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Coronavirus Deaths Spiked In Vt. This Winter, As Vaccines Were Around The Corner

A photo, close-up, of a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine box with red lettering on blue cardboard and a blue rim.
Paul Sancya
The Associated Press
In November, coronavirus deaths started to rise in Vermont just as federal regulators approved the first vaccines, among them the Moderna vaccine, shown above. The timing has left families and state officials wondering what could have been different.

More than 200 people in Vermont have died of COVID-19 over the past year. About a quarter of those deaths occurred in the first two months of the pandemic.

Then there was a lull. From May to October, the state only recorded five fatalities. But in November, coronavirus cases spiked and deaths started to rise just as federal regulators approved the first vaccines. Many fatalities in the second wave were among residents of long term care homes who were just weeks away from receiving lifesaving vaccines.

Early in 2021, VPR reporters began reaching out to family members of Vermonters who died after contracting COVID-19. This is the fourth in a series of stories about their lives and what they left behind. Watch VPR.org for more stories throughout the week. Find stories and memories of those lost from their loved ones, here.

Smail Gracanin was in his late-60s when he emigrated to the United States from the former Yugoslavia. Smail and his wife settled in Burlington.

“My mom and him lived there, downtown,” said Vesna Gracanin, one of Smail’s five daughters. “He loved to walk, going take care of his own groceries or pharmacies — all that he did on his own.”

A black and white portrait of Smail Gracanin, wearing a cap against a pastoral backdrop.
Credit Gracanin family, Courtesy
Smail Gracanin came to Vermont in 1997 from the former Yugoslavia. His daughter Vesna said he and her mother built a new life for themselves in Burlington, and came to love it here.

Vesna says her dad missed Yugoslavia, but Vermont reminded him of home.

“It's very similar. We enjoy all four seasons and the farms and all that kind of stuff,” she said. “I think we were kind of closer to that because it's very similar to home.”

Vesna and her sisters helped translate for their parents. They took them to doctors’ appointments. Vesna said she used to bring her mom and dad over to her house every Sunday: “That's the most I’m missing right now, every weekend, spending time with my dad."

More From VPR: 'I Miss The Heck Out Of Him': A Year In COVID-19 Has Killed More Than 200 Vermonters

In September, the family decided to move Smail to the Converse Home, an assisted living facility in Burlington. He had dementia and it was getting worse.

“My dad was generous, he was he was happy,” Vesna said. “He always smiled. He didn't have any anger in him. He was nice to the nurses.”

Three months after moving to Converse Home, there was an outbreak of COVID-19.

"We were watching right before our eyes, the remarkable production of the vaccine ... But then I reflect on: What if it had been like one month earlier?" - Gov. Phil Scott

It started on Dec. 9. Two days later, on Dec. 11, federal regulators approved the first coronavirus vaccine. But the shots didn’t come in time for Smail. The 87-year-old died on Dec. 21, 2020 — the same day some Vermont nursing homes started vaccinating residents.

“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,” Vesna said.

December was the deadliest month of the pandemic in Vermont: 73 people died. Like Smail, many were at long-term care facilities and were just a few weeks away from getting the life-saving vaccine.

More from VPR: 'We Didn't Think It Could Happen, Then It Did': A Daughter Remembers Her Dad, Lost To COVID-19

Eighty-one-year-old Jane Lane wasn’t even at a nursing home until November.

Lane was an avid outdoor enthusiast throughout her life and skied into her late 70s. She moved to South Burlington from Jackson, N.H. two years ago to be closer to her nephew Chris Copley.

Copley said his aunt was always looking for adventure.

“She went to Alaska, and hitchhiked from Anchorage up to Fairbanks — which is pretty awesome — when she was in her late 20s,” he said.

A woman stands in shorts and hiking boots on a trail, with a big blue external frame hiking backpack.
Credit Chris Copley, Courtesy
Jane Lane was an avid traveler and outdoorsperson. Her nephew Chris Copley called her a role model, for her love of adventure and curiosity.

Lane ended up in the hospital in the fall for health issues unrelated to the pandemic. She was transferred to St. Albans Health and Rehab in early November. But at the end of that month, there was an outbreak at the facility. Lane died on Dec. 12 — one of 22 residents who succumbed to the disease.

“It just sucks ... the timing of her demise versus, you know, the vaccine showing up a couple weeks later,” Copley said.

Read or listen to more stories from VPR's COVID-19 One-Year Anniversary Project

Gov. Phil Scott says it was hard to watch the death toll increase when the vaccine was so close:

“It was a bittersweet moment. We were watching right before our eyes, the remarkable production of the vaccine … But then I reflect on: What if it had been, like, one month earlier?”

Scott says every morning he checks in on coronavirus cases around the country and writes down the number of deaths each day.

“When I'm writing Vermont's number down, I, you know, I take a pause,” he said. “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.”

Vesna Gracanin is still adjusting to life without her father.

“I guess it will take time," she said. "Life goes on and [you] carry the memories.”

There is some good news for Vesna’s family — her 83-year-old mother got vaccinated in late-February — two months after her husband died. But Vesna still hasn’t visited her mom in person. She wants to keep her mom healthy, so Vesna says she’s waiting until she can get her own shot.

Find stories and memories of some of the people Vermont lost to COVID-19, here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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