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28 loved ones lost to COVID-19 for former NOLA councilman

Published: Feb. 10, 2022 at 11:04 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - COVID-19 has killed more than 16,000 people in Louisiana, and many people know someone in that number. But for the African American community and one former council member, the toll has been especially severe.

“This has been terrifying for me and it’s not over yet,” says former New Orleans councilman Jay Banks.

The past two years have been filled with heartache.

Banks says he has lost 28 friends and family members to the virus.

“That’s two less than 30 friends, church members, neighbors, people I grew up with, fraternity brothers, Zulu members... every aspect of life as I know it has been touched by COVID,” said Banks.

One of those was Lasalle Rattler, who died during 2020′s Carnival celebration at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Lasalle Rattler… vibrant, healthy, retired police officer who was getting ready for the Zulu ball. He was the first one,” said Banks.

Banks sadly saw a dozen fellow Zulu members succumb to COVID as well as many close friends, including Alex Lewis, who gave Banks his first job. Then, there was Ora Mae Jones and her daughter Kabertha.

“Kabertha was taking care of her mother, Mrs. Jones, who got sick and passed. A week later Kabertha was dead,” said Banks.

Then came the funerals. Including that of Banks’ lifelong friend Bobby Gray, whose wife suffered, having to deal with her loss in socially distanced silence.

“Typically at a funeral, when the spouse of the deceased gets emotional, everybody starts running but nobody could go to Sandra,” said Banks.

The sadness was harder for some than for others.

A new study from the Pennington Biomedical Center found African Americans faced twice the risk of being infected during May of 2020, the early days of the pandemic.

“Every morning the first year I cried before I went to sleep because there was nothing I could do,” said health educator Dr. Eric Griggs who has counseled Fox 8 viewers on COVID the past two years.

Griggs says he has suffered emotionally as well through countless deaths.

“I have an aunt at home in North Carolina now with COVID, pneumonia, and a blood clot,” said Griggs.

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For Banks and Griggs, nothing is tougher than being challenged by friends about safety precautions after so much loss.

“It hit the African-American community the hardest. And in the beginning, you had many who thought that it didn’t affect black people,” said Griggs.

While the Pennington study showed racial disparities in COVID death rates, researchers found that individual factors such as personal precautions, vaccinations, or living conditions played a bigger role than community factors.

“What’s so egregious [is] we have the tools to fight it but you still have people disputing the science. And the devastation is still spreading,” said Banks.

While the death toll remains high, Dr. Griggs celebrates the survival of friends, some of who refused to be vaccinated.

“I had a close personal friend who just turned 75. I’m taking him out this weekend for dinner after I took him to the hospital with COVID,” said Griggs.

State health officials say 73% of COVID patients in the hospital are not fully vaccinated and Banks worries about more loss.

“It is very frustrating today to watch people refuse to take the necessary steps,” said Banks.

Banks hopes that more get the message so that socially distanced funerals become a thing of the past.

“I miss Mardi Gras. I miss hugging people without freaking out when somebody coughs. It’s like somebody pulling a shotgun out,” said Banks.

Though New Orleans has the highest vaccination rate in the region, Banks worries about surrounding parishes and low rates of vaccination. He says coronavirus doesn’t recognize geographical boundaries.

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