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Emilia Guerra took her first steps on Thanksgiving of 2020 as parents Laura and Rigo Guerra watched proudly. It seemed like the start of many holiday memories for the young family.

A month later, it was Christmas Eve and Rigo, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, was in the hospital with COVID-19. He was dying. His daughter would never have her father at a holiday gathering again.

As the United States prepares to mark the grim milestone of one million dead from COVID-19, a close inspection of the data reveals one of the pandemic’s most heartwrenching tolls: At least 32,500 children in California and more than 214,400 nationwide — more than one out of every 360 — have lost at least one parent or primary caregiver to the virus, according to a report from the University of Pennsylvania. At least 16,800 lost their sole parent or caregiver.

“COVID orphans” is the term used to describe these children, whether they lost one caregiver or two. More than 70% are 13 or younger.

The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on lower-income and minority communities is reflected among COVID orphans, said Daniel Treglia, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and co-authored “Hidden Pain,” a report about the phenomenon.

In California, Hispanic children have lost caregivers to the virus at a rate 3.1 times that of white children. Black children’s losses are 2.4 times and Asian children’s are 1.6 times that of white children. Hawaii/Pacific Islander children were even more hard-hit, losing caregivers at five times the rate of white children.

Moreover, children who lost their only parent or caregivers are largely in non-white households, Treglia said.

“COVID-19 hit the most vulnerable children in the worst ways,” he said. “The disparities in COVID-19 caregiver loss are even higher than the disparities in COVID-19 deaths.”

It had been an unusually quiet Thanksgiving for the Guerras. Rigo wasn’t feeling well so the family had dinner at their Riverside home without any guests. Although he had tested negative for COVID-19, he felt something was really wrong, Laura said.

Shortly after witnessing his daughter’s milestone, Rigo said he wanted to go to the hospital to get checked out.

“We were hesitant to hug or kiss because so many others (at Rigo’s job) had tested positive,” Laura said. “I took him a glass of water to the car and said, ‘Call as soon as they see you.’”

A U.S. Marines veteran who had been wounded in Iraq, Rigo decided to go to the nearest hospital, rather than the VA.

He texted, saying he had the coronavirus and pneumonia and would have to stay in the hospital. They talked daily by phone or FaceTime, as visitors weren’t allowed in those prevaccination days. Laura was worried, but kept reminding herself that Rigo was only 33. Someone so young and healthy would be out soon, she thought.

Laura leaves a cup of coffee for Rigo at his grave at Riverside National Cemetery. At top right, Laura reads with Emilia next to a stuffed animal sent by Rigo’s Marine brothers. Above right, Laura shows a wedding photo and a tattoo on her arm of the last words that Rigo said to her. Photos by Allison Zaucha/Special to The Chronicle Top: Laura leaves a cup of coffee for Rigo at his grave at Riverside National Cemetery. Middle: Laura reads with Emilia next to a stuffed animal sent by Rigo’s Marine brothers. Above: Laura shows a wedding photo and a tattoo on her arm of the last words that Rigo said to her.

A week later, doctors said his oxygen levels were dropping and he needed to be intubated, which involves being sedated.

They FaceTimed. “Through his big oxygen mask, he said everything would be OK, our story was just getting started. He repeated that over and again,” she said. “That was the last time I talked to him.”

Her hand pressed to the glass, she stood outside Rigo’s room watching as his oxygen numbers plummeted.

“I wasn’t allowed in the room,” she said. “I stood there in disbelief, hitting the window, unsure of how this was happening, how the world around me could keep moving on.”

Emila, now 2, points at pictures when someone says “Where’s daddy?” but she doesn’t really remember the “gentle giant” who took such joy in her birth and felt so responsible to care for her.

“She’s a very happy baby and looks so much like her dad,” Laura said. “I know at this developmental stage, she might not understand that he’s not physically here but soon enough she will — and that will come with its new challenges.”

Losing a parent rips a hole in a child’s life.

Recognizing that, some advocates and lawmakers want to create more support for COVID orphans.

“Besides the unimaginable loss of losing your parents this can be quite detrimental economically,” said California Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. She’s proposed a bill, SB 854, the HOPE for Children Act, to create modest financial cushions for children bereaved by COVID and foster children. (Foster children would be included regardless of whether they lost a parent to COVID.)

The bill, which backers say is the first of its kind in the nation, has two components. First, it would establish savings accounts for children under 18 who lost a parent or caregiver to the virus and for foster children.

Currently, the idea is to deposit about $4,000 in an interest-bearing account for children younger than 9 and double that amount for older kids, who wouldn’t have as long for the money to compound. Bereaved children would receive the funds at age 18, by which time they might have amassed somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000. Disbursement criteria still need to be worked out, but ideally the money would go toward education, housing or other critical needs.

“Most of us, when we turn 18, can rely on parents for first/last rent in our first apartment, or help with some college expenses — any number of things these children may not have,” Skinner said. “This would give them that hope that they will not be abandoned in the future. We’re not talking inordinate amounts of money, talking about a bridge so a young person doesn’t feel without support.”

Secondly, the bill would provide monthly stipends equivalent to Social Security survivor benefits for children whose parents didn’t qualify for the federal program. For instance, the parents may not have accumulated the required 10 quarters of work because they were too young, undocumented or incarcerated, or worked at informal jobs.

“Those children have a lifetime of grief ahead of them,” said Chris Kocher, who started a nationwide group called COVID Survivors for Change to support people who lost loved ones to the virus. “We can remove some obstacles of achieving a college degree or other life goals with baby bonds or scholarships.”

At the national level, efforts are underway to identify and help COVID orphans.

“We want to create a national clearinghouse so individuals who experience loss due to COVID have a single source for financial resources, resources to support a grieving child or sibling, (a list of) organizations in the U.S. doing this work,” said Catherine Jaynes, senior director for external affairs at the COVID Collaborative, a nonprofit advocacy group.

In January, the COVID Collaborative organized dozens of leaders from health, education, governments and foundations to write to President Biden requesting he direct federal agencies to see if programs with current funding could support children who have lost a parent.

“It’s a call to unity,” Jaynes said. “As Americans, we want to support all children in grief but because we’ve had a five times increase in the number of children experiencing this grief, (due to COVID), it calls us all to action.”

When the pandemic started, Kate and Jason McLaughlin knew he was at high risk for severe disease. He’d received a kidney transplant in 2014 because he had polycystic kidney disease.

So they took extra precautions. He had quit his accountant job right before the pandemic started and they agreed he wouldn’t seek a new job. The Santa Rosa couple and their daughter, Éala, now 4, would subsist on Kate’s income as an eighth-grade language and social studies teacher. Even when schools resumed in-person instruction, she applied to stay fully remote, teaching students who were also staying home.

Despite their efforts, Jason was diagnosed with the coronavirus on Jan. 12, 2021. A week later he was hypoxic and acting confused. Kate called 911. He was admitted to the hospital.

On Jan. 23, Kate woke up unable to smell. She and Éala both tested positive. Kate had mild cold-like symptoms. Éala was asymptomatic.

That same day, Jason was intubated. For three weeks, he endured ups and downs.

Kate wasn’t allowed to visit until the end. She and Éala FaceTimed with him before he was intubated, when he could still talk.

On Feb. 16, the doctors called Kate. Jason wasn’t going to make it.

She was lucky in that the hospital allowed her to be in the room with him. It was prevaccination, but since she had recently recovered from COVID, they assumed she had some immunity. She wore some personal protective gear, but not a full suit.

“I remember saying to the nurse, ‘It’s weird holding his hand with a glove on,’ and the nurse said, ‘You can take your gloves off,’ ” she said

Jason was unconscious. “How do you communicate with someone who’s not communicating back,” she thought.

She remembered when Éala was a newborn screaming during a diaper change. Jason had said, “Just talk to her.”

“Those words came back to me,” she said. “So I shared the family gossip with him. Just what was going on. I said I loved him. I thought (about) how hard this whole situation has been and that he didn’t deserve to die and that no one deserves it.”

Then she had to break the news to Éala.

“Telling a three-year-old that their parent has died is very surreal,” Kate said. “I was more upset than she was; she didn’t really understand.”

Kate and Éala embrace outside their Santa Rosa home. At right, a family portrait of Kate, her husband Jason and Éala. Photos by Brontë Wittpenn At top, Kate and Éala embrace outside their Santa Rosa home. Above, a family portrait of Kate, her husband Jason and Éala. Photos by Brontë Wittpenn

“When she’s a little older, I want her to be able to have some mental health support,” Kate said. “I know there are summer camps for kids who lost parents. I think about what it will be like for her. In preschool, kids say weird things all the time. When she gets to elementary school, I worry about what that experience will be like for her. I don’t want her to feel isolated because of it.”

She and her family have spread Jason’s ashes in some of his best-loved places — Cape Cod, a favorite park in Santa Rose, Goat Rock Beach near Russian River.

“I feel like I want little pieces of him everywhere,” she said. “We joked that we should take some ashes to Fenway Park in Boston; he was a big sports fan.”

Now talking to Éala about Jason is interwoven into her new life as a single mom.

“When he first died, she’d often tell strangers, ‘My dad’s dead,’ very matter-of-factly,” Kate said. “People would get this look on their faces, and I’d say, ‘Sorry, it’s true. It’s just part of our reality.’”