As Mass. reaches 10,000-death milestone, a look at what’s been lost

Cesar Merida walked through a temporary tent set up at UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester as the coronavirus continues to surge. Erin Clark / Globe Staff

The first death came in mid-March. A Winthrop man, 87 years old. A veteran with preexisting conditions.

Homebound residents watched uneasily as Governor Charlie Baker, in one of his increasingly bleak updates, called the death “heartbreaking” but added what many were already thinking: That this was a day we all knew was coming.

In the eights months since, the cruel march of the coronavirus pandemic has continued unabated, crossing a distressing threshold Thursday as the state’s death toll passed 10,000, a once-unimaginable scope of loss that gives little sign of subsiding.

Those lost have come from all walks of life. An award-winning scientist and MIT professor. A 78-year-old cleaning lady known for her good deeds. A retired receptionist who, family lore held, had once earned the attentions of then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who had offered a ride in his limousine.

In late March, the virus shattered the belief that the young were immune to its most dire effects, taking the life of a 31-year-old, a gregarious lover of karaoke.

As public health officials continued to urge vigilance against the deadly contagion Thursday, while another 21 deaths and nearly 2,500 new infections were reported statewide, others tried to put the milestone in historical context.

“In the second World War, there was a heavy loss of life" endured by families across the state, said Peter Drummey of the Massachusetts Historical Society. “But it was over a much more extended period.”

The Spanish Flu of 1918, he said, was the last time the state witnessed such concentrated death, a toll equal to the population of small towns across Massachusetts, from Hull to Salisbury. Ten thousand lives is roughly double the current undergraduate enrollment at Harvard University, and it’s the entire population of Boston’s North End. It is every other seat at TD Garden.

The virus’s devastation has fallen hardest on the state’s most vulnerable populations. It has spread disproportionately through communities of color. It has raged through homeless shelters and long-term care facilities for the elderly, where those who had survived wars could not survive this.

At the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, an outbreak claimed at least 76 lives, aided by what prosecutors later described as criminal negligence on the part of two facility administrators.

As the death count has continued to rise, residents have tried to come to terms with the exhausting demands of a new reality. From the emergency medicine department at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Ali Raja has watched with worry as his colleagues fight the virus day after day, wondering how long they can manage.

“I’ve got some of the world’s best nurses and doctors working side by side," he said. “And they just seem tired.”

Even those counted on for comfort and guidance in times like these have found themselves at a rare loss for words.

“What do you say to a family whose mom and dad was fine on Monday . . . and less than two weeks later they’re gone?" said Conley Hughes Jr., senior pastor at Concord Baptist Church in Milton.

The state’s hardest-hit communities have struggled to care for the dead. At East Boston’s Ruggiero Family Memorial Home, a business that had averaged about 18 to 20 services a month held 72 in April alone. At Maver Memorials in Brockton over the summer, “we were just nonstop from the second we walked in until the second we left," said Lori Maver, president of the family-run business. In some places, cemetery employees willingly worked overtime just to keep pace.

“We understood that the local funeral homes were in just as big a bind as us,” said Tim Carpenter, acting superintendent of cemeteries in Brockton. “Just in terms of — and I hate to use this word — storage.”

From left, Matt Tauro, Nick Turco, and John Lockhead moved the casket of a woman who died of COVID-19 to the hearse parked outside of Ruggiero Family Memorial Home as funeral homes coped with a coronavirus surge in April. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Despite a summer that saw the daily count of deaths, and overall cases, fall significantly from their springtime highs, fall has brought a second surge. Twenty deaths last Sunday had turned into 37 by midweek, each new death sending untold ripples.

Over the summer, researchers attempting to quantify the effects of all this death concluded that, on average, every COVID-related death in the United States left nine close family members grieving — parents and children, siblings, spouses, grandchildren.

In Massachusetts, that accounts for some 90,000 people.

“There’s sort of this narrative that almost everyone who dies is quite old — and to some extent are in nursing facilities and are left disconnected from their families,” said Ashton Verdery, an associate professor in Penn State’s department of sociology and criminology and a Turners Falls native who worked on the study. But “people are connected to one another, and each death is going to produce people who are left behind.”

The loss is pervasive.

The crab, shrimp, and lobster gumbo that Roxbury’s Jacqueline Drayton made so well before her death in April. The raucous Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day parties of the Kenneally family, where Richard and Cecilia Kenneally — a 60-something couple who lost their lives to the virus within weeks of each other — will no longer be among those packed around the piano, singing and playing long into the night.

And the Sunday night dinners that Rob Rumrill and his wife hosted at their Cambridge apartment, where Rob’s younger brother, Riley, would joyously hold court before his sudden death last March.

“We don’t really do that anymore,” Rob said of the weekly family dinners. “He was part of our daily lives, and this terrible virus took him away from us, and it changed our lives. It changed our family.”

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and correspondents Jeremy C. Fox and Matt Berg contributed to this report.

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