As the United States hits a turning point in the Covid-19 pandemic, families who've recently lost a loved one to the coronavirus are experiencing a distinct kind of grief, mourning even as "so many others are celebrating newfound freedom"—and giving rise to "thorny" new questions about vaccinations, Sarah Mervosh writes for the New York Times.
According to Mervosh, "the virus outlook in this country is the best it has been at any point in the pandemic," with about 50% of U.S. residents "protected with at least one dose of a vaccine," and the rates of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths "lower than they have been in many months."
But even as officials roll back coronavirus restrictions and large swaths of society begin to return to normal, an estimated 450 people across the country are dying of the coronavirus each day—leaving "hundreds of families dealing with a new kind of pandemic grief," Mervosh writes.
According to Mervosh, these deaths are different from those when the Covid-19 death rate was highest in that they are occurring in small numbers throughout the country, rather than in large spikes or surges in distinct regions. In addition, the people passing away in recent weeks have been slightly younger—in their 50s and 60s—than those in earlier waves, when people 85 and older accounted for far more deaths.
A lonely, complicated sorrow
As Mervosh explains that, unlike earlier in the pandemic, when "most Americans were seeing their lives affected by Covid, relatives of people dying of the virus now describe a lonely sorrow," mourning even as others celebrate a return to normalcy.
For instance, Kole Riley said his final goodbyes to his mother, Peggy Riley, as she died of Covid-19 on the same day CDC announced that vaccinated people would no longer have to wear masks in most situations.
"Angry is the best and most polite way I could say it," Riley said of his experience seeing maskless shoppers later that day in a convenience store. "I didn't think I would be dealing with this when all the arrows are pointing back to normal."
"It's like being related to the soldier who gets shot before the armistice kicks in," Toni Miles, an epidemiologist at the University of Georgia, said. "Everybody else is insanely happy, as they should be, because the war has stopped, but you lost somebody during a period when nobody wants to grieve."
'Shaming the dead'
The grief of these families is further complicated by the fact that the vast majority of recent Covid-related hospitalizations and deaths are occurring among the unvaccinated.
As Mervosh explains, some fell ill before they were eligible for the shots, spurring questions about whether the country's vaccine rollout was "moved quickly enough." Others who passed away "were hesitant to get shots" or simply hadn't gotten around to scheduling their appointment yet.
This situation has generated "a set of difficult questions no one was asking in the early months of the crisis, before vaccines," Mervosh writes. These are questions that, according to Camille Wortman, a grief expert and professor emeritus at Stony Brook University, could make the grief of survivors all the "more intense."
For instance, Hollie Rivers in an interview about the recent Covid-19 death of her husband, 40-year-old Antwone, mentioned that he had not been vaccinated—and then faced "critical comments online," Mervosh writes. According to Hollie, several openly hostile comments were posted on a GoFundMe page she established after Antwone's death, insinuating that because he hadn't been vaccinated, she didn't have a right to ask for help.
"Now I just feel like I want to cancel [the GoFundMe page]," Hollie said. "It's not about money. I would live in a cardboard box if it meant my husband coming back to me and his kids."
Separately, Yvonne Santos, whose husband, Angel, passed away at age 35 from Covid-19, said she feels guilty about Angel's decision not to get vaccinated, citing her then-concerns about how quickly the vaccines had been developed. "I don't really talk about it with anybody else, but I do feel bad, because he didn't really question it as much as I did," she said. "I was the one who was still afraid"
Ultimately, Miles said, the dynamics around Covid-19 deaths among the unvaccinated are like those around lung cancer, diabetes, and certain other diseases. "We are shaming the dead, just like we always have," she said (Mervosh, New York Times, 5/31).