The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s 250,000 covid deaths: People die, but little changes

Twenty thousand chairs, each representing 10 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, are lined up on the Ellipse in Washington last month. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Most everybody in town knows that Gladys Maull has been battered this year: Her father, her sister, an aunt, a great-aunt, all dead from covid-19. Maull keeps a sign on her front door: “Please do not come in my house due to covid-19. Thank you.”

Some people just step on in, maskless.

They mean no harm, but masks never caught on in rural Lowndes County, which has Alabama’s highest rate of coronavirus infections. In a place that gave 73 percent of its vote to Joe Biden, the sheriff and the coroner agree that although cases are spiking and deaths are rising, most people share President Trump’s view that masks are a matter of personal choice and that the end of the pandemic is just around the corner.

“I don’t see people taking it seriously enough,” Maull said. “They still have their yard parties, yard cookouts. They’re back inside the church. This is just too much.”

200,000 deaths, millions of ripples

From the start of the pandemic, public health officials and many political leaders hoped that covid’s frightening lethality — the death toll will hit 250,000 this week — might unite the country in common cause against the virus’s spread.

But the nation’s deep divisions — political and cultural — as well as the virus’s concentrated impact on crowded urban areas in the early months, set the country on a different path.

Now, more than eight months into a pandemic that shows no sign of abating, it has become clear that although close experiences with covid-19 do change some people’s attitudes, many Americans stick to their original notions, no matter what sorrows they’ve seen, no matter where they live.

President Trump downplayed the coronavirus as it ravaged the United States, disregarding the advice of experts and politicizing a health crisis. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

In Huntsville, Ala., 200 miles north of Maull’s house, when Tommy Battle lost his wife, Eula, to cancer last month, there was never any question that the funeral would be private, tiny and entirely masked.

That’s the message Battle, Huntsville’s fourth-term mayor, has been hammering since February, weeks before most governors and the federal government raised the alarm about the coronavirus.

Madison County now has one of Alabama’s lowest covid rates, and Battle, a Republican mayor in a jurisdiction that voted 53 percent for Trump, takes pride in the prevalence of masks around town.

Covid-19’s toll as of July: 150,000 dead

The mayor is enforcing a state requirement   that   bars   close   at 11 p.m. because if you go out that late, “you have more propensity not to separate from other people,” he said.

But Battle said enforcement is not the best path to prevention. Huntsville, home to major biotech employers and a big NASA installation, has a highly educated population, which the mayor said helped create consensus on mask-wearing and social distancing. But he contends that the city’s success in keeping covid deaths relatively low stemmed largely from health officials, politicians and news media urging people to do right by their older, vulnerable relatives and neighbors.

“The whole idea is educate, educate, educate — repetition works,” he said.

'Turned for the worse'

About three-fifths of U.S. deaths from the virus have occurred in the 28 states and territories where President-elect Biden won. Yet there is no automatic correlation between the politics of a place and how people react to the death toll in their community.

In Lowndes County, where more than 70 percent of the residents are Black, there’s no love lost for Trump. Yet no amount of urging from local officials seems to change people’s behavior during the pandemic, said Terrell Means, the elected coroner.

“The president’s right, we have turned the corner — turned for the worse,” Means said. “It’s crazy out here. People are not being cautious at all. I stop people and say, ‘I can’t make you wear this mask, but I’m asking you, sir, please consider putting this on.’ They know it’s real and they don’t care.”

Means, who is 30 and has a second full-time job as a security guard in the Montgomery public schools, has had to declare 32 people in his county of 9,700 dead from covid. He knew many of the families. His cousin and two friends died.

“I signed up for this, but I question my decision every day,” Means said. “I’m praying and hoping that I can keep my strength and keep doing it. But it’s challenging, it really is.”

In the county’s small towns, a certain silence surrounds covid-19. People hear about who is ill and who has died, yet “everybody’s kind of secretive about it,” Means said.

“They tell me they don’t want people to know because they’re going to look at you funny,” he said. “Then you have people who say they’d just rather not know if they have it. Some have been through it, but they say, ‘We can’t stay home forever.’ But if we don’t care for each other, we won’t have each other.”

Gladys Maull’s covid year began in May, when her father, Dizzie Dean Maull, woke up one morning and couldn’t draw air. Three days later, alone in a hospital in the next county over, he died of covid-19.

That week, Gladys, who is 60, tested positive for the coronavirus. Her sister did, too, and two weeks later, she died in the same hospital as her father. Week after week, the virus attacked the family: Dizzie’s sister died. And an aunt.

“It’s just a domino effect,” Gladys said.

She became an evangelist for covid caution. She’s open about her family’s story. When she sees people in the grocery store with their masks pulled down, she nudges them to put it right. She says none of it matters: People don’t change.

Getting sick in Lowndes County can be especially scary. The county has no hospital, no urgent-care clinic, just a health services office that is closed evenings and weekends.

Yet county authorities have been pushing prevention all year. The sheriff and his 25 deputies keep stocks of masks in their patrol cars and hand them out wherever they go.

But the stories of loved ones who never got to say goodbye have made little dent in how people live, said Sheriff Stuart West. When tragedy strikes, families feed and house each other and share a lot of love, West said, but then time passes, and people want to enjoy themselves, forget about things for a bit.

“Bonfires are very popular now,” he said. “People invite people and they pay a fee at the gate and they bring four-wheelers, horses, dirt bikes. They have a big party in a field. In essence, all they are is covid spreader events, but the law doesn’t prevent it on private property. All we can do is be around the area to cut down on drinking and driving.”

“We live in a free country, man, and it’s hard,” West said. “You can’t take a deer that’s been raised as a deer and put him in a fence. That’s just the way it is.”

'Teflon man'

Rural Alexander County, N.C., in the foothills of the Appalachians an hour’s drive from Charlotte, is the political opposite of Lowndes County. Seventy-nine percent of voters stuck with Trump this month.

Like Lowndes, Alexander has one of the highest rates of new coronavirus cases in its state.

Also like Lowndes, Alexander, population 37,000, is a county where deaths from covid-19 have had little impact on many residents’ attitudes toward the pandemic.

People still chafe at the idea that masks are a must, still hang out together, still gather much as they always have when it’s time to say goodbye to a loved one.

“There’s a lot of resentment” about masks, said Monte Sherrill, 55, whose father died this summer of covid. Most people in shops and restaurants don’t cover their faces, Sherrill and two of his brothers said. Neither do they. All Trump supporters, they said they value their right not to wear a mask.

“If someone can choose to have an abortion and end a human life, then I should be able to choose to wear a mask or not,” said Kevin Sherrill, 48. If someone is vulnerable, he said, “they should be the one to wear a mask.”

In all his 84 years, their father, Troy “Jeep” Sherrill, had been in the hospital just once, after cutting two fingers in an accident. “Teflon man,” Monte, the oldest son, called him.

But one morning in early August, Jeep Sherrill, who had worked until he was 79 as a master wood carver at a furniture company, woke with a fever of 102 degrees. At an urgent-care clinic, a doctor diagnosed a sinus infection but didn’t test for the coronavirus. The positive test came two days later, at the hospital.

Jeep did wear a mask where it was mandated — at supermarkets and such — but not around friends or family, his sons said. After he became ill, his wife of 65 years, Nancy, contracted a relatively mild case.

At the hospital, Monte, covered with protective gear, pulled up to about three inches from his father’s nose, and “the Lord opened up a window for about a minute” for a last exchange.

“I love you and Mom loves you, too,” the son said.

“I love you, too,” the father replied.

Monte told his father that his severely mentally disabled brother, Brian, needed him: “You got to get home for Brian.’ ”

And his father said, “Got to get home.”

After 19 days on a ventilator, Jeep Sherrill died Aug. 29. In his obituary, the family listed covid as the cause.

“My dad would never sugarcoat anything,” said Monte, a college softball coach and retired teacher.

About 250 people attended Sherrill’s graveside service. There was never any doubt that the funeral would proceed, covid or not.

As the three brothers chatted the other day in their mother’s living room, Kevin, who donates blood regularly, checked his American Red Cross phone app to see if his latest donation had been tested for covid antibodies.

“Whoa,” he said. “I got my antibody test back and it says positive. . . . I never even felt sick.”

Kevin figured he must have been exposed sometime since August, because he had tested negative when he donated blood before his father fell ill.

Maybe his father caught the virus from him. Maybe Kevin caught the virus from his father. There’s no way to know. For the Sherrill family, it doesn’t matter.

“We’re more of the faith that the Lord predestined him,” Monte said. “He was going to pass at this age and for this reason, and we don’t question why it happened.”

Lonely, distant partings

The statistics show that this virus hits some places and some people harder than others. Black people, for example, are more than twice as likely as White people to die of covid. Yet the virus’s impact on the families of its victims is searing no matter where it hits.

New York state’s hardest-hit counties include the suburbs close to New York City, such as Westchester, where the pandemic has claimed 1,490 lives.

In Buchanan, a riverfront village 40 miles north of the city, seven months after her husband, Jeffrey, died of covid, Taina Scalf can’t bring herself to sleep in their bedroom. His Z-Pak antibiotics and ibuprofen remain on the nightstand. Taina passes restless nights on the living room couch. She still feels him in their home.

At the opposite end of the state, by the Canadian border, Clinton County has one of the state’s lowest infection rates; five people have died in the mostly rural county of dark forests and sparkling lakes.

Seven months after her husband, Donovan Clay, died of covid, Kellie Patrick-Clay held a celebration-of-life ceremony for him on Saturday. More than 40 people, wearing masks and remaining six feet apart, passed through a building in a park in Plattsburgh to honor Clay, a New Orleans native who loved music, pranks and Saints football.

Kellie, now 43, and Donovan started dating after a Fourth of July party in 2018. They were married the next June. Ten months later, he was gone.

Covid deaths are often lonely, distant partings.

Back in April, Taina, who spent 17 years working in management at NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital, sat on a wall outside the hospital while nurses and doctors tried to save Jeff. She found a partial view of his second-floor room, and for more than a week, she traded texts and calls with the medical staff, many of them her friends and former colleagues.

Taina, 44, had contracted the virus, too, and she fought her own less-serious symptoms as Jeff, 46, a New York City police gang squad detective, declined. On the morning he died, his fever had reached an inconceivable 110.3 degrees. Taina, standing in the rain in front of her car, knew Jeff was dying from the sight of staff rushing to his room.

She had been begging to get inside to see him and was finally allowed. As doctors and nurses tried to resuscitate him, “I just stood at the foot of his bed, quietly rubbing his legs,” Taina said. “I just knew that our lives were over.”

Around the same time, 275 miles to the north, Kellie and Donovan had both contracted covid. Kellie, like Taina, was able to muddle through. Donovan, like Jeff, faded quickly.

Kellie, a certified nurse’s assistant, wasn’t allowed into the hospital to see her husband. She planned to wait for him out in the parking lot, but she got a call letting her know that he was in intensive care, being placed on a ventilator.

She never heard his voice or saw his smile again. After Donovan spent more than two weeks on the ventilator, Kellie and her husband’s brother made the wrenching decision to end treatment. On April 10, with Kellie’s own recovery complete, they were finally allowed inside to be with Donovan in his final hours.

The ventilator was removed, Donovan reflexively opened his eyes for a second, and a few minutes later, his heart stopped. He was the second person in Clinton County to succumb to the illness.

This month, Clinton County stuck with Trump, delivering a 52 percent majority for the president.

Kellie, a registered Democrat who cast her last ballot for President Barack Obama in 2012, was troubled by Trump’s inaction at the start of the pandemic.

“Why did it take so long?” she said. “What were we waiting for?” But she said she “didn’t have a liking for” Biden either.

So she didn’t vote.

Westchester County was solid Biden country in this month’s election, giving the Democrat 63 percent of the vote.

Taina said she was “very unhappy” with Trump’s performance throughout the covid crisis. She called him “embarrassing” but doesn’t blame him for the severity of the pandemic. And she couldn’t shake the sense that Biden and Kamala D. Harris don’t support law enforcement.

She didn’t vote either.

The futures they might have voted for were stolen from them.

Taina and Jeff had planned to move back to his native Tennessee when he retired in three years. Jeff retained his Southern accent through decades of patrolling and working cases in the Bronx and living in the suburbs with Taina and their three children. A month before he died, the couple had traveled to Tennessee to scout houses, ideally something on a lake so he could go fishing.

Donovan, who was 51, had just turned his life back onto a solid path, getting sober after a stint in jail. He’d returned to his Christian faith, started going to the gym, and earned his driver’s license. Three days after he died, the final materials needed to get his GED arrived in the mail.

“Sometimes I feel guilty,” Kellie said. “Like, how am I so lucky? I thank God every day that he allowed me to still be here. But why?”

Jacobs reported from Westchester County, N.Y.; Kelley reported from Alexander County, N.C. Susan H. Greenberg in Middlebury, Vt., contributed to this report.