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Life, death and ‘hugs and prayers’: A story of covid in rural Michigan

Janice Burtch, left, tells Lanny and Bill Hathaway how she is doing since covid-19 claimed her husband, Danny. They gathered at the 50 Plus Club in Lewiston, Mich. (Nick King for The Washington Post)
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LEWISTON, Mich. — The conversation at the card table inside the Lewiston 50 Plus Club turned one recent afternoon to the coronavirus pandemic, as it had so many times the past two years.

Just days earlier, the club’s president — and one of its most devoted euchre players, Danny Burtch — died of covid-19 after a weeks-long bout with the virus.

Burtch was the 40th person claimed by covid-19 in sparsely populated Montmorency County, in the backwoods of northern Michigan. The grief has hit particularly hard at the 50 Plus Club, knocked down in so many ways during the pandemic. Members falling ill. Shutdowns causing the club to shutter. Staff run ragged keeping the center safe for the vulnerable people who congregate inside its walls.

“It seems unfathomable,” said Randy Long, 67, the club’s vice president and a local radio host, clad in a Santa hat, his cards face down in front of him. “I’ve spent almost eight years with this guy … and for him to just be gone, taken away in less than four weeks by a virus, getting your head wrapped around that.”

As health-care leaders pleaded with Michigan residents to take the virus seriously and to get vaccinated, Burtch was among several thousand mostly unvaccinated patients who flooded the state’s hospital wards during the fall and early winter. For weeks, Michigan led the country in covid-19 deaths, and the 71-year-old retired electrician, with no major health complications before contracting the virus, was among them.

Two years into the pandemic, the story of Danny Burtch is the story of incalculable loss and of hard choices: whether to be vaccinated, whether to leave the isolation of home for fellowship, whether to partake in a beloved game of cards.

“It’s just as scary a thing as you ever lived through,” said Betty Gogo, 83, who figures she is “just about the oldest person in town” but maintained a bustling social life before the pandemic, filled with lunches and bowling.

Anger and heartbreak

On a recent Saturday morning outside Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, Mich., Janice Burtch sat in a car holding a can of Diet Coke in one hand, a pack of Marlboros in the other. Snow was falling, the blacktop was wet, and she had just watched her husband of 29 years take his last breath.

“I literally watched that man die in front of my eyes,” Janice, 60, said, recalling the moment, just as the sun was rising, when she held the hand of her husband inside a hospital room surrounded by health-care workers.

Unlike Janice, who was fully vaccinated and boosted, Danny had refused to get the shot, something his wife attributes to a long-standing distrust in government and a heavy diet of Fox News.

A week before Thanksgiving, Danny, Janice and two of their closest friends — both unvaccinated — gathered for an evening of cards in Lewiston, a one stoplight town surrounded by state forests and inland lakes more than 200 miles north of Detroit. The friends got sick first. Danny tested positive a few days later.

Within days, his oxygen plunged dangerously, and he was rushed to a small rural hospital where he waited nearly two days in the emergency room before a bed in an intensive care unit opened up an hour and a half away in Traverse City.

During the next two weeks, his condition worsened day by day. He experienced a dramatic loss in lung function, his kidneys were failing and then he had a heart attack followed by a stroke that left him blind.

“I’m angry with him. Of course, I’m angry with him. This didn’t have to happen,” Janice said. “And I feel bad that I’m mad at him, because he’s gone. And I’m mad at myself for not making him go” get vaccinated.

Before his death, Danny, as president of the Lewiston 50 Plus Club, led a community center with several hundred members that hosts regular activities: euchre, bingo, exercise classes.

Janice, the self-proclaimed first lady, volunteers regularly at the club and works for the local commission on aging, preparing Meals on Wheels deliveries and food served at the facility. She got vaccinated to protect herself — and to shield the older, vulnerable residents she encounters.

“If I get sick and one of our people dies because of me … I can’t live with that,” she said.

She regarded the vaccine as just another layer of protection at the club, where they implemented a mask policy, temperature checks, regular sanitizing and a contact-tracing operation, creating one of the few spaces in the deeply red county where seniors could visit knowing their health was a priority.

For the most part, it worked. There have not been any outbreaks at the club since it reopened. Even this fall when the virus spread through their circle of friends, Janice never contracted it. But in the end, in an area where the severity of the virus has been downplayed, her efforts to protect Lewiston’s most vulnerable residents stopped short at being able to protect the most important person in her life.

People “think God is going to create a miracle for everybody, and he’s not. God helps those who help themselves. The vaccine was provided for us to help ourselves,” Janice said. Her husband “chose not to get that vaccine. It is what it is.

“Nothing I can do about it now.”

‘Tired of crying’

It was a snowy afternoon before Christmas, and just inside the entrance of the club, a small kitchen crew prepared dinner. Staff and guests wore face masks as they entered the building. In a backroom with dark wood paneling and an electronic bingo board on the wall, two men and two women sat around a table, each holding five cards as they played euchre.

While that table was full, more than a half-dozen tables around them sat empty. Along with bingo night, the twice-a-week afternoon euchre sessions are typically among the most well-attended activities at the Lewiston 50 Plus Club.

Members say attendance started to dwindle as a brutal and deadly fall wave of the coronavirus burned its way through Michigan, killing people in rural places such as Lewiston and surrounding Montmorency County at twice the rate of residents in more populous corners of the state.

“People get cautious really quick. It’s a senior group,” Long, the club’s vice president, said. “It’s socially changed the way we think to do anything, especially once we were shut down for the year … and you are afraid to go out to the gas station or the grocery store.”

Things got worse once Danny Burtch got sick. They briefly put activities on hold to prevent further spread. In-person meals resumed with just a few tables filling up every day. But with Janice staying in Traverse City while Danny was hospitalized, bingo was canceled.

In the days after Danny’s death, news about the omicron variant’s rapid spread sparked an added sense of fear at the club.

As they played euchre and ate Christmas cookies, Gogo expressed concern about the new variant and news reports chronicling the rush for testing.

“I can’t believe all these lines that they’re showing,” said Gogo, who has been terrified of crowds throughout the pandemic and continues to avoid large gatherings. Like others, she worries the growing spread of covid-19 could result in renewed restrictions that would shutter the club.

Gogo and many other club members remained cloistered in their homes most of the pandemic’s first year. They masked up when they left the house and kept away from loved ones. It upended their social lives: The club closed because of state and local restrictions, making an already isolated part of the state feel even more forlorn.

“When it went up to as much as 250,000 [cases] I thought that was the worst thing, that was the scariest thing. And when it went up to a million, I mean, there was no help anymore, you just [took] care of yourself and you [knew] a lot of people are going to die,” she recalled. “It was a scary time.”

They thought the vaccines would bring the pandemic, and their constant worry, to an end. More than 75 percent of Montmorency residents older than 50 are vaccinated, compared with just 33 percent under 50. But the way anti-vaccine rhetoric has taken hold, especially in places such as Lewiston, has meant the virus continues to ravage the community and keep them on edge, fearing for their health, fearing they could lose the ability to socialize.

“Now that we play cards twice a week, I don’t know what I’m going to do if we [don’t] play cards,” Gogo said.

“Too many people are resisting,” she said. “I’d think they’d be afraid of dying.”

As winter deepens, death continues to be a constant companion for the older residents in Lewiston. And for Janice, it continues to bring a sense of purpose after her husband’s death, whether it is encouraging holdouts to get vaccinated or offering succor to others who are grieving.

Just after the holidays, a man walked into the club for the first time with four friends to pick up the menu for the month. He looked about Janice’s age and as she got to talking with him, he told her his wife had died of covid-19 a month before Danny. She offered condolences and assured him the club would be there for anything he needed.

“I do have my moments, days, etcetera, that I just want to curl up and cry my heart out. I’m tired of crying, and I don’t want to anymore, but I can’t seem to stop it,” Janice said. “But when I help others, my heart doesn’t hurt for those few minutes.”

Since Danny got sick, Janice has been checking the county health department’s covid-19 data at least once a day. One Sunday, when she opened up the page, she saw the death toll had risen to 42.

After seeing the update, she took a screenshot and shared it on Facebook alongside a photo of her husband. She added a note: “If anyone knows this persons family let them know I am so sorry for their loss. Sending them hugs and prayers.”

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