By Eric Stirgus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
They have different last names, they are of difference races and backgrounds, but they call each other family, brought together by the terrible impact COVID-19 has had on their lives.
About 50 survivors, relatives of those who have died from COVID-19 and others gathered around midday Saturday on the grounds of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta. They rallied to show support for those battling the disease and to encourage others to get the vaccine, wear masks and practice other measures to slow the outbreak as reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise nationally.
“It is not over, therefore it is important we raise awareness for those living with COVID ... and demand action for them,” said rally organizer Tanya Washington. While her vaccinated father died in March from the disease, she stresses preventative measures have been beneficial to the nation.
The Atlanta event was in support of the group COVID Survivors for Change, a self-described nonpartisan organization that wants Congress to pass legislation that includes paid time off for those caring for a loved one with the disease or another severe illness. They also want a nonpartisan commission formed to ensure a pandemic like this never happens again.
Three state lawmakers attended the rally, including Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who told the crowd that elected officials have not adequately listened to disease survivors and family members.
“We need to stand up and do better,” she said.
Johns Creek resident Marjorie Roberts, who was treated for COVID-19 in March 2020, encouraged the crowd to wear masks, regardless of potential pushback or ridicule. Roberts described several health conditions, such as spots on her liver, since contracting the disease.
“COVID-19 has turned my body into something I don’t know,” she told the crowd.
Survivors were also encouraged to tell their stories about living through COVID-19. Marietta residents Ernie and Paola Schirmer did so. Ernie Schirmer said he was hospitalized 53 days and spent 31 days in a coma.
“For some reason, I’m still here and I think this is one of the reasons,” he said in an interview about speaking at these kinds of events.
Many attendees wore yellow, the color of COVID remembrance. Some wrote the names of lost loved ones on yellow heart-shaped paper with the hashtag “NotJustANumber.”
One group wore gray T-shirts. They were family members of Miriam Pabon, a Carroll County resident who died in January from COVID-19. Family members learned about Saturday’s event through Facebook. Her loved ones said they found strength and comfort from others there Saturday. They came to share a message about her and the pandemic.
“My mom wasn’t just a number,” said Melinda Jenkins. “People need to know this is real.”
Jenkins described those she met Saturday as family.
So, too, did McDonough resident Erika McKibben, whose father, George, died from COVID-19 near the start of the pandemic.
McKibben, though, told the crowd that “I don’t want any more family members in this group.”
She added: “We can make a difference.”