says. “Then a half-hour later he had a heart attack because he was on the ventilator for so long.” Bradt died on May 13, 2020.
Unable to bear returning to the home she and Bradt had shared, Padula opted to spend the night at her parents’ house. The next morning, her mother found her in a trancelike state, pacing around the kitchen. “I had a nervous breakdown,” she says. “I remember thinking that I just wanted to throw something or break something, but we had to go to the funeral home to set everything up for his cremation.”
Later that day, Padula was admitted to the local hospital, and spent the night in the psychiatric unit. “I knew I was actively suicidal the night that [he] died, and stopped eating and drinking,” she says. “When I first got to the hospital, I saw someone who looked just like Dennis in the waiting room, and had a major freakout — so they got me [into a private room] as soon as possible.”
As it turned out, it was a good thing Padula wasn’t in the public area for too long: the following day she tested positive for Covid-19. “I was put in a Covid wing, hearing people die every day, so that didn’t help,” she says.
After about 10 days in the hospital, Padula went home and slowly began making changes: dyeing her hair, updating her wardrobe, and getting new furniture. She also started therapy and new medications. Though Padula had lived with depression most of her life, she was now dealing with anxiety and the trauma of Bradt’s sudden death, while grieving for him and the life they had planned together.
According to Melissa Flint, PsyD, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Midwestern University Glendale who specializes in thanatology — the study of death, dying, and bereavement — in addition to the loss itself, part of what makes these kinds of deaths particularly traumatic is that they’re happening out of order.
“A lot of the helplessness, anger, and frustration comes in because none of this fits in our storyline,” says Flint, who also has a private practice where she works with people grieving a traumatic loss. “Obviously, we know we need to make turns when life throws us curveballs, but who asks a 20-something-year-old to adjust to having a dead spouse or a dead fiance? And Covid demanded that with no preparation, in a society that’s already death-phobic.”
These deaths become even more difficult to process when you factor in the societal eagerness-turned-desperation for the pandemic to be over. “There’s something about [a person’s] right to grieve, and the right to slow down, and the right to honor [the deceased] that’s being denied — swept up in this need to act as if Covid never happened,” Flint tells Rolling Stone. “We’re basically demanding that [people who’ve lost loved ones to Covid] move forward because we’re all ‘ready’ to move forward.”
After losing Bradt, Padula says that she quickly learned how important it was to do what was right for her — even when that meant cutting people out of her life who brought her down. “You have to really pay attention to your own needs,” she stresses. “And surround yourself with people who will support you, not enable you.”
Krystal Lopez was 22 and newly married when she dealt with the loss of her first pregnancy. She’d noticed bleeding, and knew something was off, so she went to the hospital. The doctors didn’t believe anything was wrong, telling her that unless “it looked like someone killed a pig,” there wasn’t enough blood to cause concern, she says. Even though she insisted she needed care, they sent her away three separate times. The fourth time, Lopez, who was then five-months pregnant, says she spent the day in labor. “Then they sent me home,” she tells Rolling Stone, leaving her to experience the physical loss without medical care. “It was very traumatic.”
Less than a year later, in March 2020, Lopez found herself in a disturbingly similar situation when she had to bring her husband, Israel Sauz, to three clinics before finding one that took his Covid-19 symptoms seriously. “If I close my eyes, I can relive every second of it,” she says. “And to be sent home again — I felt like [the doctors] did the same thing to me twice.”
The outcome was also the same: Sauz died on April 5, 2020, at the age of 22. “Everything happened so fast,” Lopez says. “From the time we lost our first child to the time I lost my husband was 11 months. I buried my child, and I turned around and buried my husband.”
Before enduring multiple traumatic events in Oklahoma hospitals, Lopez and Sauz were focused on starting their life together. The pair first met in 2016, when they were both in high school. “We had our senior English class together,” Lopez says. “He sat in front of me, but we never talked. It wasn’t until we graduated that we started being interested in each other. And it took off from there.”
They started dating, and eventually married in 2019. “We figured that we both found our match in each other,” Lopez says. “And life started to move pretty fast.” Within months of getting married, she was pregnant with their first child. Soon after experiencing that loss, she got pregnant again, and on March 1, 2020, gave birth to a son named Josiah.
“His daddy passed a month and a few days after he was born,” Lopez explains. “He barely saw his dad.” But in that short time, they had started making plans for their family’s future. “We wanted to have more children,” she says. “We wanted to build a house, get some property out in the country, animals. Just be happy together, you know?”
Lopez, now 25, is a stay-at-home-mom, raising Josiah by herself. “It makes me sad for my child, because he needs me as a mom, but some days I’m just numb,” she explains. “I have to be a single parent. I have to do every ‘first’ with my child by myself. I have to make all the big decisions. It’s not easy.”
To Lopez, Sauz was more than her partner. “For me, Israel was happiness,” she says. “He was always happy and smiling — a big, beautiful smile. He could just walk in and make it better.” And now, two years later, she says that she’s still processing the loss — something Flint says is to be expected after the death of someone so close, especially when additional trauma is involved.
“When [your partner] dies, it’s like your world gets shifted,” Lopez explains. “Nothing’s the same. I live in the same spot where we used to live, and I can look around and feel like I’m in a different world. I look in the mirror and don’t recognize the person I used to be, or how happy I used to be. I just don’t feel the same things. Some days, I don’t feel anything.”
What hangs over Lopez’s head is the fact that each time she tried to get help, both for herself and her husband, she was turned away. “Whether it was my race — or because I’m not a certain race or color — or because I’m young, it’s not right,” she says. “If someone comes in saying something’s wrong, why send them home?”
The dismissive medical system Lopez encountered is unfortunately not unique. For example, one 2021 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that there were “profound racial/ethnic disparities” in those who died from Covid-19. Separate research from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), published in February 2022, indicates that general Covid-related discrimination towards non-white adults in America has gotten worse during the pandemic.
And it’s not limited to Covid-related healthcare: Paula D. Strassle, PhD, lead author on the study, says that racial and ethnic discrimination also limits access to routine and preventative care, as well as emergency treatment — like the kind Lopez says she was repeatedly denied. “I don’t trust doctors and anything that they have to say,” Lopez says. “I understand that yes, they might be helping some, but they are killing others.”
By the time the last light left the sky on July 4, 2017, the streets of Alexandria, Louisiana were already filled with people looking to snag the best spots to watch the town’s annual fireworks display. But John Carter had a different idea.
He had only met Clair Fuqua, a friend-of-a-friend, for the first time earlier that evening, but they hit it off immediately — so much so that Carter was confident that she would be up for an adventure. And she was.
“I grabbed her by the hand and we took off through the crowd of hundreds of people on the street,” Carter, now 30, tells Rolling Stone. “We climbed up on the levee and watched the fireworks — cracking each other up the whole time.”
The pair made their way down the levee and towards a bar where they’d rejoin their friends. “I started bragging about my dancing skills,” Carter says. “That’s when I slipped off the sidewalk and sprained my ankle.”
But he wasn’t down for long. “It turned out Clair had been a state-champion-level powerlifter, and she actually could carry me, despite being 4’10,”” he explains. “She just hoisted me up, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s never happened before.’” They did manage to get in a dance, though Carter was in no condition to show off his moves.
At the end of the night, he entered his contact information into Fuqua’s phone, saving it under “Your Future Husband.” They moved in together three weeks later.
“It sounds like the plot of a bad romance novel, but it was my life, for a time,” Carter says. “I was never an overly romantic person, but when I met Clair, I was like, ‘Oh, this is what people are talking about when you meet the perfect person.’”
By the end of 2017, Carter and Fuqua knew they wanted to get married and start a family, but decided to enjoy being together as a couple first, while they were still young. Two years later, they were ready to start putting down some roots. “Right after New Year’s 2020, I was finally able to get us a decent place: a little white house in Oakdale, Louisiana,” Carter says. “Clair was thrilled. She loved it.”
That March, they were still in the process of unpacking boxes after the move when Fuqua, a receptionist at a children’s clinic, developed a cough. The first time she went to the hospital, doctors dismissed her, saying it was “just a cough,” and promptly sent her home.
“In those early days, everyone was so nonchalant about it,” says Carter, who now works in finance and lives outside Marksville, Louisiana. “Every single person told us that it was no big deal and that it would pass. But I knew something was wrong. I hate myself for not being more strongly opinionated about it.”
Soon after that, Carter began experiencing excruciating back pain, while Fuqua’s cough got worse. When they sought treatment at their local hospital, they were turned away. They returned a few days later, both running fevers. And although the doctors maintained that Carter and Fuqua were fine, they ordered them each chest X-rays.
Eventually, they were both admitted after the resulting images revealed that they each had ground-glass opacities characteristic of Covid-19 infections — Carter’s were one on one side of his lungs, while Fuqua’s were on both. Fuqua was seen first, with Carter following several hours behind her. Once he was admitted, the doctors informed Carter that Fuqua was about to be put into a medically induced coma and intubated.
“They tell me she has a 50/50 chance of living,” Carter recalls. “And you’ve got to realize how crazy of a transition that is. We’re talking in less than 24 hours, they go from ‘she has a cough and we’re not sure if it’s serious,’ to a 50/50 chance to live. It still doesn’t feel real to this day. Like, how can your predictions be so far off?”
While Carter struggled to breathe and was placed on supplemental oxygen, Fuqua was moved to a larger hospital, where she died on April 2, 2020, at the age of 28.
“They notified me that she had passed while I was in the hospital myself,” Carter explains. “The nurses made a framed picture of her with a couple of her sayings written on there and brought it to me while I was in bed. It was honestly beautiful.”
Carter was released from the hospital five days later, and 20 lbs. lighter than when he was admitted. He spent the next six months alone in the house he and Fuqua were supposed to share, recovering from his own bout of Covid, and mourning his incalculable losses — including the future he had envisioned with Fuqua and would never get to experience.
“It tests your faith in everything — in the world in general — because if nothing’s safe, why do anything?” says Carter. “Why try for anything when it could be taken away from you randomly by something you could never see coming, and there’s literally nothing you could do about it? Why build anything? Why work on anything if the most important things in your life can just get snatched from you, you know?”
Over the course of the pandemic, our national obsession with Covid statistics has become increasingly complicated. On the one hand, keeping track of the number of new cases and deaths has been the way many people have wrapped their heads around a public health emergency of this scale. On the other, thinking about people in terms of numbers can have a dehumanizing effect.
And as these figures continue to increase, our grasp on what they actually mean decreases, says Sara Cordes, PhD, a psychology professor at Boston College whose research focuses on how people keep track of and process quantity. “Our brains are not equipped to handle large numbers that we’re not dealing with on a regular basis,” she tells Rolling Stone. “The problem is, when we’re talking about Covid, we’re talking about people’s lives — things that do matter, and something that should really have an emotional impact.”
The issue, Cordes explains, is the way the human mind works. “In any research we do with infants, we show them something over and over again, and eventually they get bored and look away,” she says. “And that’s what’s going on here with adults: they’re seeing [Covid deaths] over and over again in the news, and they can’t continue to be sad and upset about it every day.”
While this is, in a way, an effective coping mechanism — giving people the chance to avoid a life of perpetual mourning — Cordes says that it also has put us in a situation where much of the American public is unable to fully grasp that one million people have died from Covid-19. This, in turn, makes it difficult to comprehend the real impact these deaths have had on millions of their family members, partners, and friends, and the country as a whole.
“Given that we hear the Covid death toll on a daily basis, it does desensitize you to the magnitude of it all,” Cordes says. “So people want to take their masks off, live their lives, and move on, but there are so many people who’ve had their lives affected, and they’re not able to move on.”
This is something Carter has struggled with throughout the pandemic. “Nobody wants to be a Debbie Downer,” he says. “People would be like, ‘oh, did you see this sports thing?’ You couldn’t come back with, ‘People are dying!’ You don’t want to be the crazy person who’s constantly bringing up bad news, but it feels equally crazy to not bring up the fact that it is happening. If you were getting held up at gunpoint, nobody would ask you if you wanted to dance, you know?”
And for people like Carter and Lopez, the U.S. hitting the milestone of one million Covid deaths is a reminder of how the importance of their life-changing loss has been diluted, and reduced to a statistic in the wider pandemic narrative.
“Israel’s not just a number,” Lopez says. “He was somebody’s husband, father, son. He was a person. With him gone, our lives have all shifted and they will never be the same — never, you know? It’s changed everything for everyone.”
Indigenous pageants, like the ones Valentina and Vanielle Blackhorse participated in, bear little resemblance to those held in other parts of the country. “For the ones on Navajo Nation, you have to perform a skill or a talent in both our Navajo language and English,” Vanielle explains. Every pageant has its own rules. There are no swimsuit competitions, but contestants may be required to butcher a sheep. “It’s pretty different from the non-Indigenous pageants,” she says.
Valentina won many of the pageants she entered, holding titles including Miss Western Navajo, Miss Monument Valley High School, and Miss Diné College. She saw them as a way of being active in her community and culture: something Valentina hoped to continue through a career in politics.
“My sister always had plans and dreams to make a difference within the Navajo Nation, and I feel like she did,” Vanielle says. “She wanted to start her own pageant called ‘Miss Indigeous Beauty’; we were going to do it together. It was really important for her that the younger generation learn and keep our Navajo language and traditions going.”
At this point, Vanielle hasn’t ruled out starting the pageant herself. Similarly, while ongoing Covid-19 restrictions in the Navajo Nation have prevented Valentina’s family and community from gathering to mourn their loss and celebrate her life, Vanielle says that her parents were considering holding a memorial powwow in her name down the line. “It’s something [Valentina] would have liked, since she was a dancer and enjoyed going to powwows,” she says.
In fact, it was something they both enjoyed. “Dancing together in a powwow was like our sister thing,” Vanielle explains. “Now that she’s gone, I told my mom, ‘I think I’m done,’ because I feel like I’m not going to be able to handle dancing again without her. But maybe one day that will change.”