It started innocently enough, friends and family assume, with an Aug. 18 trip to the Grant County Fair in Central Washington. It was an annual outing for Tom and Josie Burko and her 8-year-old daughter, Lillie, and this time they brought Tom’s 70-year-old mother, who lives with them, too.
The tractor pull. Livestock shows. Dog showmanship. Cloggers. Music.
Tragedy followed. The Burkos and Lillie, all unvaccinated, at some point contracted COVID-19. Lillie quarantined for two weeks with a cough and recovered. Her grandmother, who was vaccinated, contracted a breakthrough infection and also recovered.
But Josie Burko, 39, died Aug. 28 at their Moses Lake home. Tom Burko, 38, was rushed to a local hospital and struggled for 11 days before succumbing Sept. 8.
Suddenly without her parents, Lillie flew out of Portland International Airport on Tuesday night to start a new life with her aunt and uncle in the San Diego area.
“It happened so suddenly,” said Jennifer Desantis, a Forest Grove resident and lifelong friend of both parents who has organized a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Lillie. “None of us knew. We didn’t know they’d gone to the fair. I’d talked to Josie a couple days before that. For 30 years we’ve been each other’s sidekicks.”
Josie Burko’s sister, Lynn Schuler, said she’s still shocked the family decided to go to the fair. They’d been having conversations for the entire pandemic about staying safe and healthy. Schuler had only pieced together the story after talking with the Burkos’ housemate and Lillie and managing to unlock Josie Burko’s phone.
It’s impossible to know with certainty if the Burkos became infected at the fair. But in Grant County, Washington — like many rural Oregon counties that have seen cases, hospitalizations and deaths spike amid a surge fueled by the delta variant — vaccination rates are low. At the time, fewer than half of eligible residents in Grant County were fully vaccinated, according to the local public health authority.
Fair organizers told local news outlets they took precautions beforehand to stop it from becoming a super-spreader event. Aware that the Watershed country music festival held in the county July 30-Aug. 1 was linked to 230 cases statewide, they provided masks, hand sanitizer and doubled the number of hand-washing stations. Fair director Jim McKiernan advised those who were concerned about the recent surge in cases to stay home and come back next year.
But no vaccinations or masks were required — in fact, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t announce facial covering requirements for large outdoor gatherings until Sept. 9, a day after Tom Burko died and more than two weeks after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a similar rule.
Fair organizers reported a record 72,000 people attended over the five-day event, nearly a 50% increase since it was last held in 2019. Television reports showed few people wearing masks. County health officials now say some 40 cases have been linked to the fair, though they still have a backlog of several hundred recent cases that have not been investigated and contact-traced.
Samaritan Hospital in Moses Lake is currently experiencing its deepest capacity crisis of the pandemic. Twenty-three of its 38 medical beds are occupied by COVID patients, only two of them vaccinated. All 12 of its intensive care beds are occupied, 10 by COVID-19 patients, with four of them on ventilators. Only one of those patients was vaccinated, said Gretchen Youngren, a spokeswoman for the health care system.
The Burkos didn’t object to the COVID vaccine, per se. “They were 100% pro-vaccination,” Desantis said. But Josie Burko suffered from severe diabetes, a heart murmur and chronic bronchitis and worried her body would react badly. She’d decided to wait until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval of the vaccines and her health recovered.
Her husband suffered from muscular atrophy and was concerned about getting the shots, as well.
“We did talk about it,” said Schuler, speaking earlier this week from Vancouver, Wash., where much of her family live. “They were afraid to take it. They know some people who had adverse effects. They were worried it would agitate or make their conditions worse. Josie was afraid. She was worried it was going to kill her.”
The Burkos grew up in Silverdale, Kitsap County, on the peninsula west of Seattle. They lost contact over the years before reuniting and marrying four years ago. By that point, Josie Burko had a four-year-old daughter from a different relationship.
They loved road trips, movie nights, walks to the park and all the family time they could get. Josie Burko loved Disney movies new and old. Tom Burko was a huge Michael Jordan fan and collected his signature shoes. He was a talented artist.
“She just loved with all her heart, that’s who she was. Family was everything,” said Desantis, who also grew up with the couple in Silverdale. “And he fully acknowledged that Lillie had him wrapped around her little finger.”
For a clan that pined for travel and events, the county fair was the first mass gathering outside their nuclear family in some time. Because she was unvaccinated, Josie Burko, a paid caregiver for the state of Washington, had stopped working in local nursing homes and was only caring for her elderly mother-in-law and a boarder at their home. Because of his condition, Tom Burko didn’t work. So they had spent much of the pandemic fairly isolated.
The first sign seemed innocuous enough. Josie Burko posted on Facebook on Saturday, Aug. 21, three days after the fair, that she had the sniffles: “I hate colds from when the weather is changing,” she wrote. “No sleep last night, so up having ginger tea with lemon.”
But quickly, both she and her husband began developing achy, flu-like symptoms.
“She hadn’t posted anything to Facebook for a few days, and I texted her, ‘Hey Chica, hope everything’s going great. Love you,’” Desantis said. “She responded that everything was great. … The only thing we can think of is that it hit them that fast.”
By midweek, both were having trouble breathing and Lillie had lost her sense of taste, Schuler said. That Wednesday night, the Burkos went to urgent care in Moses Lake, where they all took COVID-19 tests. Josie Burko got a breathing treatment and an inhaler.
Two days later, the results came back. They were all positive.
Early the next morning, Lillie, who was sleeping with her mother, texted their housemate, who was isolating in her own room with her own case of COVID.
“Mommy needs your help.”
When the housemate walked into the room, Josie Burko was gasping for breath, Schuler said. By the time 911 was on the phone, she’d stopped breathing. An ambulance arrived. But it was too late.
Josie Burko was pronounced dead at 5:05 a.m.
Tom Burko, by this point delirious, was rushed to the hospital. Desantis said he was initially put on high-flow oxygen, a therapy used to help people in respiratory distress. He spent much of his time on his stomach, called proning, which allows for more expansion of the lungs and better oxygenation.
But alone and mourning the loss of his wife, he continued to struggle. Desantis said she spoke with him daily for the first week. His whole body was hurting.
“He kept saying, ‘It’s hard to breathe,’” she said. “He kept asking about Lillie, and then asking me if Josie is really gone and saying, ‘I couldn’t do anything. Why didn’t I do anything? I was so sick. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.’”
On Sept. 3, he was admitted to Samaritan Hospital’s intensive care. Doctors expressed some optimism that his lung function was improving, Desantis said. But he was still walking the line, in the second week of a virus that often proves perilous for patients sick enough to go to the hospital. And as the week wore on, his condition deteriorated again. On Sept. 8, doctors intubated him and started him on a ventilator.
Tom Burko died that night.
“When Lillie’s mom died, it was devastating, but in the back of her head it was still, ‘I have my dad and when is he coming home?’” Desantis said. “When she found out he died, that’s when everything fell on her.”
Samaritan Hospital confirmed the circumstances of Tom Burko’s death and Youngren, the spokeswoman, said that ICU nurses and people in the small community were familiar with and traumatized by the family’s broader circumstances and the young child left behind.
There was no will. No life insurance. Hence the GoFundMe campaign, for counseling, for school, for a college fund, for whatever Lillie will need.
“The funds would be used for her college education,” Schuler said, choking back tears. “That would be my goal. The next phase is getting Lillie enrolled into her next life as we go through the process of permanent guardianship.”
Family members have been sorting through belongings, finding new homes for the two dogs and a cat, and locating a school for Lillie in California.
Schuler said Lillie has been inundated with memory boxes, books and other presents since her parents’ deaths. There’s been a lot to go through in her room, to pick out certain things, because they can’t take everything.
They flew out of Portland Tuesday night, and when they arrived at Schuler’s home, friends had festooned it with balloons and signs.
“Welcome to California. We love you, Lillie.”
Desantis said the last time she spoke with Tom Burko, “I promised we would take care of her. She’s the main priority and we’re just making sure she has everything she needs and taking it day by day.
“We have a little girl here, and she doesn’t have her people.”