More than 200 Vermonters have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Brave Little State looks back on a year of loss.
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Angela Evancie: From Vermont Public Radio, this is Brave Little State. I’m Angela Evancie. Liam, can you tell us about the first Vermonter who died from COVID-19?
Liam Elder-Connors: So the first Vermonter, that we know of, was a woman named Betty LaBombard. She was 95 years old and she died almost exactly a year ago, on March 19, 2020, just as the state was starting to lock down.
Angela Evancie: My colleague Liam Elder-Connors has been reporting on COVID in Vermont for twelve months and counting.
Liam Elder-Connors: And so after Betty LaBombard died, I Facebook messaged her niece and got a call back within about an hour.
Liam Elder-Connors: Um, I mean, how are you feeling right now?
Holly Barrett-Willard: Um, I think we're all in a state of shock, very confused.
Liam Elder-Connors: Her niece's name is Holly Barrett-Willard.
Holly Barrett-Willard: You know, we got a phone call, um, they were calling in reference to the nursing home, stating that there was a man that tested positive on my aunt's floor.
Liam Elder-Connors: Holly’s aunt Betty had been living in a nursing home, a place called Burlington Health & Rehab.
Holly Barrett-Willard: The family kept calling to see how she was doing, and then I called at five o'clock yesterday morning, and they said that they were giving her morphine to keep her comfortable, um, she was on oxygen, but they didn't think she'd make it through the day.
Liam Elder-Connors: And if you can think back to a year ago, right in those early days of the pandemic, everything was pretty chaotic, no one knew exactly what was going on. We were trying to figure out what was safe and what wasn't.
Holly Barrett-Willard: Things change, and it depends who you talk to.
Liam Elder-Connors: But eventually on the morning of March 19, 2020, Holly got a call from people at Burlington Health & Rehab.
Holly Barrett-Willard: I got a phone call at six o'clock, and [they] said, 'You can come in, you can be with your aunt.' And I got dressed and I went yesterday morning at six o'clock to be with her.
Liam Elder-Connors: And then, around 11 a.m. that morning, Holly’s aunt Betty was pronounced dead.
Holly Barrett-Willard: She was the most loving, giving person you'd ever meet. She had a heart of gold. She loved her whole family. She was fine before this, and that's why I think we're all in shock.
Liam Elder-Connors: So, Betty was the first documented COVID-19 fatality here in Vermont. And at this point, a year later, more than 200 people have died.
Angela Evancie: And Liam, we’ve had so many numbers coming at us in the past year. It’s been hard to keep everything in perspective, right? So in our country as a whole, the pandemic has killed more than half a million people. Here in Vermont, we’ve had fewer deaths than any other state. And our death rate has also been one of the lowest in the country. But the pandemic has still left thousands of Vermonters in mourning.
Liam Elder-Connors: Right, and that’s something I've been trying to unpack for the last couple of months. There were more than 200 Vermonters who died of COVID-19, and we wanted to get a sense of who they were. Not just another tally or a number that we report every day. But: Who are the people that died because of this virus? And, what kind of lives did they live?
Angela Evancie: And to be transparent, this is not an episode that started with an audience question. But Liam, you and others worked so hard on it, that we really wanted to share it. So, everyone, welcome.
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Angela Evancie: Liam, how many phone calls to family members who’ve lost someone to COVID would you guess you’ve made in the past few months?
Liam Elder-Connors: Um, I actually know exactly, because I kept a spreadsheet of that. I made 55 phone calls to 55 different families, and heard back from 15 or so.
Angela Evancie: And how did you know who to call?
Liam Elder-Connors: So, I requested death certificates from the [Vermont] Health Department of people who died due to COVID-19, either as the main reason or a contributing factor. Those death certificates have a lot of information on them about the people who died, including family and next of kin. And so I used the death certificates to find families, and also would look up people's obituaries to find additional folks if I couldn't get in touch with the person who was on the death certificate.
Angela Evancie: And you also got back in touch with Holly Barrett-Willard, right, the niece of the first woman recorded to have died from COVID?
Liam Elder-Connors: I did.
Holly Barrett-Willard: Hello? (Hi Holly, it's Liam.) Hi Liam, how are you?
Liam Elder-Connors: We've texted on and off for the last year, and I wanted to call her back almost a year later after her aunt had died, to just check in and see how she was doing.
Angela Evancie: How is she doing?
Holly Barrett-Willard: We're doing OK. You know, we've got her pictures up and stuff.
Liam Elder-Connors: Any time you have a family member that dies, it's hard. I think it's obviously been really difficult in the pandemic, especially to have somebody who died because of the virus. But you know, one of the things Holly talked about was, she felt like people who died in Vermont from the pandemic, just kind of wishing there was a way to remember them more, not just as numbers.
Holly Barrett-Willard: Yeah, I think memorialize these people and, like, I don't know why I had this weird dream that, you know, we had some pictures of the people that passed away and just like, you know, calendars, and sold them, and the money went to, you know, funding or something.
Liam Elder-Connors: Now it's almost two hundred Vermonters [dead], I mean, why should we, I guess, what is important to you about remembering those people?
Holly Barrett-Willard: None of them should be forgotten. I mean, this is an epidemic that took over Vermont. You know, now that they have the vaccines and things like that, hopefully there won't be anymore. Hopefully it works. But, you know, you don't want to forget these people — these people suffered, they died.
Angela Evancie: So how do you go about memorializing more than 200 people?
Liam Elder-Connors: You know, obviously I wouldn't be able to tell an entire life story, because I was calling so many people, but I think little details, really specific things just can tell you a lot about who a person was. As I think about all these families I've called, I think about these people based on the little anecdotes I've heard about them. I mean, Bob Burdo, who lived in Burlington his whole life — he loved Yankees.
Dawn Burdo: My dad, he was the greatest guy in the world, you know? He was the best dad.
Liam Elder-Connors: He was a custodian in the Burlington School District for 25 years, and he also would have his family over for cookouts, and loved grilling for them.
Dawn Burdo: We used to like, go to his house on weekends and do barbecues and stuff like that. And we worked together at Integrated Arts Academy at Wheeler. I loved working with my dad. He actually would come in as I was getting off, but I would go in the office with him, and we would hang out for a half hour, 45 minutes. And sometimes with our busy life those were sometimes my only moments with him. I would do anything right now just to be able to just sit and hold his hand and talk to him, and you know, just tell him how much I love him.
Erika Smith: My parents divorced when I was young, and so it was just me and my mom for a lot of years.
Liam Elder-Connors: Deborah Conrad, who was in Plainfield, she taught herself to type after she got divorced and needed to support her daughter as a single mom. And she would sit on the floor in their house, and just type away at this old typewriter, and just practice and practice and practice so she could get a job.
Erika Smith: She had this old-fashioned typewriter that I think my grandmother had had put away somewhere, like no one used it, but it was one of those old manual typewriters with the little round keys that you have to press really hard. And she had a book and she would just sit on the living room floor, with everything around her, and just like practice, practice, practice typing.
Liam Elder-Connors: And Leona Gutwin in Burlington, she loved to paint flowers, and she actually taught herself to paint once her sons got old enough and were not really in the house as much.
Paul Gutwin: The biggest thing she did was flowers.
Liam Elder-Connors: And her son said that she liked to paint "voluptuous" flowers, which I will always remember that.
Paul Gutwin: Kind of the more voluptuous and outrageous the flower was, the more she loved it. She was completely self-taught and it was the one thing that allowed her to kind of step out of her day-to-day life and she could literally spend an hour or two and she would say, "Oh, the time just flies by when I paint."
Angela Evancie: There are also some numbers that tell a little more of the story about who exactly did die from COVID here in Vermont, right?
Liam Elder-Connors: As of taping this, 214 people in the state have died due to the virus. And almost 80% of those who died were above the age of 70. About half lived in long-term care facilities. And nearly 65% didn't have college degrees. So those are sort of the general things we can say about them, but there's a lot more to say about all these people.
Angela Evancie: Looking back on the past year, Liam, when exactly did these 200-plus deaths happen? Like, what was the chronology?
Liam Elder-Connors: So in the first two months of the pandemic, in March and April of last year, 56 died. But then for the next six months, things really slowed down. And the state only reported 5 coronavirus fatalities. One of those was Melvin Dunster. He died on July 28 at Central Vermont Medical Center. He was 87.
Janice Dunster: I'm his wife. And, uh, yeah, he passed away. And we've been married a long time.
Liam Elder-Connors: I talked to his wife Janice.
Janice Dunster: It wasn't a wonderful thing to have. I had it as well. But a lot of mine I don't remember, because I was right out like a light.
Liam Elder-Connors: Janice and Melvin met when they were teenagers. He lived in Waterbury and would drive down about 10 miles to visit her in Moretown.
Janice Dunster: After he came there that one time, he kept coming a while. And then we decided, let's get married. I was working, taking care of somebody's children. And he was working.
Liam Elder-Connors: They were married in 1952. In August, they would have celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.
Janice Dunster: We had a long life together, but it’s still not the same. I mean, I miss the heck out of him, really do.
Angela Evancie: I imagine you talked to a lot of widows and widowers.
Liam Elder-Connors: You know, not as many as you might think, and I think part of that is a lot of people in the state who died from COVID were older. And many of them were already widowed. I talked with a lot of children of people who had died, or nieces, nephews, in one case grandchildren as well.
Angela Evancie: Well, back to the chronology of the past year of COVID deaths. Where are we at?
Liam Elder-Connors: Yeah, I mean, very very few for six months, all throughout the summer, and into fall. And late last summer, when the death count was so low, and the case counts were really low, a lot of people were feeling more confident.
Erika Smith: And when we got that far into it, we had, like, this big sigh of relief that, OK, she's made it this far.
Liam Elder-Connors: I talked to Erika Smith. And her mom, Deborah Conrad, was living at Berlin Health and Rehab. And like many Vermonters with family in nursing homes, Erika hadn’t seen her mom for months.
Erika Smith: And then we got the call that she was COVID positive.
Liam Elder-Connors: And so, I mentioned Deborah Conrad at the beginning of the episode. She had taught herself how to type so she could get a job at International Coins and Currency in Montpelier. And she got that job even though she didn't have any experience. But she taught herself to type and she eventually became a top salesperson at that company.
Erika Smith: And of course, she was selling, you know, really, really valuable coins. But just thinking about not having any of that experience and just kind of learning as she went, and how far she was able to go with it.
Liam Elder-Connors: But one of the things that will always stick with me about talking with Erika was, you know, she couldn't go into the facility to see her mom. And so she and her brother, once her mom got sick, they were going and standing outside their mom's window at the nursing home to try to see her.
Erika Smith: You know, it was really cold. We would just basically go in the car and warm up for a few minutes and then come back out, and just stay with her. We tried to talk to her, like you could hear through the windows, we could hear her gasping. And we hoped that she could hear our voice.
Liam Elder-Connors: And Erika told me that the day after Christmas, she and her brother were just standing in a snowbank outside their mom's window.
Erika Smith: It was really hard to see her and not be able to touch her.
Liam Elder-Connors: And that afternoon, Deborah Conrad, Erika's mom, died. She was 70.
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Andrew Swett: He was justice of the peace, he was a lister, auditor, selectman for Jesus, 30 years almost.
Liam Elder-Connors: Andrew Swett told me about his dad, Ralph Swett. He died at his home on November 21, 2020, at the age of 90. Ralph was an Abenaki leader, heading the Clan of the Hawk. And he ran The Evansville Trading Post in Brownington before his son took over.
Andrew Swett: We did auctions, we went to Boston buying stuff, New Hampshire, Waltham went on buying trips and stuff. That was always interesting, ‘cause you never knew what you were going to get or what you bought. So that was fun. We had a lot of good times together.
Liam Elder-Connors: Then there was Ivalou Dike, who spent 15 years working at the University of Vermont Medical Center in the Dietary and Dialysis Departments. After she retired, she spent another 15 years at the hospital as a volunteer.
Donna Demers: Helping the patients and, you know, if they needed something, she'd go and get it and... She was quite the talker too, my mother loved to talk, so she fit right in with keeping the patients entertained, I should say, because my mother could be really funny.
Liam Elder-Connors: Ivalou died on April 21, 2020 at Birchwood Terrace, a nursing home in Burlington. She was 89. Her daughter, Donna Demers, told me that her mom wanted to help the hospital even after she was gone. So she donated her body to the medical school.
Donna Demers: She wanted them to study her brain, which I think was a good thing for them to study on her, because she had a lot of years of depression. … And she only had one request, she said, "I want them to cover me up at night because I get cold."
Liam Elder-Connors: But more than any job or volunteer work, it was really people’s family life that their relatives remembered.
Kris Owens: One of the things my dad was so good about was sitting down with the kids, and loved to have one-on-one discussions. And he was the type of person who really sat down and listened to everybody, and asked all the questions and was truly interested. And, you know, when I think of all the kids, especially the grandkids, when they were talking about him, that's something they all commented on that they'll miss about him. That and his big, they used to call them "big grandpa hugs," because he always had the best big hugs, and he always wanted one more.
Robin Wescott: We would go garage-saling, we would do a lot. We’d take rides up through Smugglers Notch and stop and have lunch. And sometimes my friends were with us, and we got together with them. Even on my mom’s birthday we would all get together for my mother’s birthday. There were times we took her out with us, a number of times we took her out dancing with us, because my mother loved to dance, and she would go with myself and all my friends, ‘cause I was single. She was like, part of the group.
Michael Boulerice: We played ball in school and gosh, she really had a true love of basketball. She watched every game, and then as she got older, didn’t miss a Celtics game and knew more about the Celtics than I did. It’s true that we were a snowmobiling family years ago, and my mom had her own snow machine and what not. And we would take off with her and try and lose her and she always kept up with us. [Laughs.] She was all about her family and her religion and her faith. And again, very good person, from beginning to end. So we're proud of her. Didn't win any Academy Awards, didn't win the Nobel Peace Prize, you know, wasn't involved in politics, any of that stuff. She just was a good mother.
Angela Evancie: That was Michael Boulerice remembering his mom Pauline, age 87, of St. Albans. Before him, Robin Westcott describing her mom Coralyn, age 91, of Burlington, and Kris Owens remembering her dad David Reissig, 82, of St. Albans Town. This is Brave Little State. We’ll be right back.
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Angela Evancie: It’s Brave Little State, I’m Angela Evancie. Today we are here with my colleague Liam Elder-Connors, remembering the Vermonters lost to COVID-19. Liam, we’ve been talking through the timeline of COVID deaths in 2020. Where are we at this point?
Liam Elder-Connors: Yeah. So we’re up to November of last year. And this is when the virus surged and people started to die again. You know, when I started working on this project in late December, before Christmas, I had requested a bunch of the death certificates of people up until that point. And I was thinking maybe it would be something I could get done before the end of the year. But you know, really in that time, the number of deaths in the state doubled. In the final two months of 2020, more than 100 Vermonters died — and a lot of those deaths occurred at long-term care facilities. And what’s, I think, particularly tragic and difficult about that is that these were older Vermonters that were just weeks away from being able to get a vaccine.
Angela Evancie: Can you tell us the story of Smile Gracanin?
Liam Elder-Connors: Yeah. So, Smile was in his late-60s when he emigrated to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia. And he and his wife settled in Burlington.
Vesna Gracanin: My mom and him lived there downtown. He loved to walk.
Liam Elder-Connors: That’s Vesna, one of Smile’s five daughters. And Vesna was one of the people that I just kind of cold-called out of the blue. And she was a little —
Vesna Gracanin: Depends what kind of questions they are. I don't know what's related — just to the COVID?
Liam Elder-Connors: Like a little curious about what I was doing, wonder who I was and why I was calling her. But she, once I explained it, she —
Vesna Gracanin: Oh, OK. OK.
Liam Elder-Connors: — knew exactly what was going on and she just sort of started telling me about her dad, and, um —
Vesna Gracanin: [Sighs] What do I remember? I remember growing up...
Liam Elder-Connors: She said that her dad missed Yugoslavia, but that Vermont really reminded him of home.
Vesna Gracanin: Nature, Burlington, four seasons. It's very similar to former Yugoslavia.
Liam Elder-Connors: So Vesna and her sisters would help translate for their parents. They took them to doctors appointments. And Vesna says she used to bring her mom and dad over to her house every Sunday.
Vesna Gracanin: That's the most I’m missing right now, every weekend, spending time with my dad.
Liam Elder-Connors: In September, the family decided to move Smile to the Converse Home, an assisted living facility in Burlington. He had dementia and it was getting worse.
Vesna Gracanin: My dad was generous. He was happy. He always smiled. He was — he didn't have any anger in him. He was nice to the nurses.
Liam Elder-Connors: Three months after moving to Converse Home, there was an outbreak of COVID-19. That outbreak started on December 9, according to the health department. Two days later, on December 11, is when federal regulators approved the first coronavirus vaccine. And health care workers and residents at long-term care facilities in Vermont were first in line. But the shots didn’t come in time for Smile. He died on December 21 — which is the same day that some Vermont nursing homes started administering the vaccine.
Vesna Gracanin: Well, I was angry when my dad made it so far, and holidays happen, Thanksgiving, and I think that's, after Thanksgiving all these breakouts, how people — how people couldn't behave, or, I know things happen. But that's when my dad got COVID. And, anger, it's like — I just feel, it's hard on my heart when I hear about vaccines and all these people getting vaccinated in nursing homes, and he didn't make it.
Angela Evancie: It’s so tough to think about this timing, where we had this surge of deaths in the winter literally just as the vaccine was about to become available to the people who were most vulnerable.
Liam Elder-Connors: Yeah. I know. At the time it was happening, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I still have been thinking a lot about it. And it was actually something that I asked Governor Phil Scott about.
Governor Phil Scott: It was a bittersweet moment. We were watching, right before our eyes, the remarkable production of the vaccine, and how quickly in some respects that came to us, and how beneficial that was going to be, and how much hope we had for that. But then I reflect on: What if it had been, like, one month earlier?
Angela Evancie: And how is the governor thinking about the Vermonters — all the Vermonters who’ve died from COVID at this point?
Liam Elder-Connors: Well, he told me that every morning, one of the first things he does is he gets up and he checks coronavirus case numbers all around the country, and also looks at what the death count is. And he writes those down.
Governor Phil Scott: And, um, when I'm writing Vermont's number down, I, you know, I take a pause and ... Each one of them was a Vermonter and had people who cared about them. And I try and remember that every time there's a death.
Angela Evancie: And how are you feeling after having all these conversations?
Liam Elder-Connors: Well, I've been thinking about all these people who've died and the families I've talked to, and, as I see the numbers unfortunately continue to increase in Vermont, I'm, besides thinking about the people who've died, I'm thinking about their families. Because it's been a really hard year, and a lot of them have felt like they haven't been able to properly grieve. There's just a lot of questions about where we go from here. And that's one thing that Dawn Burdo, who, her dad Bob Burdo died early in the pandemic, that's one thing she talked to me about. And said, you know, since her dad died, she's just felt kind of lost.
Dawn Burdo: And I'm hoping someday I'm going to wake up and know exactly what to do about that. But right now, I have no clue.
Angela Evancie: Liam, thanks for sharing your reporting, and thank you for helping remember so many Vermonters.
Liam Elder-Connors: You're welcome.
This episode highlights a reporting project from the VPR newsroom to mark one year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Explore the entire project here. This was a project of the VPR newsroom, edited by Brittany Patterson and Mark Davis.
This episode was produced by Angela Evancie, with additional editing from Lynne McCrea. We have engineering support from Peter Engisch. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from VPR’s sustaining members — you can become one of those at bravelittlestate.org/donate.
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