Survivors, family members, long haulers and strangers who were all impacted by COVID-19 descended together on Washington D.C. for one main reason – to be heard.
"It is a war out there and not only are people dying, people feel... invisible," said Kristin Urquiza, co-founder and co-executive director of Marked by COVID.
Volunteers and advocates from COVID-19 support groups around the country spent three days on Capitol Hill this week meeting with lawmakers and staff from both sides of the aisle. Their requests ranged from more economic relief to a new federal holiday commemorating everyone impacted by the virus.
"Congress hasn't done nearly enough," said Urquiza.
Kristin Urquiza lost her father to COVID in June 2020 and shared her story during last summer’s Democratic National Convention. After her father’s death, she formed Marked by COVID – a group now lobbying Congress to pass a bill making the first Monday in March COVID–19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day.
"My message to lawmakers is that our community feels absolutely ignored. There has been next to nothing to recognize our losses. And to really say that these losses matter, and that these people's lives matter," said Urquiza.
Some meetings went better than others.
"[House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy] did say that federal holidays are really expensive. They cost a lot of money. Which I also think is a really crappy thing to say to somebody who's grieving like 'I'm sorry, that's too expensive to remember your loved ones,'" said Kaitlyn Urenda-Culpepper, the Texas Hub Leader for Marked by COVID .
Over 600,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. But these survivors want more than recognition. Urquiza says the stimulus checks alone weren’t enough to keep Americans afloat. She’s concerned about what might happen when the eviction moratorium ends on July 31.
"We have 6 million people right now who have been surviving because ... they have not been required to pay their rent. What's going to happen when that expires, people potentially are going to be on the streets during a pandemic," said Urquiza.
But not everyone taking part in the lobbying effort was focused on politics. Madeleine Fugate is the 14-year-old behind the COVID Memorial Quilt – a project that started as a school assignment.
"We just had to do something to help our community through COVID. And when I was trying to figure out what I should do, my mom told me how she had worked on the AIDS Memorial quilt, and how it had really helped at that time. And it was really healing and magical to her,” said Fugate.
She’s received over 500 submissions from as far away as New Zealand. The quilt consists of about 20 separate panels, and she has no plans to slow down.
"We're always getting squares. We're always accepting squares, and there will always be panels in the works," said Fugate.
She hopes her trip to D.C. helps her find a permanent home to display the quilt.
“I really hope these people get remembered. That's really at the end of the day my goal," said Fugate.
While the fate of the new federal holiday is unclear, there’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic created a new pool of grassroots advocates who are learning to navigate the halls of Congress to advocate for their needs.