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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

COVID has claimed 6+ million lives worldwide. These are just a few of those lost in Cincinnati

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The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 6 million lives worldwide over the last two years, including nearly 2,000 deaths in Hamilton County alone.

WVXU is looking back on the pandemic and its effects on our region. Here are the stories of three locals and the loved ones they lost, in their own words.

Lois Zechmeister

Brenda Zechmeister (left) as a child with her mother Lois.

Brenda Zechmeister of Price Hill remembers her mother, Lois, who passed away from COVID-19 and other health issues in January 2021.

She was born and raised in Deer Park, and she was introduced to my dad on a blind date by mutual friends of theirs. A couple years later they got married and I was born shortly thereafter. Then we were able to move into our house in Price Hill, and that's where I'm living now some 60 years later, in the house that my dad built.

My mom was a quiet woman and she was a great mother. She was one of those stay at home moms that loved taking care of the house and taking care of me and my sister.

Being here in the house that I grew up, I go through the house just doing the things that she used to do. So when I'm hanging up the clothes, I'm thinking about, like, how many times did my mom stand here and hang up clothes? And thinking about how many times we've stood there and doing the dishes, she would wash and I would wipe, and just the conversations that we would have at the end of the day. And so it's just all those little things that you don't put much stock in at the time but then when you look back, those become really meaningful.

We never went on vacation. My parents had loaned me money for a car, and so for their 25th anniversary I paid off the balance of that in the form of airline tickets to go to Hawaii, because that was my mom's dream to go to Hawaii. And they loved it so much that the following Christmas, they got tickets for me and my sister to go with them to go back to Hawaii. And so that was just an awesome experience.

When COVID started and the nursing homes shut down, that was the hardest thing — to not be able to go and be with my mom physically, to only be able to do FaceTime visits with her. She was beginning to experience dementia and so I'm sure she didn't even understand fully what was going on with COVID and why we weren't seeing her.

By summer time we were able to go visit her but we had to put on face masks, gloves and goggles, and one of those paper gowns like we were going into surgery. So we were covered head to toe and I felt like, gosh, mom is suffering from dementia — is she even going to know who I am? And she did, she knew who we were; but I felt like she was probably really confused.

And so I feel like while she physically had COVID, she also was slowly dying because of the effects of not being able to be with me and my sister and feeling like, what is life worth if I can't be with my family?

The funeral was difficult because it was in the height of COVID. It was before we were able to be vaccinated. And so it was just me and my sister and her children who are now mostly adults. And so even though they were present, I felt very alone.

Nick and Lois Zechmeister just after returning from a trip to Hawaii to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

I have this beautiful picture of my mom and dad when they first got back from Hawaii and they have on the matching Hawaiian shirts and everything. And when I look at that picture, I just think of them like they're together again. And when I see that picture of the two of them, I just feel such love; and they emanated that love with everyone that they came into contact with. That's what I want to do, I want to emanate that love with everyone I come into contact with.

Raymond Bogart

Mary Jane and Ray Bogart on Valentine's Day in 2020.
Mary Jane and Ray Bogart on Valentine's Day in 2020.

Mary Jane Bogart of Indian Hill remembers her husband, Raymond "Ray" Bogart, who passed away of COVID-19 in October 2020.

Ray was a Cincinnati man through and through. He was born and raised in Madeira and he went to school at UC to get a bachelor's and then a master's and then a Ph.d. And after he got his Ph.d., he worked as an associate professor in the College of Business teaching international marketing. What he loved the most was working with the students. Through the years, even many years later, we would be somewhere and some young man would come up to him and say, "Aren't you professor Bogart?" And they would start talking. And sure enough, that was one of Ray's students. And it was such a rewarding thing for him because he just enjoyed interacting with them so much.

The two of us met at Knox Presbyterian Church; they had a singles group. There were seven other couples that had also been going together for several years. And we all got engaged and got married within a couple years of each other. One of the things that we enjoyed very much was the singles group would go Christmas caroling. So after we got married Ray and I continued that tradition, and he would call nursing homes and make plans for us to go out and carol at nursing homes. And then after we would go caroling, everybody would come back to our house and we'd have a big party. We did that clear up until COVID.

His favorite hobby was collecting stamps from all over the world. And he started doing that as a child because his dad was interested in exporting and he would get letters with fascinating stamps from all these interesting places that Ray wanted to know more about. On Jeopardy! they would be asking questions about a river in some country or something, and he immediately would recognize it. And then funny thing, our daughter went on to be on college Jeopardy!, and I think her interest in that was also because of her dad; they would compete watching Jeopardy! and holler out the answers.

Ray and I were married for 45 years. Every time we went anywhere, we always held hands, even when we were gray-haired older people. And people would giggle and they'd say, "Oh, you two are so cute." People thought we were just being cutesy or something, but it's just what we would do.

When Ray had pneumonia, they were allowed one visitor per day and that was me. So he never got to see our daughter, Erin. The only thing we could do was, her little girl had a homework assignment to read to someone and so every day after school she would call and read a book out loud to grandpa on FaceTime.

Ray was in a nursing facility to build up his strength because he'd gotten kind of weak and so they sent him there for rehab. Two of the employees in the wing where he was had COVID and gave it to him, and two days later he died.

I had no contact with him once he went into that facility. And they didn't even call me to tell me they took him to the hospital. The call I got was from some doctor in the emergency room at Jewish Hospital asking my permission to intubate him.

That's how I found out; can you imagine? It was a horrible time. And you feel so alone.

We have a son, Eric, who lives in Toronto, Canada, and he has a little girl. And unfortunately with COVID, they weren't allowed to cross the border; he wasn't able to come to Ray's funeral. He had lots of input; we did FaceTiming. And he even helped pick out Ray's outfit that he would wear for a visitation. He and his sister worked as a team. But everything he had to do was long distance, which made it so so hard.

It's just, I don't know — this whole thing has been just terrible for everybody. That's not just my story. I mean, I've heard this from so many people about what they've gone through. It's terrible.

But we had a lovely, wonderful life together. He was just such a loving person.

George Freudiger

George Freudiger with his girlfriend Joyce.
George Freudiger with his girlfriend Joyce.

Brittany Freudiger of College Hill remembers her grandfather, George Freudiger, who died of COVID-19 in October 2020.

He was a lifelong Cincinnatian. He grew up in Mount Adams, and he was one of 10 children, so good Catholic family. They they lived there for most of his childhood and then they move to Fairmount. So he grew up in in a lot of different neighborhoods, but he ended up ultimately raising his family in Price Hill.

He was a lifelong entrepreneur. He started several different companies, most of them in signage and display. This company was named GeoGraph, and he always would have to explain, "geography without the 'y.' " It's a family run company that's still continuing on today with my dad and his brothers and sister.

George worked until the day he died. That was something he was so proud of. And, you know, they tried to get him to semi-retire and he was just not about that life.

He was one of those guys where you just never had to worry if he was proud — he would tell you. Like he would just text you out of the blue, and see something that you posted on Facebook and just comment on it. That was just his way.

He was a lifelong Republican, very much into social activism in his own community. And so that's where we really found common ground, is he believed in, "to whom much is given much is expected." And so he expected us all to give back to our local community, whether that was through our church, or through civic engagement.

He was all about his family. One year, when I was 10, we packed up the whole family and took a charter bus to Panama City, Florida. He always said that was one of his favorite memories in life, to be sitting in the back of a bus on the way to Florida and just looking out and seeing everybody on that bus were his favorite people. And I still hold that so dear, because it's hard to wrangle 25 grandkids and four kids and their spouses and everybody together.

George Freudiger with family to celebrate his grandson's wedding in 2018.
Eivan's Photo Inc.
George Freudiger with family to celebrate his grandson's wedding in 2018.

He went into the hospital on a Friday and he was there over the weekend, the next week, and then he passed that next Sunday. So it was 10 days, pretty much, from diagnosis [of COVID-19] to the time he passed.

I saw him very briefly in February [2020] right before everything shut down. And then my husband and I were very, very strict. We didn't see anybody for about six months. The first time we had really gone anywhere in public was that October for his funeral.

If it would have been regular times, he would have been one of those guys who had a line around the block to get in to see him. It should have been a raucous celebration of what a great guy was. And still today, we keep saying we're going to get together and do that. But every time we plan something, another variant comes up and we don't want to put anybody else at risk. So we're still waiting. But eventually we will give him the party he deserves.

I just don't think that we are collectively ready to deal with the reckoning of the mourning process. Because it just seems like every third person you speak to has experienced a close personal loss. And I think the thing that stands out for me is the erasure of it all; almost like everybody's so wanting and hoping to get back to normal that it almost feels like the grief of it is something we're kind of delaying.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.