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Remembering lives lost to coronavirus, one tweet at a time

“Everybody lives some type of journey that is textured and beautiful and joyful and tragic.”

A socially distanced graveside service at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Watertown.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In a Brooklyn hospital, Maria Guia Cabillo was known as the “mother” of the emergency room where she worked as head nurse. Brenda Samaniego, of Sioux City, Iowa, was a Special Olympian for 11 years who participated in track and field and bocce. A former boxer and respected trainer, Ali Salaam joined his son to make the Detroit gym SuperBad Fitness a safe haven for the city’s kids.

Every life lost in the coronavirus pandemic has its own story. Alex Goldstein wants to tell them one tweet at a time.

In late March, Goldstein launched Faces of COVID (@FacesOfCOVID) on Twitter, offering thumbnail sketches of those who’ve died from the disease caused by the coronavirus. On Monday, he posted its thousandth story.


“In the early days, it was like, ‘The virus is here, and we’re losing people,’” said Goldstein, founder and CEO of 90 West, a Boston strategic communications firm. “Then it just became this avalanche.”

That avalanche has surpassed 80,000 deaths, though some officials say the official number is probably higher.

Goldstein eventually asked a friend, Scott Zoback, a communications strategy director at ThinkArgus, to help compile stories. “From the nameless to those with streets named after them,” Zoback recently tweeted, “this disease is a buzzsaw.”

Together, they collect names of those lost from local newspapers and television stations nationwide. For a social media age, Faces of COVID is reminiscent of The New York Times’s “Portraits of Grief,” mini-profiles of those killed on Sept. 11. That endeavor, Goldstein said, wasn’t a direct inspiration, but the goal is similar — to reveal the humanity concealed behind the staggering statistics.

Every day we are inundated with numbers — deaths, new cases, testing figures, and percentages of those hospitalized. Journalists reference wars to better define the scope of the tragedy. When a recent White House model predicted that COVID-19 deaths could hit 3,000 a day by June 1, some said it would be like having a 9/11 every day.


That deluge of statistics can become numbing. It certainly doesn’t help having a president shameless enough to say, "We have prevailed” over a disease that may claim 100,000 lives before Memorial Day.

Each of those numbers has a name, and every name has a history. On Faces of COVID, they are health care workers, military veterans, doting grandparents, church folk, Holocaust survivors, a man who helped liberate a concentration camp, cancer survivors, bikers, lawmakers, grocery store workers, neurobiologists, barbers, meat plant workers, accountants, truck and bus drivers, security guards and educators.

It’s also has numerous members of the Navajo Nation, with one of this country’s highest coronavirus infection rates per capita. Consistent with this nation’s lethal treatment of indigenous people, their losses have been overlooked. They’re so ravaged by the disease that Doctors Without Borders, for the first time, has deployed a team within the United States.

This is all a snapshot of an American tapestry shredded by the coronavirus.

“It’s reminded me that everybody lives some type of journey that is textured and beautiful and joyful and tragic,” said Goldstein, a former press secretary for Governor Deval Patrick. He was also a senior communications advisor for Representative Ayanna Pressley during her 2018 congressional run.


“All of us have these stories that, when told,” he said, “are actually really fascinating.”

The coronavirus has not only upended how we live, but how we mourn. By necessity, funerals are sparsely attended, to maintain social distancing protocols. Patients in isolation often die alone, their families unable to visit. Our rituals of grief have been shattered, but Faces of COVID allows people an alternative way to memorialize their loved ones, to share and say their names once more.

The numbers don’t lie; neither does the weight of these losses. They are the antithesis of those claiming a choice must be made between life and living, or that the Constitution protects their right to forego a mask in public. (It doesn’t.) And it deflates the false argument that this pandemic is nothing more than a ploy to undo Trump’s reelection chances.

“One of the most powerful parts of these stories is that oftentimes families themselves, in their one opportunity to be quoted about the loved one they lost, lead with ‘Take this thing seriously. I’m begging you,’” Goldstein said. “They’re going to talk about how much they miss and love this person, but they use that time in a really heroic way as a platform to warn people that this is real.”

There is nothing so real as scrolling through more than a thousand stories of those needlessly dead from COVID-19 — and continued federal indifference. Perhaps the only thing more sobering is the recognition that, with states “reopening” prematurely, Faces of COVID won’t run out of people to memorialize any time soon.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.