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Blue Angels Salute Chicago's Frontline Workers, COVID-19 Patients; 'We Were All Very Thrilled'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Eyes across the Chicago area turned to the sky midday on Tuesday, as seven Blue Angels jets roared overhead in a patriotic salute to healthcare workers, first responders, essential workers, and COVID-19 patients.

The flyover began along the lakefront near the Hyde Park neighborhood, passing by University of Chicago Medical Center. The Blue Angels took a winding path over the city and suburbs to pass by hospitals all across the region, before zooming back along the lakefront.

Neighbors, frontline workers, and others gathered on rooftops and sidewalks, and watched through hospital windows as the Blue Angels flew in precision formation in the skies above.

Hospital workers said the flyover provided a joyful break from the past two months for sleep-deprived healthcare staff who have been stressed by the constant work of saving lives during the pandemic.

"It's great that people understand that we need a little boost from time to time, and it helps us a lot," Weiss Memorial Hospital nurse Salvador Soliva said.

For at least a few minutes on Tuesday, some hospital staff were able to step away from their vital work to watch the Blue Angels dip their wings in gratitude and respect for frontline workers.

"You see a lot of suffering. It's really hard to do that every day," Soliva said. "It weighs on me and weighs on everybody."

Outside Northwestern Memorial Hospital, staffers gathered outside applauded as one woman provided her own personal salute to healthcare workers, walking by with a sign reading "Thank You Hospital Workers."

At Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, staffers were encouraged to watch through windows. Dozens of workers and neighbors gathered on sidewalks and parking garage roofs at Christ to watch the flyover, including one man who lounged in a lawn chair.

People gathered at Weiss Memorial Hospital in the Uptown neighborhood broke out into patriotic song even before the F/A-18 Hornets roared along the lakefront.

Frederic Bacon, a Navy veteran and radiology clerk at Weiss Memorial, said interacting with co-workers like this, feeling their broader sense of community, doesn't really happen anymore.

"When we came out, we got to see people we haven't seen for weeks. We were all very thrilled," Bacon told CBS 2's Vince Gerasole.

At Rush University Medical Center, nurses who came out to view the flight have been battling a monster in the walls inside for 68 long days.

"Oh my God – it was just awesome, so awesome," Rush nurse Jackie Hoskins told CBS 2's Marissa Parra.

Even a mask could not hide the exhaustion in the nurses' eyes and voices.

"You can't imagine working on these floors how it's hard, you know – especially when you're working in an ICU, you're constantly in that room, you're constantly behind a mask," Hoskins said.

The emotion caught nurses by surprise. They are used to staying strong for their patients.

"A lot of emotions," said a Rush nurse named Michelle.

"It really allowed us to feel what we've been holding in, I think," said Rush nurse specialist Mary Carole Racelis.

But this was their chance to let it all out, before getting back into the longest marathon of their lives.

"I think it's like, 'We got this,' you know?" Hoskins said. "We got it."

Something else that was pretty remarkable – when CBS 2 was filming the jets and the doctors and nurses outside Rush, Parra caught a glimpse of what it looked like for patients or staff watching from the windows on the 11th floor.

Those are ICU windows, which Parra is told are majority COVID-19 patients, so this display of America strong was for them too. Rush said several hundred COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized and released, and a fifth of all COVID-19 patients in Chicago have been diagnosed at the hospital.

All in all, that flyover, that instant of collective thank you for the sacrifices and the risks healthcare workers have been taking, was almost over before it started, but somehow inspired them to carry on.

"It seems like every day is difficult," Soliva said. "You're just doing a job, and you're helping people, and that's all that counts."

The Blue Angels also performed flyovers in Detroit and Indianapolis on Tuesday. The Navy air team also has flown over New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Trenton, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, New Orleans, Miami, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., during the pandemic.

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