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This New Year’s Day, paying tribute to 5 extraordinary Americans lost to COVID-19

More than 340,000 people died from COVID-19 in the United States in 2020, and as of Friday the number of people infected with the virus had surpassed 20 million. As we begin a New Year, we honor just five of those who we have lost to the coronavirus.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We begin a new year, as we did every Friday as we left the last one, paying tribute to five extraordinary Americans who've lost their lives to COVID-19.

    Adalberto Cavazos and his wife fell in love through letters exchanged while he was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. They spent more than a half-century together, settling in Fresno, California. While serving abroad, he lost his hearing, but still worked as a foreman until he was 70. Humble and hardworking, family was his world.

    When he became a first-time homeowner, at 82, his first purchase for the house was a dining table, so he could host his family, four children, 10 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. He was 86 years old.

    When M. Laura Escalanti walked the halls of Pojoaque Valley Middle School in New Mexico, hugs and high-fives were never far behind. For many of Laura's students, her language classes, where she taught English, Spanish and their native language, Tewa, were the only link to their history, art and culture.

    Laura's ancestors, including her grandmother, were potters, and she internalized their artistic mission in her teaching.

  • Woman:

    To her, it meant more to take care of not only her extended family, but the community itself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Her children said their mom, who was 69, was a source of a strength, a cheerleader and a moral compass.

    Thirty-six-year-old Vania Underwood was a tremendous hero, not just for her work as a COVID-19 unit nurse, but also as a mom of six, her husband said. Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, Vania could always spot a person in need, and had a caring instinct that made nursing a clear career choice.

    She first worked as a nursing assistant, but, after starting a family, went back to school to become an R.N., so she could better help her patients.

    Known for their compassion and dedication to service, Jesse and Cheryl Taken Alive left an imprint on the hearts of their Standing Rock Reservation community. Jesse, who went by Jay, spent 24 years on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council and served as chairman of the tribe.

    Known for prioritizing the preservation of Lakota language and culture, he shared this wisdom with his students at the local high school, who called him Lala Jay, meaning grandfather in Lakota. He was also a fierce advocate of tribal treaty rights, outlining the rights of indigenous people and their lands.

    Jay shared his passion for service with Cheryl, who, as a social worker, helped families recover from trauma. Her big heart left a positive impact on many, said her son. He said it was Jay's witty sense of humor and Cheryl's beautiful spirit that brought the two together.

    While both were active members of the reservation, at the end of the day, family came before all else. Jay and Cheryl, 65 and 64, would have celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary tomorrow.

    And to all the family members who share these beautiful stories, we thank you. Our hearts go out to you and to all those who have lost loved ones in this pandemic.

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