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Family of Illinois’ 1st COVID-19 death reflects on pandemic anniversary: ‘I wish you never knew us’

On Mar. 16, 2020, Patricia Frieson, 61, sixth daughter in an African American family of nine siblings from the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, became the state’s first person to die of COVID-19. Tragically, nine days later, her sister, Wanda Bailey, 63, succumbed to the virus that had then claimed 26 lives. The Frieson family gathered to remember.

Patricia Frieson and Wanda Bailey, sisters, in their early 60s, in a family of nine siblings from the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, both died of COVID-10 in March 2020.
Provided

March 2 would have been the late Wanda Bailey’s 64th birthday.

Bailey’s sister, the late Patricia Frieson, would have been 62 on Nov. 27, had the retired nurse not succumbed on March 16, 2020, to the novel coronavirus, a disease declared a global pandemic five days earlier.

Frieson, the sixth daughter in an African American family of nine siblings from Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, became the first person to die of COVID-19 in Illinois.

The nation’s first known COVID death had occurred 512 weeks earlier, in California.

Tragically, on Mar. 25, just nine days after Frieson’s passing, her sister, Bailey, succumbed to a virus that by then had claimed 26 lives in Illinois — COVID fatalities about to escalate nationwide at an astronomical rate. By the end of May, it had claimed 100,000 lives.

“I wish you never knew us,” said Frieson’s brother, Anthony Frieson, 58, of the South Side, with whom we’d spoken last year after the death of his first sister.

“At the same time, I hope the story you wrote concerning my family made others more aware to do the things they needed to do so that hopefully none of their family members got sick. I hope that it helped others follow protocol and helped them get through it,” he said recently, in an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

He chatted while preparing for a small family gathering planned that evening at the home of a niece — masked, of course, and socially distanced — both to celebrate Bailey’s birthday and to remember both sisters on this somber anniversary.

Anthony Frieson, 58, whose sisters Patricia Frieson and Wanda Bailey were among the first people to die of COVID-19 in Illinois, poses for a portrait outside his South Side home, Friday morning, March 5, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Anthony Frieson, 58, whose sisters, Patricia Frieson and Wanda Bailey, were among the first people to die of COVID-19 in Illinois, says faith and family helped him navigate grief over the last year.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

His remaining four sisters were there, Bailey’s husband and three or four nieces and nephews. All the women made a dish or dessert to go with the catering. A brother in Minnesota, and Bailey’s son in Texas, were missed. His other brother had passed in 1997, of a brain seizure. There was plenty of storytelling.

“It was just a small gathering in remembrance. We all wore masks,” Anthony Frieson said.

“We tried to keep it happy. We were really glad Wanda’s husband came because it’s still heavy on him with her, and difficult, as it is for all of us. One more year and Wanda would have been retiring. She was looking forward to that.”

The family always celebrated Patricia Frieson’s birthday right after Thanksgiving.

A year to the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, the U.S. leads in COVID fatalities, with 528,287 dead. The next highest number of COVID deaths are in Brazil, 268,370; Mexico, 191,789; India, 125,222; and the United Kingdom, 100,811.

Patricia Frieson, seated right, with bag, and her 8 living siblings. | Provided ORG XMIT: JWv7RlJXnhWJeK69m_zL
Patricia Frieson, seated right with bag, along with siblings.
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So about 1 in 670 Americans have died from COVID since the first death on Feb. 6, 2020.

Illinois has the 7th highest deaths nationwide, at 23,068. California leads in deaths, at 54,646; followed by New York, 48,500; Texas, 45,597; Florida, 31,889; Pennsylvania, 24,425; New Jersey, 23,768; Georgia, 17,978; Ohio, 17,661; and Michigan, 16,692.

Nationwide, more than 29.1 million Americans have become infected. The next highest number of COVID cases are found in India, 11.3 million; Brazil, 11.1 million; Russia, 4.3 million; and the U.K., 4.2 million.

In the U.S., COVID took advantage of long accepted racial, social and economic disparities impacting everything from health care and housing to education and employment — Frieson’s death an omen of the devastation the virus would wreak on communities of color nationwide.

“We were essentially the first to encounter COVID’s whole new, traumatic set of circumstances,” Anthony Frieson said.

“We ended up handling their remains through cremation. We had never done that before, and we still have not been able to hold memorial services due to ongoing travel restrictions. A lot of family wanted to come. But we plan to do that still, as soon as things open up.”

Patricia Frieson | Provided
Patricia Frieson | Provided

His sister’s death highlighted the hospital isolation COVID would institute for the dying.

“As I had shared, this is your sister. And not being able to see them in the hospital was so different. It was horrible,” he said.

“You leave them alone, and you’re praying to God and hoping the hospital is doing the right thing. You know that they’re doing the best they can, but you also know that seeing all the family that loves her would make a difference too, to doctors and nurses caring for her.

“Ultimately, the worst part with this virus is that all sense of closure is gone,” he said.

“That’s what kept it in the forefront so much for me this past year. Every day, more people getting sick, dying. You’re seeing the numbers and wishing you could subtract two people.”

Wanda Bailey
Provided

When we talked to him a year ago, he was awaiting results of his own COVID test.

Because his sister’s death was among the very first — coming when there was very little known about contagiousness or prevention protocol — the whole family was quarantined, worried about all the hugs and kisses shared with their sisters at recent gatherings.

“I tested positive, with mild symptoms — chills, fatigue, loss of taste and smell,” he said.

“A couple of siblings believe they had it, because of similar symptoms, though they never got tested. Later last year, a niece also got it. But at least no one else was hospitalized.”

When the nation last month marked the inconceivable milestone of half a million dead, President Biden, in a White House ceremony, noted the yearlong pandemic has killed more Americans than died in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.

Anthony Frieson, 57, whose sisters Patricia Frieson and Wanda Bailey were among the first people to die of COVID-19 in Illinois, poses for a portrait outside his South Side home, Friday morning, March 5, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Anthony Frieson, whose sisters, Patricia Frieson and Wanda Bailey, were among the first people to die of COVID-19 in Illinois, says the arrival of vaccines “brought a lot of encouragement,” but also, “after losing two sisters, you’re enveloped in your own sadness.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

While the U.S. accounts for just 4.25 percent of the world’s population, it has suffered 20 percent of the world’s COVID deaths.

But there is some good news to report. Globally, 66.7 million people have recovered from COVID. And ramped up vaccine distribution has meant a dramatic drop in new infections and deaths from their January peak. Scientists say virus containment is nearing.

So hope is on the horizon, even if heartbreak is yet to fade in the rear view mirror.

“The vaccines brought a lot of encouragement,” Anthony Frieson said.

“But after losing two sisters, you’re enveloped in your own sadness. So many times in the past year, with each new treatment discovered, I thought, ‘If they had only been here a little longer.’ With people getting well, you wish it could have been better for your own family.

“But I know that God had His own plans, and His plans are perfect. I don’t know how anyone without a strong belief in God could get through such a thing,” Frieson’s brother said. “As sad and difficult as this has been, I don’t know where I’d be right now without that faith and family.”