Covid-19’s toll so far: Nearly 150,000 dead Americans
The funeral director had no choice but to tell families that their loved ones could not be cremated, could not be buried, could not be put anywhere but in a truck in his back lot. There were so many bodies in his building that there was no place else for them to go.
The next appointments at the crematorium are two weeks away. The cemeteries are little better, backed up at least 10 days. At the Rivera Funeral Home, the calls keep coming: It has handled more than 100 deaths related to covid-19 in three weeks.
“I’ve been in this business for almost 40 years now, and I have never seen anything like this,” Rivera said. “This is totally out of a horror movie. I saw what was happening in New York a few months ago and I thought I understood it. I didn’t get it.”
It took two months for covid-19 to kill 50,000 Americans, and nearly half of those deaths took place in one state, New York. On Wednesday, the death toll approached 150,000, a milestone of trauma and tragedy that marks the coronavirus’s leap from big cities into suburbs and rural areas, especially in Texas, Florida, California and Arizona.
Battles rage over masks (Who recommended what and when?), tests (Why so few and why so slow?) and reopening (Bars? Restaurants? Schools?).
But the bottom line is irrefutable: The United States has suffered more deaths from covid-19 than any other country, by far.
Americans are dying from the virus-related illness at a per capita rate four times that of Germany and Iraq, five times that of Russia and Bahrain. The next-closest death toll from the coronavirus is in Brazil, where nearly 90,000 people have died. China, where the global crisis began, has reported fewer than 5,000 dead.
In Hidalgo County, no single day of the epidemic resulted in five covid-19 deaths until the last week of June. Then the virus swept through like a hurricane, leaving a trail of 1,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases a day in early July. The bodies started turning up at Rivera’s funeral home soon thereafter.
For a long time, the Mexican Consulate called Rivera every few days to ask whether any of the deceased people at his facility were originally from Mexico, as many were. If so, the consul would offer the family burial help. This month, the consulate stopped calling, Rivera said.
“It’s just too many cases,” he said. “For them. For us. Too many.”
On Saturday, Rivera picked up three bodies. Then, on Sunday, nine more. That had not happened before.
“We do this for a living, we do this every day, but this is different,” said Rivera, a third-generation funeral director. “Last week, I met with a family that lost three members in one weekend — the husband, the wife and a niece. They want to touch their relative. I tell them, you really have to be more afraid, and I don’t recommend touching. But how can I tell them they can’t?”
When he goes home each night, those scenes come with him. He has five children, ranging in age from 8 to 35, and he tries to keep them in a bubble. He thinks of the younger ones as somehow in suspended animation, on a seemingly permanent spring break, because they left school for vacation in March and never returned. He doesn’t expect they will attend classes anytime soon.
He admonishes them: “You can’t just go up to people and hug them.”
But in his business, Rivera has learned that “we don’t live in a perfect world.” A man called him up, desperate to be at the memorial service for his mother, who died of covid-19. But he couldn’t attend, because he had the virus, too.
“And then I see him in my lobby,” Rivera said. “I said, ‘David, I can’t let you in the building.’ ‘I’m feeling okay,’ he tells me. I said, ‘I can’t let you in.’ ”
At this point, people know what they’re supposed to do. Six weeks ago, when Rivera asked people to put on masks, some would get angry. Now, he said, “everybody wears a mask.” But that shift came late, three months after the county’s top official, Judge Richard Cortez, warned Hidalgo residents that “unless we take the necessary precautions, a tsunami would overtake the community.”
Last week, Cortez announced it: “That tsunami is here.”
But Rivera sees a reality that is both stark and complex. People need to say goodbye to their loved ones, so they show up even if they’re infected. Rivera takes their temperature and sometimes has to turn them away. It keeps him up at night: He’s supposed to provide comfort, and here he is, deepening people’s pain.
He prays every night now that he never becomes cold to people’s losses.
“There’s so many things now that I never thought of before,” Rivera said. “If the president was here, he’d make a lot of changes. He’d see what is really happening. He’d see what I see. And what I see, I don’t think we’ll ever recover.”
Of the nearly 150,000 Americans who have died of covid-19, more than 3,400 lived in Arizona, and 128 of those deaths have occurred in Apache County, much of which is in the Navajo Nation, along the state’s northeast edges. The county’s death rate is among the highest in the country — almost four times the Arizona average.
Two-thirds of the coronavirus-related deaths in Apache County have come in the past two months.
One of those deaths took Anne Calabrese’s husband, Dennis, from her. They had shared everything for 27 years — a home, a bed, an abiding faith and, last month, the virus.
They had been so very careful.
“We didn’t play around,” Anne said. “We followed all the protocols. We knew people who had it. I thought, ‘We’re good.’ ”
Dennis was getting up there in years — he was 77 — and she was 61, and they chose to seclude themselves almost entirely. Almost.
“Just that one time did it,” Anne said. “I guess we all tend to put our guards down after a time.”
Three of their grandchildren had been staying with them in St. Michaels since March, allowing their mother, who lived five hours away, to keep working even with the girls out of school.
Then, in June, the kids’ mother came for a visit. A few days after she left, the symptoms hit her; she got a test — positive. Dennis and Anne promptly fell ill. All three girls got it, too.
The Calabreses both ended up in the hospital — different facilities, though Anne managed to visit Dennis as it became clear his lungs were not going to recover.
“I was so sick, I couldn’t stay,” she said. Her son, wrapped in protective gear, went in to be with Dennis for his final moments.
The disease took Dennis in less than three weeks. Anne has come home from the hospital now, still weak but getting better. Her daughter is there to take care of her, and they both wear masks anytime Anne emerges from her bedroom.
As difficult and heartbreaking as Dennis’s death was, it was worse because there was no way to mark it, to be with the people who mattered.
“It’s like you’re out there by yourself,” Anne said. “Nobody can hug you. Nobody can embrace you. You’re aside, by yourself.”
They had a quick virtual memorial; a real service must wait until Anne fully recovers. Dennis, for many years an elementary school teacher, was a missionary and Anne was active in their church, but the only services held in recent months were online, and their pastor had covid-19, too.
Even in her solitude, even in her pain and sleeplessness, Anne finds light. “My comfort is the Lord,” she said. “I can still pray, with my friends, through the phone, through Facebook. And now that I’m pretty healthy again, at least I know I have the antibodies and I can help people. I can tell them that this is all real. I can’t imagine how they can say it’s a hoax. A lot of that is politics. I just despise politics. This is real. It’s all real when it comes to your home.”
Of the nearly 150,000 Americans who have died of covid-19, more than 1,600 lived in South Carolina, and 49 died in Orangeburg County, where a quarter of all coronavirus-related deaths have occurred in the past week alone.
Rosemary Griffin and her sister, Wanda Smith, were determined not to become faceless statistics.
They did a big shopping expedition back in March to stock up for a long seclusion. They bought supplies in bulk — masks, gloves, hand sanitizer. They resolved never to leave the house without masks. Ordinarily, they would go to their annual church convention, and their niece wanted to go, but the sisters said no.
When everything shut down in March, Griffin, 73, a longtime music teacher, lost her income from performing at funerals. She and Smith, 69, who is retired from a church child-development program, also saw their volunteer work — teaching music and performing arts to schoolchildren — come to a near halt.
The women had plenty to do, though. They had taken in two of Smith’s grandchildren so Smith’s daughter could keep working after schools shut down.
Then, earlier this month, a family emergency led Smith to leave the protective bubble of home to visit an ailing relative at a hospital near Orangeburg. Outside the facility, people clustered, many without masks.
Within days, Smith began to cough.
“Then a fever,” she said. A couple of days later, she could barely breathe. Nausea, vomiting, the whole works. Her sister and her grandchildren, ages 4 and 6, were infected, too, though the children have had mild cases.
By the time Smith made it to the emergency room at Orangeburg Regional Medical Center, the county was in full covid-19 crisis. Orangeburg, 76 miles northwest of Charleston, is a mostly African American town with an economic base of small factories surrounded by timberland and family farms. For the first three months of the epidemic, the county was modestly affected, but after South Carolina reopened for Memorial Day, the number of cases exploded. In the past two weeks, cases in Orangeburg County have nearly doubled.
The area’s biggest hospital was overwhelmed and had to erect tents to handle the flow of patients.
Smith was parked in an emergency-room hallway for a day and a half before being moved to an overflow ward with four other covid-19 patients.
“I was in so much distress that I didn’t care where I was,” she said. “I just wanted some help.”
An X-ray confirmed she had pneumonia; her coronavirus test was positive. As doctors gave her albuterol and antibiotics and considered whether she needed a ventilator, Smith focused on a higher power. “I serve a God that once I give him my prayer requests, I don’t worry,” she said.
Stuck at home, Griffin was hit by the disease, too, though not as acutely as her sister.
“God is in control of everything,” Griffin said. “He knows what he’s doing — even if he’s doing something that we don’t understand.”
The sisters’ pastor, the Rev. Donald Greene, said their travails are all too common. Churches, mostly closed to worshipers since March, have struggled to help, not only with health care and spiritual support but with information, he said.
“Church on Sunday was the way to receive the daily briefing,” he said. “Covid, it’s created a fog of fear. And that fear has put a lot of people behind doors mentally.”
Greene has seen the spread not only of the virus but of a dangerous stigma. People are reluctant to discuss it — even at funerals, he said, where family members shy from revealing the cause of death.
Smith returned home Friday, slightly improved. Family and friends leave care packages outside, and FaceTime connects the sisters to the outside world. Griffin looks forward to getting back to singing and hugging.
“I just thank God the children don’t have symptoms,” she said. “We tried to do a birthday breakfast for them and we both ran out of energy. But we’ll get to it eventually.”
One of those victims was Janet Forte’s father, Juan Reynaldo Forte, who spent some of the first and last days of his 85th year in a bed at Jackson South Medical Center, 20 miles southwest of downtown Miami.
By the time Janet got the call from her brother that their father had a high fever and had tested positive for the virus, it had been more than six months since she had seen him. He was strong for his age and loved to boast to his daughter about how many push-ups he had done, but still, she had kept her distance for fear of infecting him.
“I last got to see him in person before Christmas,” she said. “I still have his gifts that I never got to give him.”
Juan Forte lived with Janet’s brother, who had taken care to limit their father’s exposure to other people. But they made shopping ventures to Costco, and shortly before Juan fell ill, he and his son attended a house party in their neighborhood, Janet said.
On July 17, Juan’s doctor gave his daughter a nurse’s phone number so she could see her dad via video chat. His organs were failing.
On the phone, Juan looked skeletal.
“He opened his eyes a little bit when I sang him a song,” Janet said. “But after the FaceTime ended, I realized there was no hope.”
Juan Forte died two days later. He was one of 87 people in Miami-Dade County who died of covid-19 on July 19.
His daughter intends to have him cremated, but the funeral home hasn’t picked up the body from the hospital, because of the backlog. And the family will not have a memorial until the pandemic eases.
“If I were to have a service, my dad’s twin brother would definitely show up, despite covid,” Janet said. “Why would I put him and others in the family at risk? It hurts and it sucks because my father deserves to be remembered in a proper way. But not at the cost of anyone else.”
Dixon reported from Charleston, S.C. Francisco Alvarado in Miami contributed to this report.