July 14, 2024


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The more than 1,000 Utahns lost to COVID-19 will ‘haunt us,’ one grieving daughter says

The more than 1,000 Utahns lost to COVID-19 will ‘haunt us,’ one grieving daughter says

With a third day of more than 20 deaths reported, Utah’s death toll now stands at 1,016.

(Photo courtesy of the Langton family) Adele Decker Langton, 96, of Salt Lake City, died from COVID-19 on May 9, 2020. This photo shows Langton in the 1960s, exploring at Yellowstone National Park.

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Adele Langton’s yearning to explore took her to other countries, but she had a special affection for the West and her home state of Utah.

A photo treasured by her family shows her in the 1960s, standing at a cliff’s edge in Yellowstone National Park, leaning forward to see what was over the side.

“She loved everything about Utah and life,” her son, Brook Langton, remembers.

Every one of the more than 1,000 Utahns who have died from COVID-19 — Langton died May 9, at the age of 96 — did something in their life that their loved ones still talk about.

Juan Rodriguez-Galvez left Mexico in the 1980s to earn money to pay medical bills for his son, who had a traumatic brain injury. Joe Bonacci, a retired educator and one-term mayor of Helper, told his family stories of the history of Carbon County. Ed Stephenson enjoyed singing “silly songs” to his daughters, who taught them to their children.

Each new death reminds survivors of the cruelty of COVID-19, wrote Martha Beach, whose mother, Mary Margaret Miller, died June 9 at the age of 97.

“We are a ‘club’ of sorts, survivors of a COVID death,” Beach wrote to The Salt Lake Tribune. “Unable to honor our loved ones in more traditional ways (funerals, wakes, etc.), yet constantly reminded of the statistic [they have] become. And that reminder is something that will continue to haunt us, now and every time the pandemic of 2020 is discussed in the future.”

The state’s first death from COVID-19 was reported by state officials on March 22. On Thursday, the Utah Department of Health reported 21 new deaths — pushing the state past the threshold of 1,000, with a total death toll of 1,016.

Thursday was the third day in a row that state reported more than 20 deaths at a time.

“We mourn each and every one of those losses that is premature,” Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday during a news conference.

“We also understand, and mourn,” Herbert added, “the fact that a lot of this could have been prevented” through taking such precautions as wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

’Just hold their hand’

The deaths reported Thursday included a dozen Salt Lake County residents, the youngest a woman between the ages of 25 and 44 and the oldest two women over 85. Eight were men.

The others were from around the state, from Box Elder County to Uintah County to Iron County, ranging in age from under 44 to older than 85.

Those who operate mortuaries in Utah have seen the steady climb in COVID-19 deaths.

“Just this past week, the week following Thanksgiving, we had within a 36-hour period seven confirmed COVID deaths,” said Kurt Soffe, owner of Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Chapels. It operates mortuaries in Murray and South Jordan, and has provided services for about 40 people who died from COVID-19 or its complications.

The coronavirus has changed procedures for all in-person memorial services. The number of mourners is often limited, and those who attend must wear face masks and observe social distancing. Some families have opted against big services, postponing them until the pandemic has passed.

Those who die from COVID-19 typically have died alone, without family and friends able to visit them, as a safeguard against the virus.

And the precautions extend to the intimate moments of families’ last goodbyes, said Francis Mortensen, owner of Salt Lake City’s SereniCare Funeral Home. Some found such restrictions difficult, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, he said.

“If they want to see their loved one … we require them to do that behind glass” when the family member has not been embalmed, he explained.

Otherwise, a family can be in contact, “but we discourage them from kissing their loved one or moving their face down close,” Mortensen said. “Just hold their hand, we tell them, and use disinfectant afterwards.”

The majority of families “have been very understanding,” he said, “at this point in time.”

Because of its need for personal protective equipment, Soffe said, his industry has lobbied to be included on government lists of “essential workers.” Many of his funeral directors are retirees, he said, and have been unable to work because they are older — and therefore at a higher risk of getting sicker from COVID-19.

‘Make sure people know’

Families also must decide, as they write their loved ones’ obituaries, whether to mention that they died from COVID-19.

Mortensen said only a fraction of families want a cause of death, COVID-19 or otherwise, written into obituaries — opting to focus more on how people lived than how they died. A few take pains to say specifically that someone died “not from COVID.”

There are exceptions, though. One SereniCare client died from COVID-19, Mortensen said, and the family “was very adamant, and said, ‘We have to make sure people know.’ ”

Then there’s the example of Bart Collard, 66, a Salt Lake City truck salesman who died from COVID-19 on Nov. 17. The last paragraph of Collard’s paid obituary was a warning.

“Bart took COVID-19 very seriously since the early days. He wore a mask (and often gloves) and practiced social distancing. He was a very healthy man without underlying medical conditions. He did not drink or smoke,” his family wrote.

“He left us 24 days after his first symptoms. This virus is very serious and potentially devastating. Please take steps to protect yourselves, your loved ones, and those you encounter throughout the day.”

For families who lost members in the beginning of the pandemic, Soffe said, “there was a certain fear, or a perceived — ‘stigma’ probably isn’t the right word — a particular judgment that would either be placed on them by others, or there would be some type of response from [health officials].”

As the pandemic has continued, “I believe that has relaxed a little bit, as we’ve become more educated, more willing to talk about it. It is something that has touched almost every family by now,” Soffe said. “They’re concerned, but they’re not socially embarrassed.”

Saying goodbye to Analiza

David Scholes mentioned COVID-19 in the obituary for his wife, Analiza Scholes, 48, who died Nov. 29 from complications of the virus.

(Photo courtesy of Gillies Funeral Chapel) David Scholes sits by the casket containing the body of his wife, Analiza Scholes, during a memorial service on Dec. 5, 2020, at Gillies Funeral Chapel in Brigham City, Utah. Analiza Scholes, 48, died Nov. 29, 2020, of complications from COVID-19.

He also wrote about how they met — over Facebook, while she was still living in the Philippines and he refused her invitation to play the online game FarmVille.

“I told her I was not interested. ‘I’d just burn your barn and kill all your livestock and destroy your crops,’ ” Scholes said. “She said, ‘Well, do you want to be friends, then?’ So we just got chatting.”

She became an “Asian tiger mom” for their adopted son, Jordan, he said, and the dozen or so foster children they took under their roof.

In Analiza’s final days, when she was on a ventilator and under sedation to keep her from pulling out the tubes in her throat, doctors told Scholes that there was nothing left to be done, he said.

Scholes asked the doctors for one thing: A 72-hour fast, to burn up the glucose in Analiza’s system, then a change in the food in her feeding tube, from the carb-heavy standard hospital fare to a homemade mix of fish head soup that was high in fat and rich in protein.

Scholes, a software developer, has been living on a similar “hunter-gatherer” diet for several years, and he believed it could help Analiza’s virus-damaged lungs. In four days, her oxygen intake improved — and Scholes said he believes, if not for other complications involving her medication, the diet might have helped her recover.

About 30 or 40 people — wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart — came in person to Gillies Funeral Chapel in Brigham City last weekend to pay their respects to Scholes and say their final goodbyes to Analiza.

Many of her family members attended online.

“A lot of her family’s back in the Philippines, or spread out in different places in the U.S., and they’re nurses, so they were on lockdown — they couldn’t come,” Scholes said. “ … They were able to watch the services stream. So that was good.”

Scholes has written up his observations about the change in his wife’s diet on a blog, and invites researchers to explore the idea further. He also cites a study, recently published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, that suggests protein-rich diets might help alleviate the “cytokine storm” that attacks the immune systems of people infected by the coronavirus.

If the dietary information helps someone, it would be a fitting tribute to Analiza, he said. “She’s kind of the caregiver in the family.”