Sandra Fox was a fighter.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

As a reporter, one of the great joys of the job over the years has always been the amazing and inspiring privilege of meeting people like Sandra.

She was a county worker who turned into a labor activist — not by choice, but because she saw a need to stand up to her bosses against unsafe working conditions and how taxpayer money could be better spent. 

These kinds of people stand up.

Against all odds and risks. 

They stand up.

That was Sandra, always there to stand up. 

Covid killed her this year. 

She was one of the more than 4,800 Orange County residents who were killed by the coronavirus this past year, according to Orange County Health Care Agency statistics

Sadly, Sandra was part of the Winter wave that flooded local hospitals heading into the New Year.

She was dead by Feb. 12.

For her mom, Frieda Fox, one of the toughest parts was the funeral delays after Sandra died, something she said that has caused her so much distress.

“We need to be advocates for those who have lost their loved ones … we need to have some resources for them,” Frieda told me. “You have no idea how hard this is — to not be able to put your loved one to rest. On top of your pain, the agony is prolonged by all this.

I feel blessed…some can’t even bury their loved ones. 

It’s not closure you get.

Just goodbye.

That’s what we want. What we need.”

I still remember hearing about Sandra’s death from another labor activist, and feeling my legs buckle from the shock — trying to reconcile how tough and resilient she was against the fact that she had lost to Covid. 

What? Where? When? How? 

It took me a bit to find Sandra’s family, who were more than willing to talk.

See, County of Orange officials have spent the last year making sure that no one can know who has died from Covid or where those infections happened.

They say the good of not knowing anything about Covid deaths far outweighs any benefits from having cold, hard data about what’s happened.

Yet, locking down public information about deaths or outbreaks hasn’t helped county officials manage the pandemic. 

Now, in public, county supervisors have yet to address or memorialize the dead.

Or talk much about the needs of survivors.

That time is long overdue.

Imagine if an airliner went down over Orange County skies killing 500 people every month. 

Every single month. 

Would we go this long before memorializing the dead or publicly talking about getting affected families much needed support?  

The Santa Ana-based nonprofit community organization, Latino Health Access, took it upon themselves to honor the dead last year with a mobile Dia de los Muertos float. 

The City of Irvine memorialized their Covid dead on the city website and helps connect people to federal resources for funeral costs reimbursement. 

The challenge during Covid is that there’s been no rest for anyone.

And the deaths keep coming. 

Even recently, when we are so thankful that hospitalizations have gone down, deaths continue to mount. 

For Frieda Fox, she had to watch Sandra die remotely through FaceTime, eventually getting a phone call at 5 a.m., saying, “your daughter is dying.”

“It is terrible,” she recalls. “I was shaking from head to toe.

It’s hard.”

Covid has been an ongoing nightmare in so many ways — consider that most families I am talking to are describing incredibly long delays just to bury their dead relatives.

That’s something that can be potentially dealt with, if addressed publicly, say by county supervisors who have $540 million at their disposal. 

Maybe to help speed up burials by sending staff to help funeral homes?

Now, government leaders are increasingly reluctant to release public information, especially about death, tragedy, disaster.

Especially in real time. 

Yet that’s what really keeps us free people. 

Access to real information. 

In real time.

That’s the only way to truly hold our government accountable. 

It’s also the only way to know that people like Sandra have lived…and died. 

“It’s only numbers, numbers, numbers,” said Frieda Fox, Sandra’s mom. 

Frieda said human faces are lost in the sea of numbers.

“The way they report it and talk about it, It’s just statistics. That means nothing. Listening to officials and the media describe people who have passed because of Covid makes them sound like phantoms,” she said. “They don’t count as a person. It’s just a casualty of war. They don’t acknowledge it.” 

Sandra Fox, 51, was one of Orange County’s most vocal, local and aggressive labor leaders, representing some of the most overworked and underpaid employees, the county’s social services eligibility workers, for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. 

She was vocal and active on behalf of her members and her clients. 

“Human Resources hated her,” said her mom, Frieda.

She was a hard charger, especially when armed with facts. 

When it came to organizing, Sandra was the all-in type. 

I remember oftentimes meeting Sandra and other workers in her living room, listening about working conditions across the County of Orange.

She eventually lost election as union president, but kept active on a host of issues and elections. 

And despite all the battles, Sandra was a positive, upbeat person. 

She wasn’t handed an easy life, but was a person who was not afraid of battle. 

As a youngster growing up in Orange, her rebellious nature led to bouts with trouble and eventually a ticket to Mexico City to finish high school with relatives, where she eventually graduated as the class valedictorian.

Right after high school, she came back to Orange County, got married and became a mother to her first son, Alan, now 23 and living in Texas as he started his own family. 

After a decade of marriage, she would separate from her first husband and would later have a second son, Diego, now 17. 

As she often told me, she understood what life was like for a single mother and was always incredibly proud of her two sons.

Beyond family, Sandra poured herself into the union, her mother told me. 

She had also recently found a longtime partner, Craig, who she had just started living with. 

No one is exactly clear where Sandra caught Covid.

She was cleared to work from home by county officials last year after Covid outbreaks started hitting her department, given her condition of diabetes. 

From left, Diego Reynoso, 17, and Frieda Fox, hold a photo of Sandra Fox, who passed to coronavirus in February. Sandra leaves 2 sons, Alan and Diego. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

For Frieda, losing Sandra has been really hard as she processes the loss of such a major personality in her life along with finding the strength to buoy her 17-year old grandson, Diego who this past year should have been enjoying his last year of football as a senior, but is instead mourning the loss of a mother at such an early age.

In places like Santa Ana and Anaheim, places so hard hit by Covid, this kind of drama must be playing out for so many families. 

Could the County help school districts better respond? Maybe identifying kids like Diego, who may need some help right now?

You can imagine, Sandra was there for him at every step, always a solid shoulder where to find advice. 

Diego, meanwhile, is pressing on, with Frieda’s help looking to graduate, become a welding apprentice as he likes to work with his hands.

Frieda says she’ll continue soldiering on, working to help her two grandsons put the pieces together on a new life without Sandra’s shoulder.

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