“COVID-19 Took A Toll On My Family”: The Virus Killed This Costco Worker, Her Sister, And Her Mother

Regina Lim Lee was born on Aug. 21, 1961. Her father, Albert Chin Lee, an immigrant from China’s Guangdong province, served in the US Army and later brought over his spouse, Susie, upon completing his service. They had four children, with Regina being the youngest.

Raymond, the second oldest, recalled a blue-collar upbringing. The family settled in the Seattle area, and the children went to Franklin High School, from which Regina graduated in 1979. Around that time, her parents opened New Gallery Garden Restaurant, a gathering spot for Asian American teens that served burgers and steaks and hosted local musicians. The kids worked there while attending college.

While two of her elder siblings attended the University of Washington, Regina went to beautician school, but never finished. Instead, she worked as a travel agent and eventually joined Costco Travel, which the wholesaler started in 2000. She told her family it was a good, stable job, allowing her to provide for her mother, who was by then widowed, and with whom she and her older sister, Willa, lived in Everett, Washington.

“Regina was a fun-loving person, who liked to joke around, while Willa was the serious middle child,” Raymond recalled. “Both took care of my mom, and there was nothing for her to worry about.”

At Costco Travel, Regina was an institution. Having worked there for 20 years, she interacted at one point with almost everyone in the office, whether it was sharing a vanpool or leaving them surprise chocolates while they were away. While she rarely offered details about her personal life, she loved to organize office potlucks and celebrate colleagues’ birthdays to bring workers out of their cubicles.

On her last day at work, however, coworkers remembered Regina’s soft voice and quiet giggling were replaced by a cough that got more noticeable throughout the day. As the calls rolled in from worried travelers, Costco kept the agents crowded in desk pods where working spaces were less than 6 feet apart. Some showed early symptoms of COVID-19 — including fatigue and cough — but still came in, hoping not to use vacation days to take time off.

It took a full 24 hours for Costco to notify Regina’s colleagues of how she died, leading the company to close the travel office for cleaning the day after her death. By the end of the week, they were back at their desks.

“I was so mortified that they didn’t close the office when my friend died,” said the anonymous travel employee, who has been with the company for more than a decade. “People kept coming back after that, and it was just so wrong!”

Raymond didn’t find out Regina had been sick until Willa told him that she had suddenly died. Regina had collapsed at home, and although paramedics attempted CPR on her, they could revive her. As the person whom his sisters called when something needed to be repaired at the house, Raymond felt helpless when he was told that the house was under quarantine and that he couldn’t visit.

“I always felt like a superhero for the family,” he said. “But this is the one time you can’t help the family out at all.”

Willa, a training director at a biomedical company, developed a 101-degree fever the morning Regina died and was admitted to an intensive care unit seven days later. Two days after Willa arrived at the hospital, her mother, Susie, didn’t answer the door during a wellness check, leading paramedics to break in and find her collapsed on the ground.

Susie died on March 27, officially of a staph infection, though a doctor told Raymond that coronavirus tests weren’t up to standard and that she had also likely contracted the disease. Willa died on March 29, spending her last moments on a ventilator.

Regina and Willa are survived by their brothers, William and Raymond Lee. Susie is survived by her sons William and Raymond, sister Margaret, and brothers Albert, David, Edwin, and James.

This year, there will be no celebrations for Chinese New Year, when the Lee family would traditionally gather at Regina and Willa’s Everett home. Raymond told BuzzFeed News in December that he is social-distancing from his older brother, William, and taking whatever precautions are needed.

“This is going to be a very lonely year,” he said.

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