John Lamoine “Mo” Hargrove likely thought he was on the homestretch of the pandemic when he landed a March 6 appointment to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
At a time when appointments were at a premium, his wife had added his name to waiting lists and researched providers in Skagit County, where they live. But he was finally on the calendar. They were so close.
On March 6, at 9 a.m., he found out he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. His wife canceled his 1 p.m. vaccine appointment. Five hours later, he was admitted to a hospital. His fever was uncontrollable.
He died April 17, six weeks after he was supposed to get his first vaccine. He was 62 years old.
“To get a year in, and to feel like we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then to have my own dad die from it, it doesn’t seem real,” said his daughter, Kristi Hargrove, an emergency room pharmacist in Texas. “It feels unfair. And it’s a reminder that, no, it’s [COVID-19] not going anywhere.”
Millions of Washington residents are vaccinated, the state has dropped most restrictions, and life for many is tilting toward pre-pandemic conditions. But people are still dying from the virus. Losses at this stage can seem particularly cruel, like having a loved one die in battle just days before the armistice is signed.
Daily deaths peaked in the winter, spiking as high as 69 and averaging in the 30s for more than a month. Since April, the daily toll has mostly hovered in the single digits, slowly creeping toward a grim milestone. Last Monday, Washington state reached 6,000 COVID-19 deaths.
“This isn’t over,” said Linda Casey of Tacoma, who lost her husband of 45 years on June 2. He was vaccinated but immune compromised.
Between March 1 and July 11, the Washington Department of Health reported 970 COVID-19 deaths. Most were 65 or older, but nearly a third of recent deaths were in younger age groups. People aged 35-49 now account for 8% of deaths, compared with 3.5 % during the first 12 months of the pandemic. For people aged 50 to 64, the percentage has jumped from 12% to 22%.
That makes sense, because older people were the first to get vaccines, while many young people still haven’t been immunized, said state Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist.
Nationally, nearly all deaths are among unvaccinated people and that trend seems to hold in Washington as well, though the state hasn’t been tracking that, Lindquist said.
Vaccines aren’t perfect, and immune compromised people may not mount an effective defense, but only 44 deaths in Washington have been documented out of 3.9 million people who are fully vaccinated. Hospitalizations are also rare among vaccinated people who experience “breakthrough” infections.
For Lindquist, the message is clear: Ongoing deaths from COVID-19 are largely preventable.
Wanted to know more about vaccines
Throughout the pandemic, Ed Smith and his wife, Joy Smith, of Enumclaw, wore masks about 75% of the time, Joy Smith recalled. And they got away with it — until Ed Smith traveled with his son to Oklahoma City in mid-April.
“They weren’t really concerned,” Joy Smith said. “They didn’t think it would be that big of an issue.”
Ed Smith was hospitalized with COVID-19 soon after he returned. For two weeks, his family thought he was on an upward swing, even as he was on a ventilator — until he got a second bout of pneumonia.
“He didn’t want to go,” Joy Smith said. “He didn’t want to leave this world. And he fought and fought and fought until the very end.”
Ed Smith, a handyman and social butterfly known as the “singing janitor” at the elementary school where he worked for decades, died June 1. He was 63.
Smith and his son went on the Oklahoma trip when the state had largely eased all COVID-19-related restrictions and, along with Washington state, opened up vaccines to all adults. His wife said he was “on the fence” about getting the shot and wanted to know more about how it had been tested.
Joy Smith said she’s still weighing whether to get vaccinated, citing her own bout with COVID-19, which health officials believe may make a person immune from the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises getting the vaccine, regardless of infection history, because experts aren’t sure how long the protection may last.
“I’m beginning to see the pros to it, since maybe if he had been vaccinated, maybe he wouldn’t have died,” she said. “Before [her husband’s death] I was absolutely not going to, but now I am more in the middle of the road.”
The family plans a memorial service in August for Smith, who retired in 2019. At Wilkeson Elementary, kids loved when he would break into song. While he was hospitalized, a former student gave Joy a new dishwasher because hers had broken, and said he used to fight with classmates over who would get to help the singing janitor take out the recycling.
The service will only be an hour and 15 minutes. They’ll need to cut the sharing time, because if they didn’t, it would be a four-hour service, Joy said.
“Everybody has a story about Ed.”
“Terrible time” to get infected
Genetic variants of the virus, which are more infectious and may cause more severe disease, now account for the vast majority of new infections in Washington. The delta variant, with roots in India, doesn’t appear to be more deadly here. But the gamma variant, first detected in Brazil, is worrisome, Lindquist said. Washington residents infected with it appear to have double the risk of hospitalization and death, according to state data.
“It’s a terrible time” to get infected, Lindquist said, “because some of these strains are more aggressive.”
Robert Neimeyer, a psychologist and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, and fellow psychologist Sherman A. Lee surveyed more than 800 people who lost loved ones to COVID-19.
They found nearly all of them were plagued by a sense of guilt and remorse over not having done more to protect their friend or relative from the virus — a burden that could be particularly heavy for families who lose loved ones when vaccines are widely available.
People might worry they themselves or another family member infected their loved one, Neimeyer said. “And it could prompt questioning for survivors — if only I pushed mom or dad to get vaccinated, they might be alive today.”
Kristi Hargrove warned her father he might be at high risk for the virus. As a musician — he led the Buckaroo Blues Band for more than 20 years — he spent decades breathing secondhand smoke at bars.
His attitude about COVID-19, his wife said, was that he should be cautious because they were caregivers for his wife’s parents. But as an extrovert, it was hard for him to always maintain distance and wear a mask when he visited with friends and family.
His family believes he was exposed to the virus shortly before his vaccination date, when he visited with relatives, many of whom later tested positive.
“We got in as soon as we could [for an appointment], but you have some remorse that maybe I could have looked outside the county, been more aggressive on calling every place,” said his wife, Kim Hargrove.
“She was a tough cookie”
As Aleshia Bernal and her mother, Connie Ford, lay in an intensive care unit, they watched a news segment about how people would soon not be required to wear masks nor require proof of vaccination.
“It was really frustrating,” Bernal said. “They were talking about taking off masks, and I literally had just got COVID a couple days before that.”
For weeks, the pair fought the virus. Aleshia said it was the sickest she’s ever been. Her mother, Constance “Connie” Claire Ford, 58, died June 4.
Ford, who spent her life in the Seattle area, was hardworking and strong-willed, relatives said. She had a career in human resources and accounting, and got second jobs so her children could go on class trips.
“She was a tough cookie,” her sister Juanita Bernal-Jones said. “She would help anyone, and she did.”
Ford told relatives she thought she wasn’t able to get the vaccine because of an allergy or previous illness, but planned to discuss it again with her doctor. After her death, other family members decided to get shots.
“After seeing my sister fight such a horrible death, I can’t imagine anyone seeing her and deciding not to get the shot,” Bernal-Jones said. “At least if you got it, you wouldn’t die so horribly.”
Didn’t know he was vulnerable
Linda Casey and her husband, Col. (Ret.) Elmer “Mike” Casey, M.D., thought they were doing everything right. They isolated themselves in the early months of the pandemic and always wore masks when they left the house. At ages 73 and 77, respectively, they were able to complete their vaccine doses by early February.
What they didn’t realize was that Mike’s immune system didn’t respond to the shots.
Diagnosed 15 years ago with a form of lymphoma that affects antibody-producing white blood cells, he kept the disease in check with daily pills to kill the malignant cells. Physicians only recently realized those drugs can undermine response to the COVID-19 vaccine. Since Mike was doing so well with his treatment he rarely visited his cancer doctor, so he and Linda got no warning that he might still be vulnerable.
Their first inkling was a positive COVID-19 test when Mike was admitted to Madigan Army Medical Center in late May, so weak he could barely stand.
“I said: What are you talking about?’ ” Linda recalled. “He’s vaccinated.”
Two and a half weeks later, Mike was gone.
“He survived … cancer and then he dies of COVID,” she said.
Except for the period when Linda was earning her graduate degree in nursing at the University of Washington, the couple, both retired Army colonels, were rarely separated.
Their joint posts took them around the country and world, including Germany and Korea. Mike spent several years as deputy commander at Madigan, where he loved helping guide young doctors.
“Mike was the type who would bring them into the office and say: ‘What’s on your mind?’ That’s what made him such a good mentor. He really did listen,” Linda said.
After his death, several doctors told her how Mike had changed the course of their careers, particularly encouraging them to stick with the military and continue caring for soldiers.
Because of her nursing expertise, Linda was allowed to visit Mike when he was hospitalized, suiting up in protective gear every day and spending several hours at his bedside. He kept asking her to call a taxi so they could go home.
When Mike’s body was draped with an American flag and sent to the hospital morgue, soldiers and civilians alike lined the hall and saluted. They did the same when he was transported to the crematorium.
Now, Linda is focused on promoting vaccination and making sure other cancer patients and people with suppressed immune systems understand the potential risks they face. She still doesn’t know where Mike picked up the virus, and — like many of those in Neimeyer’s study — keeps asking those “what if” questions.
“You wonder, what did I do wrong?”