In My Own Words: More than one million gone

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

More than one million Americans have died of COVID during the pandemic. More lives have been lost to this disease than the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The death toll is greater than the death toll of the 1918 influenza outbreak. Hundreds of people continue to die every day. According to the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, one in every 332 Americans have died of COVID. This death toll doesn’t include those who were so weakened by COVID that they later succumbed to different diseases that they would have otherwise survived.

Don’t personally know anyone who has died of COVID? Consider yourself blessed because I know too many. One died before we understood the nature of the disease and how it spread. One died last year because he had diabetes and refused to get vaccinated. I didn’t know the people who died in my mother’s nursing home, but their deaths were reported to me in weekly e-mails. By some stroke of luck, my mother survived her bout, but I can tell how it affected her mentally: her memory is way worse than it was before she became sick.

And then there are those whom I knew in my chaplaincy work. During the early part of the pandemic, non-essential staff were placed on furlough in order to protect the individuals, many of whom have health issues. When I returned, I was taken aside to be quietly told of the death of someone I’d known for 20 years. Then other names followed and those didn’t include the individuals whom COVID had left physically and mentally devastated. It was, and is, painful to watch. And some of them died during their next illness because their bodies no longer had the resilience to survive. 

As we return to more normal lives, even more people I know are getting COVID. Fortunately, most of them have been vaccinated and boostered, and generally had mild cases. But there is no guarantee with this illness, any more than there is with the flu, which according to the CDC, caused 20,000 deaths during the 2019-20 flu season. But vaccines and boosters help. Wearing masks helps: yes, I know some people are “so over” masks, but anything we can do to prevent a death is important.

That, by the way, is not a political statement, but a religious one. Judaism commands us to do almost everything we can to save a life. That includes medical treatments. And that’s what a vaccine is, only we take it before we are sick to prevent an illness. Just as we put a fence around the Torah to keep from breaking a commandment, so, too, should we put up a fence to prevent a potentially deadly disease from killing us or those we love. 

As a rabbi and chaplain, I have been crushed by all the death that has occurred over the past few years. I try to celebrate the good in our world, but it gets harder and harder when I think of those who are no longer alive to enjoy the beautiful spring weather or complain about the late snow storm we had in April. If each of those one million people is mourned by two people, then there are two million people suffering from loss. If each of those one million people is mourned by three people, then there are three million people in mourning. And the count continues because the number of lives touched is limitless.

If you are not vaccinated and don’t have a medical reason, please get the vaccine. If you’ve been vaccinated and have not yet had a booster, please get a booster shot. If you are eligible for a second booster and have not yet had one, please consider doing so. I don’t want to cry for one more person lost to COVID. I don’t want anyone to have to cry for one more loved one gone. And I am willing to wear a mask forever if it means I can save even one life because the words of the ancient rabbis resonate with me: whoever saves one life, it is as if they have saved the whole world.