3,000 Rhode Islanders have died in the pandemic
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is nearing another painful pandemic milestone:
Three thousand residents claimed by COVID.
As of Monday, Rhode Island had reported 2,998 coronavirus-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
Jeaneane Grover, 82, a Navy veteran of the Korean War who died last Dec. 30, was one of them.
“She was a pistol,” said her son, Kevin Grover. “When she was involved in something, she grabbed it with both hands and made it happen.”
Those happenings, Grover said, included her work in various positions for more than 30 years at Lifespan and her community passion, helping to feed people living in poverty through a program run by Trinity Episcopal Church in North Scituate, where she worshiped.
“She was very dedicated to that,” Grover said.
Jeaneane Grover contracted coronavirus disease shortly after Thanksgiving 2020, before the development of vaccines. She died at Roger Williams Medical Center, leaving her son and his two daughters; her daughter-in-law and Grover’s wife, Lori, and Lori’s daughter; two sisters; an aunt; other relatives and many friends.
“All through the time she was there, my daughters and I would be doing FaceTime with her to keep her spirits up and stay in touch with her and let her know that we were supporting her,” Grover said.
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With hospital visits severely restricted, video conferencing was the only option for the family — except for a half-hour that her son was permitted shortly before she died.
“I spent some time with her and I did a FaceTime with all my relatives, one by one, and everybody got to say goodbye,” Grover said.
His final words to his mother as he departed her room?
Grover tears up recalling them.
“I’ll see you again,” he said.
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Older people have died in greater numbers
In the climb toward 3,000, coronavirus disease has taken more elders than any other age group, by a significant margin.
According to data from the state Health Department, which issued its latest report on age, race and gender shortly before the 3,000 mark was reached, 1,655 Rhode Islanders 80 and older had died from COVID-19. Six-hundred-and-sixty-eight people age 70 to 79 perished, as did 374 people in their 60s.
Only the young have been spared from death, with no fatalities recorded in residents from birth to 24. Seven people age 25 to 29 have died, along with 18 people in their 30s, 43 people in their 40s and 156 people in their 50s.
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More white individuals have died than any other race, accounting for 82% of all deaths, according to the latest Health Department analysis and reporting. Ten percent were Hispanic or Latino, 5% were Black or African American, and 2% were Asian.
The gender toll was almost even, with females accounting for a handful more deaths than males.
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New containment actions
The future is yet to unfold, but this is certain: with the delta variant raging, the transmission of the omicron variant quickening and the winter holidays arriving, and people weary of nearly two years of pandemic gathering, more people will die.
Already, COVID-related hospitalizations recently have reached levels not seen since last winter’s surge. According to The New York Times, Rhode Island has experienced the highest rate of new cases in the United States during the previous seven days.
In hopes of lessening deaths and sickness, the state on Monday implemented new containment measures, including a mask mandate in large venues and masking or proof of vaccination in businesses with a capacity of 250 or fewer people.
This comes as Rhode Island’s hospitals, already short-staffed, have been pushed to the “breaking point,” as Gov. Dan McKee described the situation in his Dec. 15 news conference. McKee has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send medical personnel to Rhode Island to help with staffing, joining states including Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that are pleading for assistance.
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Seeking solace and sense
So now again — as when the 1,000 mark was reached in July 2020, and the 2,000 count came in January of this year — we seek to make sense, to find solace, to perhaps unearth from this tragedy some wisdom to guide us in the days ahead.
“Each time we reach these milestones, it painfully reminds us of each tombstone of COVID-19 fatality,” said the Rev. Chris Abhulime, founder and pastor of The King’s Tabernacle in Johnston and Gov. Dan McKee’s deputy chief of staff.
“To honor the memories of these 3,000 fellow Rhode Islanders, we must be steadfast in our fight against this highly contagious and deadly disease. For some, the COVID-19 experience has strengthened their faith, but it has shaken the faith of others. My prayer is that we never reach another milestone of COVID-19 deaths.”
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Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said “the pandemic reinforces how important it is to address the underlying, community-level factors that impact health the most. Health care accounts for only a small portion of a person’s and a community’s health outcomes.”
She added: “Things like housing, transportation, social supports and factors related to employment all have very significant impacts on health. To ensure that Rhode Island is as healthy and resilient as possible, we need to invest in health at the community level.”
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As for today, Alexander-Scott has said repeatedly that unvaccinated people should get shots and those fully vaccinated should get a booster. Breakthrough infections do occur, but vaccination improves the odds that an infected person will experience mild symptoms and not require hospitalization.
Vaccinations also reduce the opportunity for the coronavirus to mutate and bring forth new variants, as Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public health, has explained.
“We have been reminded of the power of science, when funded and shared quickly,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, an endowed professor of emergency medicine at Brown and associate dean of strategy and Innovation at the university’s School of Public Health.
“It’s tremendous what we achieved in developing vaccines, antigen tests and more,” Ranney continued. “We learned about the importance of data — and how badly things go when we don’t have it, whether because of limitations in testing, lack of coordination of data between agencies or obfuscation of truth.
“And we learned about the importance of community, which stepped up in an unprecedented way early in the pandemic to help get PPE to frontline workers, to get vaccines to nursing home recipients, and to honor frontline workers. We designed our state’s testing and vaccine infrastructure to make sure that everyone — regardless of income, job, race, language — could have access to the best of science.”
The soul of a state
The loss of 3,000 and its associated suffering has wounded the psyche of the state, leaving both obstructions and opportunities for those left behind, experts assert.
“As a pediatrician, I am keenly aware of the multitude of challenges and emotions this pandemic has foisted on children and families,” said Dr. Elizabeth B. Lange, president of the Rhode Island Medical Society.
“The rise in pediatric mental-health issues and delayed social skills has been exponential, with lifelong residual effects that will require ongoing address. At the same time, children and families showed tremendous resilience, approaching many situations with humor, creativity, patience and generosity for others.”
Brown University sociologist Michael Kennedy said “COVID mutates, threatening to become lasting, not temporary. The accumulation of harm — physical, mental, emotional, social, economic, ecological — in this period is devastating. We struggle to cope, and find succor in animosities of all sorts, which in turn ruins us further. Nostalgia for the ‘before times’ only deepens our despair. Hope for an alternative future seems misplaced when so many suffer. But that is what we need.”
Kennedy urges an end to polarization and a rebuilding of community spirit, saying “solidarity will not simply emerge from this crisis. Hope must be generated through active leadership from all sectors of civil society to address the suffering of not only their familiars but those beyond their networks.”
That way, members of society “grow mutual care,” Kennedy said.
“So many of us have lost loved ones over the past year, and so many of us have experienced other forms of loss and grief, as well,” Ranney said. “I hope that we learn how to care for and support one another, instead of how to fight.”
‘Take this seriously’
Toward the end of her life, the advance of coronavirus disease afflicted Jeaneane Grover’s mind.
“My mother may have had physical ailments, but she was always really sharp as a tack mentally,” said Kevin Grover. “There was no Alzheimer’s or anything like that. She always had full command of her faculties and was smart and didn’t miss a trick.”
But as COVID consumed her, Grover said, “she didn’t even want to talk to us because she was so depressed. That’s when it really got difficult. That was one of the hardest things for us to deal with: watching her lose the ability to stay sharp.”
Still, said Lori Grover, their circumstances allowed them and Jeaneane a measure of comfort until she died.
“We were fortunate that we had all the technology and we were self-employed so that we were able to dedicate the FaceTime to be able to give Jeaneane the cheering section that she needed,” Lori said. “A lot of families don’t have that same luxury. And I think that is one of the saddest parts about this.”
The Grovers expressed gratitude for the Roger Williams team, which was led by Dr. Rebecca Brown.
“Regardless of how tired they were, regardless of how impacted they were, regardless of how mentally drained they were, that staff was like every superhero combined, not only in their efforts but the way they interacted with us,” Lori said.
And that, she said, has led her to a strongly held belief.
“When people don’t want to still take this seriously, it is — I’ll be blunt — such a slap in the face to the nurses and the doctors, and the anesthesiologists, and the frontline workers, of which my daughter is one, who really have exhausted themselves to help people.”
Kevin said: “Get vaccinated. Take masking seriously. Don’t wait until you’ve got personal skin in the game to take this seriously.”
“You do not understand how serious this is,” Lori said, “until you have watched someone struggle to breathe.”
COVID by the numbers
Cases in R.I.: 212,715 (2,402 reported Monday)*
Negative tests in R.I.: 6,166,646 (36,939 reported Monday, 6.1% positive rate)
R.I. COVID-related deaths: 2,998 (6 reported Monday)
Rhode Islanders hospitalized with COVID: 230 (36 in intensive care)
Fully vaccinated in R.I.: 792,946 (881,460 at least partially vaccinated)
Cases in Mass.: 1,005,470
Mass. COVID-related deaths: 19,829
Cases in U.S.: 50,927,640
U.S. COVID-related deaths: 806,817
*-On Monday, Rhode Island added a large number of cases to its past totals, to align with the CDC’s new-case definition, which now includes reinfections. These numbers are not included among the 2,402 reported Monday.
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Staff Writer G. Wayne Miller has covered the pandemic since January 2020.