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California mayor loses mother, stepfather to COVID-19 just weeks apart

"As my family is just broken with the loss of my parents, I find comfort in knowing that they are together again, free of any pain or suffering,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said.

While the rest of California fought a spike in coronavirus cases that quickly spread through the country’s most populous state after its attempts to reopen the economy, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia waged a personal battle closer to home.

On July 13, the mayor shared during a press conference that both his mother, Gaby O’Donnell, 61, and his stepfather, Greg O’Donnell, 58, had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“My mom is a health care worker. She’s worked in the same clinic for over 25 years and is incredibly careful and understands the seriousness of this virus,” Garcia said in a statement at the time.

Image: Gaby O'Donnell
Garcia's mother, Gaby O'Donnell, a longtime health care worker, died late last month due to complications from the coronavirus at the age of 61. The couple had been married for 27 years.Courtesy Mayor Robert Garcia / Facebook

In photos the mayor shared on Twitter, Gaby is pictured at work wearing personal protective equipment, including gloves, a mask and even a visor.

But the protection wasn't enough. Less than one month after Garcia announced his parents’ diagnosis, both succumbed to COVID-19. Gaby, who was placed on a ventilator, died July 26. One day after her memorial service, her husband also passed away. The couple had been married 27 years.

"He was a kind and good-hearted man, an amazing father and grandfather, and the best husband our mom could have ever hoped for,” Garcia told NBC Los Angeles. “He worked hard for his family and started his own successful small business as a contractor with his brothers.”

The mayor, who tested negative for the coronavirus, said he had limited contact with his mother and stepfather due to social distancing requirements and had pleaded with his constituents to follow those same protocols in their homes as the pandemic continued to claim lives.

Initially considered a coronavirus success story, California suddenly climbed to the top of the country’s hot spot list over the summer. It now has 644,084 cases while New York, the nation’s first outbreak capital, had 433,262 as of Wednesday evening, according to NBC News counts. Fewer Californians have died of the virus than New York residents, however. In California, 11,690 people have died compared to 33,691 in New York, according to NBC News counts.

The city of Long Beach itself has 9,878 confirmed cases as of Tuesday. Los Angeles County, where the O'Donnells lived, has more than 225,820 reported cases, according to the public health department.

Despite his personal loss, Garcia has continued to work. He was one of a group called "17 rising stars"who gave the keynote address Tuesday night during the virtual Democratic National Convention.

In his DNC address, Garcia questioned President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and shared a little bit about his own upbringing, including struggling to pay his student loan debt. He was one of three openly gay Democrats who participated in the video. The others were Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who represents Philadelphia, and Georgia state Rep. Sam Park.

In the weeks since his mother's death, Garcia had already chaired countless press conferences. He even presented the 2021 city budget proposal Aug. 3, recognizing that California is facing its biggest economic crisis in decades. He also worked with the Long Beach Unified School District to come up with a plan to teach students virtually in the fall and boosted coronavirus testing capacity throughout his city.

Garcia also acknowledged residents and colleagues for an outpouring of support.

“I’d like to thank everyone who has reached out to me and my family to express their condolences,” he said in a statement July 31. “Your cards, notes and messages have been an incredible source of strength.”

Garcia issued a similar statement Aug. 10 after the death of his stepfather.

Vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted her support July 27, calling him “dear friend” and saying “my heart aches for you and your family.”

“Your beloved mother led an extraordinary life and her compassion touched countless Californians,” Harris tweeted. “Mothers are irreplaceable but I know yours will continue to be a guiding force throughout your life.”

Garcia is an enthusiastic Harris supporter, calling her "the real deal, a compassionate and kind person."

"Throughout my mom and stepdad’s recent hospitalizations and passing, she always checked in on me to lend support and advice," he tweeted Aug. 13. "She understands loss and spoke of her mother. She’s exactly who we need as Vice President."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also shared his condolences on social media.

“There’s no easy way to cope with losing a mother, but you know that her remarkable legacy of service, passion and dedication to her community lives on with you,” he said in a tweet July 27. “California is a better place thanks to her.”

In honoring his mother after her death, Garcia frequently referred to her as his best friend. Born in Peru, Garcia immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s when he was 5 years old with his mother, father and grandmother. They fled from economic uncertainty in the hopes of finding the American dream.

In many ways they did just that. Gaby learned English and worked first as a housekeeper before finding a job at the City of Hope oncology clinic in West Covina, where she spent 25 years taking care of others.

She divorced Garcia's father and met Greg O’Donnell one night out dancing with friends. Garcia walked his mom down the aisle on her wedding day in 1993. That same year, the newlyweds welcomed a second son, Garcia's brother Jacob O'Donnell.

Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was becoming a U.S. citizen, Garcia said after her death. The mayor became a citizen when he was 21 years old.

“My mom always used to say that we would never be able to give back to our country what our country has given to us,” he said on MSNBC. “I keep that with me every single day.”

Garcia has said that his mother’s optimism and her commitment to helping others is what helps him address the needs of his own Southern California community. He personally thanked the doctors and nurses who cared for Gaby in her last days. He called them “heroes” and said his family is grateful that so many health care workers are willing to risk their own lives to help others.

“This is true for all nurses and all medical personnel that are working at our hospitals here locally and across the country, that are working so hard to get this virus under control and to not just care for families but to stand in as family as many of them are living their last days,” he said.