The novel coronavirus claimed Cleon Boyd. Then, six days later, it took his identical twin brother, Leon. As they lay dying, the disease cascaded through their family, eventually infecting 11 of their immediate relatives.
The Boyd family’s harrowing experience rippled through the towns where they lived and worked, sharply altering attitudes toward the coronavirus and spreading adoption of social distancing and face coverings.
From rural Vermont, where the Boyd twins account for two of just three covid-19 deaths in their county, to the Bronx, where 4,000 people have succumbed to the virus, the trauma stemming from nearly 200,000 American deaths has reshaped the views and behavior of relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
As the nation is set to pass another dark milestone in the virus’s long, deadly march — with no end in sight — the political battles over how to curb its spread have stolen much of the nation’s attention, making it more difficult to notice just how searing each death’s impact can be.
Two hundred thousand deaths is akin to losing the entire population of Salt Lake City or Montgomery, Ala. — a devastation. It is also the number of covid-19 fatalities that President Trump said at a March 29 news conference would mean that “we all together have done a very good job.”
Yet six months in, Americans are tuning away from news about the pandemic. Google searches for virus information have plummeted by nearly 90 percent since March. Americans tell pollsters they hold little hope that the danger will recede anytime soon.
Despite the pandemic’s grievous impact on jobs and the continuing arguments about mask mandates and the role of government in the crisis, the country’s extraordinarily high case load — more than 6.5 million so far — and death count have translated into steadily growing acceptance of the preventive steps scientists recommend: hand-washing, social distancing, wearing face coverings.
“When you know someone who has died, it can seem like a personal attack, whether it’s someone in your community or someone you know intimately,” said Rebecca Robbins, a health behavior researcher at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “That can lead to a feeling that we’re all connected, and that can lead to compliance with the guidelines.”
But proximity to a covid-19 tragedy is no guarantee that people will take more precautions. In crowded, low-income neighborhoods, a death in the family doesn’t make social distancing possible and doesn’t negate the need to work long hours in close quarters. And for others, their political outlook leads them to believe that the virus is no big deal and that precautions are a partisan ploy.
Approximately 1 in 50 Americans already have tested positive, and likely far more have had the virus but weren’t tested. By the end of August, 59 percent of Americans said they knew someone who tested positive for the coronavirus, according to an Ipsos poll. Twenty-three percent said they knew someone who has died of the virus.
In the Boyds’ case, a double dose of tragedy quickly spread throughout southern Vermont. The family, initially not mask-wearers, had been skeptical. “When it first came out, we laughed at it,” said Leon’s widow, Pam. “Like, ‘Oh yeah, right, this is just another political thing.’ ”
Meghan Carrier, Cleon’s daughter, said she “didn’t think it was fake, but before my dad was in the hospital, I really didn’t understand what could happen.” She was the 11th person in her family to get covid-19 this spring, after Leon’s wife, the twins’ brother and sister, Carrier’s siblings and their spouses.
Some in the family believe they picked up the virus near the Mount Snow ski resort, where three of them worked. Others think the virus hit them at the family’s sugar house, where they gather regularly to make maple syrup and sing country tunes.
Once Carrier’s father was put on a ventilator, no one in the family spoke to him again. He was in the hospital for 10 days before he died. His brother, treated at a different hospital, spent six days there before he died. Neither knew that his twin was ill. They were 64.
When Cleon died, there could be no public funeral, so friends and neighbors organized a Palm Sunday parade, a procession that was at once somber and joyful, as cars, trucks, fire and police units, tractors and Cleon’s own snow groomer rolled through Wilmington’s historic downtown.
They did it again a week later, on Easter Sunday, hundreds of people, this time with Leon’s mower — he worked for the highway department — in the parade.
The twins’ deaths “opened everyone’s eyes,” Carrier said. “People started taking the virus seriously.”
Suddenly, masks appeared everywhere. In the Vermont towns of Wilmington and Dover, selectmen mandated mask-wearing in public places — which Dover Police Chief Randy Johnson said wouldn’t have happened if not for the twins’ deaths.
“It was heartbreaking for the community,” said Johnson, who thinks a government order wasn’t necessary because most people would have done the right thing without a law forcing them to. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen some people use their deaths in the wrong way, just to make their political point.”
Not everyone has taken the deaths to heart. At Walgreen’s the other day, Pam Boyd was shaken when three people edged up against her in a narrow aisle.
“Can you please back up?” she asked. “It’s supposed to be six feet.”
“Oh, for chrissakes,” muttered a woman who had nearly brushed against Boyd.
“I lost my husband to this covid,” Boyd explained.
The woman laughed, Boyd said. The woman’s companion stepped in: “I’m so sorry. Let’s leave the store.”
But the woman kept laughing as she left. Boyd called after her: “I hope your family doesn’t have to go through this.”
‘I didn’t take it seriously’
Before he fell ill, Michael Droege figured the coronavirus posed little danger.
“I thought it all was just glorified flu,” Droege said. “I thought the Democrats were blowing it out of proportion. It is an election year and it’s always the other person’s fault.”
Before his wife, Ricky, got the virus, Droege scoffed at the few people who wore masks at the sheet metal factory where he worked near Kansas City, Mo.
One guy who did cover his face constantly sanitized his workspace and worried about infecting his octogenarian mother.
“I used to give him a hard time about it,” Droege said. “I’d walk up to the barrier and say, ‘You think I’m going to give you something?’ ”
Then, on June 15, Droege learned that a co-worker had tested positive. Droege, who has long suffered from emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, put on a mask. But it was too late: He tested positive on June 19, and he was hospitalized three days later.
The next week, Ricky fell ill, too: With her oxygen level wavering in the 80s, she ended up in the hospital. The EMTs brought her stretcher past his room so the two could glimpse each other. Droege could barely see his wife’s face under the oxygen mask, just her green eyes — and “they were full of fear.”
“I waved to her and I said, ‘I love you,’ and I told her to keep fighting,” he recalled. “And she said, ‘I love you too.’ ”
Droege, 70, loved Ricky so much, he married her twice. They split up in 1984 after 14 years, but Droege always told his grown daughters that the worst mistake he ever made was divorcing their mother.
At their granddaughter’s wedding in Florida in 2018, Ricky slipped, fell and cracked her skull. Droege rushed her to the hospital and cared for her. They found love again and remarried that July.
“We were going to stay together for the rest of our lives,” said Droege, who now resides in Lee’s Summit, Mo.
Ricky, 75, died on July 17. Droege, stricken with guilt, believes he passed the virus to his wife. “I didn’t take it seriously,” he said, weeping. “I feel the only reason she died was because of me.”
He wishes he’d started wearing masks earlier. He wishes he hadn’t poked fun at his co-worker.
“I should not have done that to him,” he said. “Not realizing how bad it really was is why everybody in the shop gave him a hard time.”
He doesn’t blame Trump, but Droege says America’s virus problem lies with people’s reluctance to care for each other.
“Everybody wants to point to the president,” Droege said, but “he can’t do anything about personal responsibility. The United States has crappy personal responsibility.”
Out of the hospital for several weeks, he still needs supplemental oxygen. With no income but Social Security, he must return to work Sept. 30. He’ll wear a mask.
‘Seven days, and she was gone’
Shaquana Miller Garrett’s family took the pandemic seriously from the start. Shaquana, especially, because she suffered from type 1 diabetes and needed weekly dialysis.
Her job put her on the front line, literally. A registrar at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Shaquana checked in everyone who arrived at the front door.
“I warned Shaquana,” said her father, Curtis Miller Sr., who with his wife, Faye, is a co-pastor at the family’s church, New Life Ministries. “I said if you catch it, you could bring it home to your family. She knew that. Hindsight is 20/20. I should have insisted that she quit.”
Shaquana’s husband, Gregory Garrett, worried that she had not been provided with the best protection. “They were giving doctors and nurses the proper masks,” he said. “But my wife got just the thin blue mask. How can that be? The first person people see when they come in the hospital was my wife.”
They had met in high school, then reconnected through Facebook several years after graduation. They worked hard — Gregory holds two jobs, in a UPS warehouse and on the grounds crew at a local golf course — had two daughters (Kendall, 5, and Kennedee, 3), and they molded their family around the church, where Shaquana ran the youth department.
One day in June, Shaquana told her family that the hospital had tested employees for the coronavirus. Hers came back positive. Her condition declined rapidly and she ended up back where she worked, this time as a patient.
One day, when Faye Miller didn’t hear from her daughter — they usually called each other “five, six, seven times a day” — she insisted that her husband drive her to Holy Cross.
But “they wouldn’t let us in,” Shaquana’s father said. “Her mother protested so much, she begged and cried, and they finally put Shaquana on the phone. I said, ‘Shaquana, you’ve got to fight.’ She said, ‘Okay, Daddy.’ ”
The next night, her parents got a call at 3 a.m. They rushed over and watched from a distance as Shaquana coded several times. Doctors and nurses would “get a pulse, and then lose it, then they’d get a pulse, then they’d lose her again,” Faye Miller said. “But we could talk to her, and I believe she could hear us. We told her we loved her.”
Shaquana died July 2. She was 35.
“I did not know how fast it could snatch somebody from your life,” Gregory said. “Seven days, and she was gone.”
He and his daughters tested positive while Shaquana was ill. Their cases were relatively mild — fever and diarrhea for the girls, almost no symptoms for Gregory. But they were in quarantine when Shaquana died.
He dressed the girls in their best church clothes anyway and drove them to watch their mother’s funeral, but they couldn’t go inside for fear of infecting others, so they viewed the service from outside the building, on a cellphone.
At the cemetery, “they let us park the car right in front of the burial, so we got to see everything,” Gregory said. “Then they made everybody move out of the way so we could get out of the car and put flowers on top of the casket.”
After his daughter died, Curtis Miller wove messages about virus precautions into his Sunday sermons, at first on Facebook and then, starting in August when he reopened the sanctuary, in person, with six feet between masked worshipers.
Gregory has become a mask enforcer, speaking up when others go bare. “If you respect me,” he tells them, “don’t come around me without a mask on.”
It has fallen to Faye Miller to take Shaquana’s daughters to the park, and they wear masks religiously.
“They ask for their mommy all the time,” she said. “One time, we were walking out the door, and there was a little sliver of moon in the sky, and I said, ‘That’s your mommy up there smiling down at us.’ ”
‘A profound effect’
When people who die of covid-related causes are well-known in their community, the impact can be enormous, but it isn’t uniform.
It can lead to scenes such as this: At dawn the day after Bernie Juskewicz died of covid-19, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) stood in front of the state capitol to raise the flag to half-staff in his honor. Juskewicz, a former state legislator, probably was the most prominent Vermonter to lose his life to the virus.
His death “had just a profound effect on people taking things really seriously,” said Frank Cioffi, president of Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.
Former constituents dug out their old Juskewicz T-shirts and remounted his campaign signs — “Bernie J,” to distinguish him from Vermont’s iconic senator — in their yards.
Bernie J, a fixture at University of Vermont sporting events while decked out in Catamount green and gold, was among more than 3,000 fans packed into Patrick Gymnasium on March 10 to watch the home basketball team beat the University of Maryland Baltimore County to advance to their conference finals as the No. 1 seed. It was the last game before covid-19 abruptly ended the season.
At the time, Vermont had only one presumed case of the coronavirus. A few days later, Juskewicz developed what he and his doctor took for a sinus infection.
But the infection didn’t clear. On March 18, Juskewicz, who walked five miles a day, fainted at home. Paramedics discouraged him from going to the hospital because of the rising threat of covid-19, according to his daughter, Mary Kathryn.
Juskewicz’s fatigue became extreme. He lost his appetite. When he fainted again, his daughter persuaded him to go to the hospital.
Within the next two weeks, after his wife also got the virus, and she and Mary Kathryn quarantined together, Bernie J developed a fungus in his lungs. His organs deteriorated. Word arrived that there wasn’t much time left.
Juskewicz’s wife and daughter, fresh out of quarantine, rushed to the hospital. They were escorted to the ICU for one last visit.
“My mom, my brother Mark, the priest, myself, a nurse, and my brother from Montana and his wife were on the phone,” Mary Kathryn said. “And we just talked to my dad until he passed away.”
Some of Juskewicz’s colleagues, such as the governor, used his death as a symbol, a way to encourage others to pay attention to the pandemic. But his daughter, a dean at Vermont Technical College, said she “wouldn’t talk about my dad — I wouldn’t tell a student, you know, because they think they’re immune.”
She’ll wait to express her grief after the pandemic eases, with the kind of send-off her father would have wanted: a big party, complete with Polish music and Kris Kristofferson.
Thirteen hundred miles away, when another pillar of a community died, the governor held no ceremony.
This surprised no one. Where Pamela Sue Rush lived and died, in Lowndes County in rural Alabama, a quarter of residents subsist below the poverty line.
Many of them, like Rush, live “in small mobile homes, so how can they isolate?” asked Catherine Coleman Flowers, a distant cousin who grew up in Lowndes County and went on to become an environmental activist.
It was Flowers who urged Rush to tell her story to Congress in 2018, when she boarded a plane for the first time to look senators and representatives in the eye and say, “I’m poor.”
After that, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the actress Jane Fonda visited Rush’s home, where mold covered the walls and raw sewage flowed into the backyard because she had no septic system.
Despite her moment in the spotlight, Rush, who had dropped out of high school and later developed high blood pressure and diabetes, remained in a place where the coronavirus has hit hard.
Flowers said the people she knows in Lowndes County who caught covid-19 didn’t hold parties or act recklessly. “They’re low-paid essential workers in factories,” she said. “They had to go to work. They can’t afford to miss a paycheck.”
After some of Rush’s relatives fell ill, she did her best to stay away from others, but the virus spread through her family. For Rush, it started with headaches, fevers and difficulty breathing. She was taken to one hospital and then another. She died on July 3. She was 50.
Her family will receive a new trailer from an anonymous donor, Flowers said. Relatives are caring for Rush’s children, Jeremiah, 18, who wants to be a truck driver, and Bianca, 12, a studious girl with pulmonary issues.
“Pamela died for an economy that did not give her equal access,” Flowers said. “At every step … there was a trap door. And the final one was covid.”
‘I think it’s just crazy’
After Elizabeth Escolastico’s parents died of covid-19 in the same Bronx hospital, she held a memorial on Zoom, comforted by a death doula, a guide to the end of life.
It was the closest she could get to a real goodbye.
“Sometimes my heart feels so broken,” said Escolastico, a 38-year-old social worker. “Sometimes it’s hard to breathe.”
Until this spring, she shared an apartment in the South Bronx, near Yankee Stadium, with her mother, Maria Altagracia Mejia, 65, and her father, Cecilio Escolastico, a 72-year-old retired maintenance worker.
“Lovebirds,” Escolastico called them. Born in the Dominican Republic, where they met, her parents had moved to Manhattan in the ’70s.
Their daughter fell ill first. It was early in the pandemic and a telehealth doctor dismissed her concerns about the virus. “He was like, ‘Oh, don’t pay attention to the news, they overreact to things,’ ” she said.
A few days later, both her parents woke up sick. Escolastico does not know if Maria contracted the virus at a dialysis center. Or if Cecilio caught it from friends he’d hosted. Or if she passed the virus to them — a possibility that haunts her.
But by the time her mother told Escolastico to call her an ambulance, “I knew she was leaving me,” she said. Maria died the next afternoon.
Cecilio, who had chronic asthma, died nine days later. At the time, New York funeral homes were so overwhelmed that Cecilio’s body was sent to Rhode Island to be cremated.
The worst year of Escolastico’s life was relentless. Two weeks after her father died, one of her aunts succumbed to covid-19. Another aunt, who had mild dementia, deteriorated severely and had to be moved from her Manhattan apartment to a nursing home in New Jersey.
“I just feel like a whole generation of my family was wiped out,” Escolastico said.
Escolastico has become evangelical about virus prevention. She cleans more, washes her hands more. Her sister, she said, wields a Lysol bottle like a squirt gun: “She will spray you until you suffocate.”
Escolastico warns her parents’ friends not to go out. People in her neighborhood took the virus more seriously in the spring, when covid-19 swept through the Bronx, but lately she’s seen fewer masks.
“They’re back to hanging out and partying and in the streets,” she said. “I think it’s just crazy.”
Gowen reported from Kansas City, Mo.; Rozsa reported from Miami; and Sacchetti reported from Alabama. Susan H. Greenberg in Middlebury, Vt.; Ben Guarino in New York; and Emily Guskin and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.