When Chaplain Clementina Chery thinks back on her mother’s death from COVID-19, one question still stings.
It came on April 18, the day her mother, Zoila Weddborn, was admitted to Boston Medical Center. She had been so ill she had been bedridden for two weeks. Getting a COVID test, however, was difficult. It was still the early stages of the pandemic, when tests were limited, and her doctor said she did not meet the stringent criteria.
Chery said she called city officials, including Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in an attempt to get her mother tested. A day after Weddborn was finally tested, she was taken to the hospital, where she went into cardiac arrest and was placed on a ventilator. A doctor wanted to know why the family had waited so long to act. Chery feels like the city let her down.
“If we had given seniors, Black people, poor people the opportunity to get tested and not wait until somebody decided that they were worthy to get tested, she probably would have made it,” said Chery, chief executive of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a Dorchester group that helps the loved ones of homicide victims.
In a statement, Walsh said, “There’s no sugarcoating that testing was difficult for municipalities to stand up in the early days of the pandemic.
“We know that our Black and Brown residents have suffered disproportionate impacts at the hands of this terrible virus, and we’ve worked day in and day out since the beginning of the pandemic to address those disparities,” said the mayor, who recalled Weddborn as a “friend and volunteer greeter at City Hall who always had a big smile and a hug waiting for me.”
Weddborn, who had worked for decades as a certified nurse assistant at BMC, died on May 7, when her family decided to take her off the ventilator in accordance with her wishes. She was 79.
“It hurts,” said Chery recently.
With the pandemic still raging, Boston passed a grim milestone on Tuesday: 1,000 COVID-19 deaths. The latest coronavirus numbers for the city saw the death total rise from 999 to 1,002. Weddborn is among those victims and many city residents, like Chery, share the pain of losing a loved one to the virus.
Massachusetts has suffered some of the highest death rates in the country from the coronavirus, partly because a wave of infections tore through nursing homes across the state early in the pandemic. About 1 in 7 Massachusetts long-term-care residents died from COVID-19, a Boston Globe Spotlight report found in September.
One of those victims was Ruby M. Flint Kinney, who was living in a Mission Hill nursing home when she died from the virus in April.
Her daughter, Priscilla Flint-Banks, still has unanswered questions: Why didn’t her mother’s nursing home have designated places where people who tested positive could be isolated at the start of the pandemic? Did the home’s staff have access to enough personal protective equipment? When did her mother’s health decline? Was it gradual or sudden?
She didn’t even know her mother had the virus until after her death.
“COVID is real, it’s not a fantasy, and our people are dying rapidly every day,” said Flint-Banks, a 65-year-old community advocate from Roslindale and cofounder of the Black Economic Justice Institute.
Flint Kinney, she said, was a quiet and God-fearing person who was a picky eater with a weakness for cookies. She loved to laugh. A mother to seven and grandmother to about 20, Flint Kinney enjoyed telenovelas even though she didn’t speak Spanish. When her daughter pointed this out, she would reply: “All the soaps are the same.”
After Flint-Banks learned about the deadly outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home last spring, she asked a nurse at her mother’s nursing home if anyone there had COVID-19.
The answer came back: No. Two weeks later, her mother was dead, a week before her 88th birthday.
“It’s sad she passed like that, with no family around her,” she said.
In April, Rosa Jilma Hernandez said she came down with COVID-19 symptoms before her mother did. She had a fever and body pains. It felt like someone had struck her with a bat, she said recently through an interpreter.
A day later, it was her 92-year-old mother, Saturnina del Carmen Alfaro, who was sick. The two lived together in East Boston, and Alfaro was up all night with a stomach ache and vomiting. She finally fell asleep at 4 a.m. When they woke up hours later, they both had fevers of 104 degrees. Hernandez gave her mother some Tylenol and called her doctor, who told her to wait. Two days later, Hernandez went to a nearby health center to get tested for the virus. Two days later, she got the results: Positive. Given her mother’s symptoms, doctors told Hernandez to assume her mother had COVID-19 too.
Her mother later had terrible stomach pains. Then her oxygen levels fell. Eventually, her mother was admitted to the hospital.
But Hernandez couldn’t visit because she was bedridden. One day in April, Hernandez had a hard time getting hold of the doctors at the hospital. When they finally called back, Alfaro was dead.
Hernandez, 48, spoke of the pain of not being able to be with her mother in her final days or at her funeral. They had moved to East Boston together from rural El Salvador in 1992, three years after Hernandez’s father died.
”My entire life we had been together,” said Hernandez.
Like Alfaro, Chery’s mother came to Boston from Central America, moving from Honduras in 1970. Weddborn had settled happily into Dorchester. She made hats and scarves and donated them to her church, First Parish in Dorchester. She practiced tai chi and drummed with a group of seniors. She enjoyed cruises.
Chery fondly recalled nuggets of Weddborn’s wisdom: Be sure to vote, be good to people, and pay your bills on time.
But Chery wonders whether her mother’s death could have been avoided, particularly given how hard a time she had just getting tested for the disease. Chery also knows the disease has disproportionately spread in communities of color. According to Boston data, more than half the COVID-19 deaths of city residents were people of color. And every week, the death totals climb a little bit higher.
COVID-19 deaths in the city spiked in the spring, with 433 in April alone. While the city has seen far fewer deaths recently, the disease still claims the lives of two residents, on average, each day.
“Numbers are numbers, but with each number, that’s somebody left behind,” she said.