The number of Washingtonians lost to COVID-19 is still hard to comprehend. At the beginning of the pandemic, when the Seattle area was briefly the U.S.’ sole epicenter, each death was its own headline. Rarely now do individual names of those who died of COVID make it into news reports.
But the victims, and their cause of death, are in paid obituaries, in eulogies at funerals that this year could finally resume, sometimes in hushed tones among family members detailing their loved ones’ choices — Did they get vaccinated? Were they being safe? — before their death.
Numbers creep up day by day, the personal losses lost among the lines of a chart.
On Dec. 7, 2020, the Washington State Department of Health reported 69 deaths across the state. Among them: Gayle Cortner, 79, of Spokane, who died a few days short of her 51st wedding anniversary; Paul Viggiano, 67, of Richland, named the 1999 distinguished United Way volunteer of the year; and Thomas Sudduth, 64, who was the first person to die of COVID on Vashon Island.
On Aug. 12, 2021, the health department reported 37 deaths across the state. This included Jeff Hainline, 56, who died two days after his wife; and Rick Wenning, 67, of Anacortes, a pharmacist who served 20 years in the Navy Medical Corps.
On Sept. 28, 2021, 29 deaths were counted. Belle Castro, 72, of Veradale, Spokane County, who retired from Providence Holy Family as a medical coordinator; Nicky (Nick) Kermit Marsh, 72, of Cheney, Spokane County, who raised cattle for decades; and Scott Perry, 47, of Bellingham, a legend in the local billiards community, were part of the death toll.
The initial blows of COVID — lockdowns, rampant outbreaks and worries about testing, masks and asymptomatic spread — will be associated with 2020. But in Washington, 2021 was a far deadlier year.
Deaths in 2021, when vaccinations became widespread — and increasingly politicized — can carry an added sting. As of December 2021, death rates among people 65 and older are 15 times higher among unvaccinated people than those who are fully vaccinated, according to the DOH.
Some were steadfast in their vaccine refusal, but not everyone who died was against the shot.
John Lamoine “Mo” Hargrove planned to get his first shot on March 6. Hours before his appointment, he tested positive for the coronavirus. He died six weeks later. Roselyn Knox had been considering whether to get vaccinated before she died in October. Her last Google search was where to get a vaccine.
Tears fall on the “what ifs,” the deaths leaving family members reeling, wondering what could have been done — could anything have been done? Maybe they could have insisted on getting care sooner. Or maybe they could have pushed harder to persuade them to get vaccinated.
Some were vaccinated. Retired Col. Elmer “Mike” Casey completed his vaccine doses in February. But neither he nor his family realized that the pills he took daily to kill malignant cells undermined the response to the vaccine.
A handful of families chose to disclose their loved one’s vaccine status, but the vast majority focus on other details. Some obituaries among the 10,000 are humorous: “ … for the record, he did not really lose his battle with the coronavirus. When he died, the virus died too, so technically it was a tie!” Or a family who listed their loved one’s cause of death as “stupid COVID.”
They’re also heartbreaking, and encompass the grief felt of those left among the lost: “her light and love will be missed.”