Mark Collins received his Covid-19 vaccine earlier this year through work. His husband, Tony Murray — his partner of 25 years, his co-host for front yard barbecues, his accomplice for getaways to Las Vegas and Atlantic City — had not yet gotten his.
And then this month, Murray started feeling sick. Collins did not.
“And then he just kept getting sicker and sicker,” said Collins, who lived with Murray in New York’s Rockaway Beach. “And it was just so overwhelming.”
Murray, 60, an old soul who cooked huge spreads of soul food and loved Mahalia Jackson, died on March 16. His death was another tally in the nation’s confirmed Covid-19 death toll of more than 550,000 — one that is still growing by 1,000 every day. Each has been a tragedy in its own right, an individual loss that has been drowned out in a period of mass, unfathomable death. But with vaccines rolling out, and promises of a return to life come summer, the grief of losing loved ones now is shaded in some cases by the anguish that they made it through so much of the pandemic and were so close to being protected.
“We got through the whole year, and then he got sick,” Collins said, his voice breaking. “I think about that all the time. I don’t understand why it had to happen like this.”
It’s difficult to know the counterfactuals of Collins and Murray’s case — what would have happened if Collins had not been vaccinated, for example. But public health authorities fear that with infections remaining at high levels nationwide and trending upward in many states, more people will get sick, face hospitalization, and die — people who would otherwise have made it through the pandemic if the infections could be staved off for another month or two, a time when the country will be awash in vaccines.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential in where we are, and so much reason for hope,” Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a briefing Monday. “But right now I’m scared,” she added, urging Americans “to just please hold on a little while longer” so “all the people that we all love will still be here when this pandemic ends.”
Ethel Roberts, 79, also died March 16. The former nursing assistant from Mattoon, Ill., had retired from her job to become a full-time grandma, entertaining her grandkids by dancing to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.”
At this time of the year, Roberts’ daughter Crystal Cohoon would normally be thinking about taking her mother flower shopping to set up her garden for the year. This year, she was thinking how fortunate they were to still hold a funeral for her mother at a time when so many families were having to put off memorials.
“For a year, I was just so scared she was going to catch Covid,” Cohoon said, adding that her mother’s COPD had put her at higher risk of more severe Covid-19. “And then she did.”
Roberts got sick late last year, Cohoon said, and like her, many people who died from Covid-19 this month were infected weeks if not months ago, a reflection of the long tail of both the disease and of the winter surges that peaked in the U.S. in January. Though most people clear an infection within days, Covid-19 can be a slow killer, marooning people in hospital beds for weeks before they ultimately succumb or causing complications from which they never recover.
But as the weeks go by, some deaths will increasingly feel like they might not have happened if vaccine campaigns were moving a bit faster, if we could hold off bumps in spread for a bit longer, if we could drive down transmission a bit more. It’s why experts argue governors and mayors are erring in rolling back restrictions too quickly. They’re pleading with individuals to keep up with the basics of slowing spread — masking and distancing and avoiding crowds — for just a few short months until more people are protected, to try to save as many lives as possible until vaccinations get us to a better point.
There is a lot of positive news about the Covid-19 situation in the U.S., including regularly hitting new daily vaccination records and far lower case counts than the winter. But that also belies the reality that lots of people are still getting infected and dying. The numbers would have once startled us, but reporters last week didn’t even ask President Biden about the pandemic at his first press conference. Meanwhile, the virus is still contracted at workplaces and houses of worship, at bars and gyms, from family and friends.
And while the steady stream of daily death figures has morphed into a din, the details in this month’s obituaries and tributes puncture that with sharp reminders of individual loss.
Jo Thompson, 92: a barrier-breaking Black jazz artist whose performance once charmed Frank Sinatra. She died March 9. Earnestine Jake Lehi, 77: a member of the Indian Peaks Band of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah who taught Paiute traditions and was “an irreplaceable cultural resource.” She died March 6. Daniel Crisp, 48: “a notorious practical joker” who sent a 100-pound medicine ball to his brother from his hospital bed, because he knew he would have trouble moving it. He died March 8.
“He did not have the kind of accomplishments that hang on walls or bring in massive paychecks, but he made the world a softer and brighter place for his having lived,” states the obituary for Scott Douglas, 47, who had Down syndrome and died from Covid-19 March 2. “That we thought we could teach him anything was our first mistake; it was we who learned what it truly means to be loving.”
In some cases, the true impact of the lost ones’ lives was only made clear after their deaths. Juan Flores, 58, of Gonzales, Calif., was a plant foreman at a school district and coached youth and high school soccer. But Flores was so humble that his family hadn’t realized how deeply he had touched his community until he got sick and died, when his players turned out to raise money to help his family pay for medical expenses.
Covid-19 swept through Flores’ family in January, and he and his 30-year-old son, Michael, both ended up in the hospital, with Michael having to be placed on a ventilator, said Flores’ niece, Esabel Cervantes Babione. On Jan. 31, Michael came off the ventilator, and less than an hour and a half later, Flores was placed on one. Michael has continued his recovery; Flores died March 12.
“In our minds, he did what a father does,” Cervantes Babione told STAT. “He prayed for his son, he probably negotiated with God and made a deal.”
In other cases, communities are already working to sustain the legacies of people lost to Covid-19. Omar Jahwar, 47, was a Dallas pastor and advocate who for decades devoted himself to reducing gang violence and fostering commonality. In 2016, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan called Jahwar and his colleague “front-line poverty fighters.” The married father of four got sick with Covid-19 last year and struggled with complications; he died March 11 — one year exactly after the World Health Organization classified Covid-19 as a pandemic.
“Bishop Omar cut his teeth on the belief in people, the redemptive idea that anybody could arise above their past no matter how dark it was, whatever mistakes they made,” Antong Lucky, Jahwar’s colleague at the nonprofit Urban Specialists, told STAT, adding that Jahwar’s work would continue. “He believed people had this innate redemptive ability.”
Already, vaccines are changing the demographics of Covid-19 deaths. Since they started being deployed late last year with priority for older Americans, the shots have drastically closed what was once a chasm in death rates among age groups, federal data show. With so many of the most vulnerable already protected, any increases in cases now likely won’t be followed by as much of a corresponding spike in deaths as earlier surges.
But while Covid-19 hospitalization and death rates are much lower for younger people, they’re not zero. Experts are also concerned that while the U.S. vaccine rollout has succeeded in narrowing age-based death rates, it hasn’t yet addressed — and could be exacerbating — racial and ethnic disparities. People of color have not only been dying from Covid-19 at higher rates than white people, but dying younger. And so far, vaccines have not been reaching people of color at the rates they’ve been reaching white people, as authorities scramble to improve access.
“I worry that any improvements we see related to infection rates and death rates would lag for groups like racial and ethnic minorities, who’ve already been shouldering the burden of Covid in the United States,” said Renu Tipirneni, a health policy researcher at the University of Michigan.
Among those mourning Murray — the old soul who lived in Rockaway Beach — is his nephew, Jason Collins, who in 2013 became the first openly gay NBA player. Murray and Mark Collins were there that year in Boston when Jason walked in his first Pride parade, and at Jason’s first Brooklyn Nets game in 2014 after he came out in a Sports Illustrated cover story. Jason Collins cited his uncles’ relationship in the piece.
“For a confused young boy, I can think of no better role model of love and compassion,” Collins wrote.
Jason Collins told STAT he learned how to be a better cook from Murray, and that he learned patience. He thought about how soon Murray might have been vaccinated.
“It’s heartbreaking on that level,” said Collins, who had Covid-19 last March. “It’s heartbreaking that a lot of people are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, yet the virus is still in our communities.”