More Than Plots on a Graph: The 10,000 Lost to COVID in Washington State

10,000 lives.

The number of Washingtonians lost to COVID-19 is still hard to comprehend. At the start of the pandemic, when the Seattle area was briefly the US’s only epicenter, each death was its own head. Rarely do individual names of those who have died from COVID appear in news stories.

But the victims, and their cause of death, are in paid obituaries, in eulogies at funerals that could finally resume this year, sometimes in hushed tones among relatives describing the choices of their loved ones — Are they vaccinated? Were they safe? – before their deaths.

Numbers are rising day by day, personal losses disappear between the lines of a chart.
On December 7, 2020, the Washington State Department of Health reported 69 deaths statewide. Among them: Gayle Cortner, 79, of Spokane, who died a few days before her 51st wedding anniversary; Paul Viggiano, 67, of Richland, named 1999 United Way Volunteer of the Year; and Thomas Sudduth, 64, the first person to die of COVID on Vashon Island.

On August 12, 2021, the health department reported 37 deaths statewide. This included Jeff Hainline, 56, who died two days after his wife; and Rick Wenning, 67, of Anacortes, a pharmacist who served in the Marine Medical Corps for 20 years.

On September 28, 2021, 29 deaths were counted. Belle Castro, 72, of Veradale, Spokane County, who retired from Providence Holy Family as a medical coordinator; Nicky (Nick) Kermit Marsh, 72, of Cheney, Spokane County, who raised cattle for decades; and Scott Perry, 47, of Bellingham, a legend in the local billiards community, were part of the death toll.

The first blows of COVID — lockdowns, rampant outbreaks and concerns about testing, masking and asymptomatic spread — will be associated with 2020. But in Washington, 2021 was a much deadlier year.

Deaths in 2021, when vaccinations became widespread – and increasingly politicized – could have an extra sting. According to the DOH, as of December 2021, the death rate among people 65 and older among unvaccinated people is 15 times higher than among fully vaccinated people.

Some were steadfast in their vaccine refusal, but not everyone who died was against the shot.

John Lamoine “Mo” Hargrove planned to get his first injection on March 6. Hours before his appointment, he tested positive for the coronavirus. He died six weeks later. Roselyn Knox had considered getting vaccinated before she died in October. Her last Google search was where to get a vaccine.

Tears fall on the “what if”, the deaths that leave family members staggering, wondering what could have been done – could anything have been done? Perhaps they could have insisted on getting care sooner. Or maybe they could have pushed harder to get them vaccinated.

Some were vaccinated. Retired Colonel Elmer “Mike” Casey completed his vaccine doses in February. But neither he nor his family realized that the pills he took daily to kill malignant cells were undermining the response to the vaccine.

A handful of families chose to disclose their loved one’s vaccination status, but the vast majority focus on other details. Some obituaries under 10,000 are humorous: “…for the record, he hasn’t really lost his battle with the coronavirus. When he died, the virus also died, so technically it was a draw!” Or a family who listed their loved one’s cause of death as “dumb COVID.”

They are also heartbreaking and include the grief of those left behind among the lost: “her light and love will be missed.”

Reporting Note:

Of the 10,000 deaths, The Seattle Times was able to identify about 600 through obituaries, reporting and reader submissions. The names in this story are taken from paid obituaries that appeared in Washington newspapers or from previous stories in the Seattle Times.

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