Gary Young was affectionately called the “Candy Cane Man” around Christmastime, when he would pass out the minty red-and-white candies to his customers at Lowe’s Home Improvement in Gilroy.
But this past holiday was different. His daughter, Stacey Silva, handed out the candy canes instead, interacting with customers who knew her father.
Young, 66, was one of the first victims of Covid-19 in Gilroy, dying March 17, 2020. The date also happened to mark the beginning of Santa Clara County’s shelter-in-place order, which shut down schools, drastically altered businesses and put countless people out of work. It was less than a week after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic.
A year later, Silva said she continues to struggle with the loss of her father. More than 530,000 people have died nationwide of Covid-19, including 1,876 in Santa Clara County.
But each one of those numbers represents a person who has left behind numerous friends and family now burdened by grief, Silva said.
“I don’t want my dad to be a number,” she said. “The one-year mark is a good time to remind people that the loved ones who have been lost are not just a number. Take a look at my dad’s face. He’s not just a number. He’s terribly missed by his whole family.”
Young, a longtime Santa Clara County resident, lived in Gilroy for about 16 years. He was an expert cabinet maker, his daughter said, and got jobs mostly through word of mouth of his skill. Young was forced to retire from the profession after developing throat cancer in 2004, but he worked at Orchard Supply Hardware in Gilroy until it closed, later landing a job at Lowe’s.
At the beginning of 2020, he contracted an illness that had many of the symptoms of Covid-19: sore throat, cough and headache.
His headache worsened to the point where he went to the emergency room on March 3, 2020 at St. Louise Regional Hospital. But after doctors scanned his head and determined there were no abnormalities, Young returned home, Silva said.
Two days later he was back in the hospital, where he tested positive for Covid-19 and was placed in isolation.
With visitors prohibited, the family did not get a chance to say their final goodbyes.
Silva said she continues to feel guilt every day when she thinks about her last conversation with her father. Days before Young died, he called his daughter from his hospital bed at 4 in the morning.
“He was trying to tell me that he was being put on a ventilator,” she said. “I couldn’t understand him. He got so frustrated, he hung up.”
Silva said she is angered by people who are upset over having to wear a mask, or don’t believe the virus is real.
With gatherings still restricted under current health guidelines, the family has not held a proper service for Young, Silva said.
“He would’ve had such a huge celebration of life,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
The day the county shut down
The precursor to the shelter-in-place order occurred on March 9, 2020, when Santa Clara County health officials announced a ban on gatherings of 1,000 or more people.
The announcement threw many large events, such as the Gilroy Garlic Festival and Morgan Hill Mushroom Mardi Gras Festival, into uncertainty.
While it was originally intended as a three-week prohibition, what came next determined the course of 2020.
In what they called “a bold, unified step to slow the spread of Covid-19,” public health officials of six Bay Area counties on March 17, 2020 ordered nearly all citizens to “shelter at home” for three weeks. It was later extended.
The legal order limited all individual activity, travel and business functions to only the most essential needs, allowing an exemption for a range of business and services for communities totaling more than 7 million people.
At that time, six people in Santa Clara County had died due to Covid-19, with 155 known cases.
As of March 15, the county has had 112,749 known cases, with 1,869 deaths.
While vaccination numbers continue to rise, those numbers are held back due to the continuing supply issues, officials say. As of March 15, nearly 208,000 county residents have received both doses of the vaccine, representing about 13 percent of residents ages 16 and older.
The eligibility criteria expanded on March 15, with individuals age 16-64 with certain high-risk medical conditions or disabilities able to be vaccinated, dependent on supply, according to health officials.
The low and unpredictable vaccine supply affected several thousand appointments over the past week, according to a statement from the county.
Kaiser Permanente patients that had appointments scheduled with the county health system between March 11-21 were transferred back to Kaiser.
“The County is transferring Kaiser patients’ appointments to Kaiser because the State has assured Kaiser it will have sufficient vaccine for its members and its vaccine sites, while the County has received no such commitment for the uninsured and vulnerable populations we serve,” the statement read.
The county surpassed 3 million Covid-19 tests over the weekend. What started with several hundred tests a day at the start of the shelter-in-place order has now grown to a testing operation that, during the peak winter surge, collected more than 25,000 specimens daily, according to county officials.
“Testing is one of our most important public health tools when it comes to Covid-19. Without it, we are essentially blind to where the virus is and how quickly it is spreading through our community,” said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, Covid-19 Testing and Vaccine Officer for the county. “We now know so much more about disease transmission and prevention than we did a year ago. But one thing has not changed, and that is the critical role of testing.”