They had survived so much already — war and dust storms, cancer and poverty, lost eyesight, lost spouses, lost memories — and still went on to find moments of grace inside the corridors of America’s nursing homes.
In Windsor, Conn., Johnny James ate chocolate bars with his visiting great-grandchildren. In Lewiston, Idaho, Edna McBride celebrated her 100th birthday. In Providence, R.I., Florence Tilles, who had two knee surgeries, liked to joke she would one day die at the 18th hole of her favorite golf course.
One day came on May 30, when 98-year-old Tilles fell victim to covid-19 amid a soaring death toll that included James and McBride and would soon grow to more than 80,000 residents in nursing homes across the country. They suffered alone, in homes locked down to visitors, peering at the masked faces of weary nurses and aides who risked their own lives to be there.
The industry and the government could have done far more, watchdog groups have said from the beginning, shoring up infection-control protocols and staffing, delivering stronger oversight of troubled homes and ensuring that coronavirus stimulus payments reached patients and caregivers rather than corporate owners.
Instead, 10 months later, thousands of families are learning to live without goodbyes.
The 51 residents whose stories are told here, one from every state and the District of Columbia, left behind at least 129 children, 230 grandchildren, 210 great-grandchildren and 41 great-great-grandchildren. Some blame the nursing homes for questionable care. Others say they are enormously grateful for the work of caregivers.
Most have put off memorials for when it’s safe to gather again, side by side, and remember the dead.
“He was the 12th person to die of covid in Alaska,” Susan Peck said of her father, George, who hoped to spend the rest of his life in a log cabin with his wife. “But he wasn’t just ‘number 12’ to us.”
March 13: As the novel coronavirus begins to spread in nursing homes and elsewhere, President Trump declares a national emergency. “This will pass through, and we’re going to be even stronger for it," he says.
March 28, 2020
2,547 reported covid-19 deaths in the U.S.
Homer Barr, veteran fire captain, was usually first to the blaze.
March 28, Tennessee
Henrietta Woods worked for social justice, voting rights.
March 30, Missouri
April 2: The number of coronavirus cases worldwide exceeds 1 million.
George Hawkins loved jokes, jazz and gospel.
April 2, Washington, D.C.
Kevin Fortune found peace outdoors.
April 3, Oregon
Jean Massamore painted America’s landscape.
April 4, Kentucky
Carol Brock’s family life centered around the farm.
April 5, Washington
Mildred Hill went back to school to learn how to care for others.
April 7, Michigan
Johnny James helped establish water treatment plants in developing countries.
April 9, Connecticut
Patsy Hampton danced through life with her family.
April 10, Georgia
James ‘Ram’ Ballen showed how to live ‘a beautiful life.’
April 12, Vermont
April 17:A Washington Post investigation finds that hundreds of nursing homes with publicly reported cases of the coronavirus were cited more than once by government inspectors in recent years for violating federal standards meant to prevent and mitigate the spread of infection.
Andrew Greene, his wife, Masie Voy Isabell Greene, and their daughters, Jamillia Laureen Isabell Greene and Jessica Ashley Isabell Greene, in their home in Chicago earlier this month. Greene's brother Roger, a resident at the Villa at Windsor Park nursing home, died on May 24 of covid-19. He was 69.(David Johnson for The Washington Post)
John ‘Jack’ Towne was at home on the water.
April 17, Maine
Patricia Plante never stopped learning.
April 17, Arizona
Phyllis Wyant, born in England, loved her daily cup of tea.
April 18, Nevada
Ella Marie Gremmel DuBois’ life was shaped by Dust Bowl hardship.
April 18, Kansas
April 20: Nearly 1 in 10 nursing homes in the United States publicly report cases of the coronavirus, The Post reports.
Agnes Greene was a fierce advocate for son’s education.
April 23, New Jersey
Edna McBride persevered through painful losses.
April 24, Idaho
Audra Fisher was content caring for family and roses.
April 25, West Virginia
Edward Carter, a local celebrity, preferred the quiet life.
April 28, South Carolina
April 29: The number of nursing homes with publicly reported cases of the coronavirus doubles in a week, with more than 1 in 6 facilities nationwide acknowledging infections among residents or staff.
Roslyn Pulitzer, a warrior for equality, didn’t die alone.
April 30, New Mexico
Janice McNelly juggled kids and school, fueled by coffee and books.
May 8, Iowa
Elizabeth Abrams, left, Angelita Abrams-Rains, center, and Alan Rains stand with an empty chair in place of husband and father Glen Abrams in New Castle, Ind., on Thanksgiving.(Megan Jelinger for The Washington Post)
Elizabeth Abrams hugs her daughter Angelita Abrams-Rains in front of a photo of husband and father Glen Abrams. “They knew what it was like to be a have-not, and they did not want their daughters to be have-nots,” said Katherine Fleming, the couple’s oldest daughter.(Megan Jelinger for The Washington Post)
Richard ‘Dick’ Doughty, a WWII vet, carried a lifelong love for the ocean.
Lois Juanita French Clinton Brewer connected past, present with her many names.
May 17, Mississippi
Olga Pura Montoya left Mexico to make a fresh start.
May 19, Minnesota
Sandra Sue Dooley, a restless spirit, embraced the odds.
May 20, Nebraska
Charlotte Pollock, a child of war in Germany, built a life in America.
May 21, Pennsylvania
Gloria Adams honed a creative eye and fashion sense.
May 23, Virginia
Roger Clyde Greene, science teacher, was beloved by generations.
May 24, Illinois
Roderick Kunz wooed his wife with poetry.
May 25, Wisconsin
Lowell Parker Dabbs, a professor, helped those in need.
May 25, California
Glen Abrams, born poor, valued hard work and education.
May 26, Indiana
Joe Barnello holds a photo of his late mother, Constance, alongside his wife, Inga, left, and daughter Jana at their home in Solvay, N.Y., on Nov. 26. Constance, 93, died of covid-19 in May.(Heather Ainsworth for The Washington Post)
Shirley Cosson, with grit and positive thinking, didn’t let disease hold her back.
May 27, Maryland
Lorene Miller, through job at the bank, knew everyone in town.
May 27, Wyoming
Kenneth Alton Millette had an artful eye, ear for music.
May 27, Massachusetts
Doris Labrie waltzed with her husband for years.
May 27, New Hampshire
Constance Barnello was a family matriarch who shared her sweet tooth.
May 27, New York
Veola Price Patterson cooked for her neighborhood, church.
May 27, North Carolina
Billie Lee Turner, a noted plant expert and professor, loved sunflowers.
May 27, Texas
Ethel Lynn Radford, a computer whiz, marched for women’s rights.
May 27, Florida
Betty Bowersock, dressed in crimson, cheered on the team.
May 27, Oklahoma
May 28: The coronavirus death toll in the United States surpasses 100,000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the milestone “a heart-breaking reminder of the horrible toll of this unprecedented pandemic.”
From left, Curtis Lawrence Jr., Malene Lawrence, Corey Lawrence and Curtis Lawrence III pose in their backyard in Washington, D.C., in late November. Malene Lawrence's father, George Hawkins, died April 2 of covid-19. Malene recalled her father saying, “If you believe, and you’re living a good life and you’re being good to other people, death shouldn’t scare you.”(Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
The Lawrence family prays before their Thanksgiving dinner in Washington, D.C.(Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
Florence Tilles supported children and loved golf, ice cream sundaes.
May 30, Rhode Island
Leona Higgins, a miner’s daughter, found beauty in flowers.
May 30, Colorado
June 1: More than 25,000 residents are dead as the virus continues to sweep through U.S. nursing homes, particularly those with a history of low marks for staffing and patient care, the federal government reports.
Irene Collins, deeply moral, grounded friends and strangers.
June 3, Ohio
June 4: Nursing homes nationwide are short on staff and protective gear, including surgical masks, gowns and hand sanitizer, the federal government reports.
Veronica Adams loved the soothing sound of words.
June 9, Louisiana
George Carnegie Smith built a log cabin to share with his wife.
June 11, Alaska
Barbara Jewel Lee insisted on clean drinking water for her family, town.
June 19, Arkansas
Yonne Langseth, with a smooth hook shot, taught kids basketball.
June 25, South Dakota
July 4: In a Fourth of July address, Trump says 99 percent of coronavirus cases are “harmless.”
Jimmy Lee Reese counseled and prayed for strangers.
July 11, Alabama
Ralph Jones, deeply religious, lived a simple life.
July 24, Utah
Aug. 4: For-profit nursing home providers that have faced accusations of Medicare fraud and kickbacks, labor violations or widespread failures in patient care received hundreds of millions of dollars in “no strings attached” coronavirus relief aid meant to cover shortfalls and expenses during the pandemic, The Post reports.
Christina Wunrow holds a photo of her mother, Olga Pura Montoya, alongside Catie Wunrow and Jeff Wunrow. Montoya died of covid-19 on May 19 in Minnesota.
(Nathan Morgan for The Washington Post)
William Zerfuss, a Navy man, retired on the beaches of Hawaii.
Aug. 29, Hawaii
Sept. 9:A Post analysis of data from more than two dozen states finds the coronavirus death rate is more than 20 percent higher in majority-Black nursing homes compared with majority-White facilities.
Teresa Marie Sidor found joy in skiing, family.
Sept. 11, Montana
Viola Ackerman made a home on the family farm for 50 years.
Oct. 7, North Dakota
Oct. 29: As thousands of nursing home residents died, the federal government cleared most facilities of any health and safety violations, including homes that saw widespread outbreaks and deaths, The Post finds.
Dec. 21: A nationwide effort to vaccinate nursing home residents begins. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 80,000 men and women have died.
About this story
This report is part of an ongoing series of stories documenting the devastating toll of covid-19 in America’s nursing homes, the government’s response and the systemic challenges in an industry responsible for the welfare of more than 1.3 million vulnerable residents.
The 51 stories in this installment were written, in collaboration with Cenziper, by student journalists Mikhail, Konstantino, Quaranta, Korsh, Schatsky, Burke, Baldauf, Buchaniec, Haensel, Hilles, Edmund, Cherkas, Eimer and Rosenzweig-Ziff from Northwestern University’s Medill Investigative Lab and Wanosky from the West Virginia University Reed College of Media. Syd Stone and Bernadette Kinlaw from the Medill Investigative Lab and Emily Corio from WVU contributed to this report.
Debbie Cenziper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning contributing reporter on the Investigative team. For 25 years, Debbie has explored social issues, including affordable housing, education, voting rights and mental health care. At The Post, she has focused heavily on Washington, D.C., writing about development issues that affect poor neighborhoods.
Alice Crites is a researcher and librarian who specializes in government and politics and has covered elections since 1994. She was a member of the team that won 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for the coverage of Roy Moore and the subsequent sting attempt on the Post.