More than a year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have returned to full capacity. People are shedding their masks, planning summer vacations, and reuniting with family members in person after months of conversations confined to computer screens.
But for Sherri Pedraza, who lives in Palmer, it’s been painful to watch as Massachusetts has reopened. Her husband of nearly 20 years, Reynaldo, a Marine Corps veteran and avid golfer, died of the virus in mid-May after contracting it while gathering with his cousins for a game of dominoes in early April. He was 49.
“I see people out and I think, ‘You guys think we’re all free and clear now,’” Pedraza, 50, said. “But it’s not gone. It’s still there. And it scares me to death.”
More than 80 percent of Massachusetts adults have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infections and deaths from COVID-19 are plummeting. And with the rollback of most precautions, stores, restaurants, and even the roads are crowded again. Still, the number of deaths in Massachusetts inches closer to 18,000, and the United States surpassed 600,000 deaths last Tuesday.
Those who lost a loved one in what could be the waning days of the pandemic say it can feel jarring to watch the state return to normal as they grapple with such loss. It’s a grief complicated by the sense that the worst of the pandemic was behind them, only to see the virus find their family.
After all, there were signs of dramatic improvements: The seven-day average of deaths in Massachusetts stood at about 28 in early April, and by mid-June the daily death toll was down to 4, according to the Department of Public Health.
“I was thinking the numbers are dropping so much,” said Pedraza. “You never thought that it would happen in your own house. But it can.”
Reynaldo was a loyal Yankees fan — his dog is named “Jeter” — and he loved the banter that came with supporting the New York team from Massachusetts, Pedraza said. The two met working at a paper-cutting company in Chicopee, and Pedraza “immediately had a crush.”
They were set to celebrate their 20-year anniversary in July with a trip to Cape Cod. The date became their “thing:” Whenever they noticed the time was 7:21 — reflecting the date of their wedding — they would race each other to see who could say it first. When Reynaldo was hospitalized with the virus, Pedraza brought in a photo from their wedding day with that date written on it, hoping he would make it home in time to celebrate.
“Nobody before him ever caught my eye like that, and I don’t think anybody ever will,” Pedraza said.
Reynaldo wasn’t eligible for the vaccine when he got sick in early April, said Pedraza, who also contracted the virus but experienced milder symptoms.
“We were just waiting for it to be our time,” to get the vaccine, she said.
Experts say those dying of the virus now are mostly unvaccinated, and the ages of those infected are skewing slightly younger, partly because of lower vaccination rates among people ages 20 to 40 years old. Deaths remain concentrated in older people, with the average age dropping from 86 last August to 74 now, according to state data. While there have been “breakthrough” cases, in which people who are vaccinated are exposed to the virus and become infected, those are typically very mild, said Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
But the widespread availability of vaccinations is relatively new, and some of those who died recently may have been sick for much longer and hospitalized with COVID-19 for several months, experts said.
“Some of these people never got the opportunity to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. “Some are people who didn’t qualify for vaccination, and they’re still in the hospital.”
At 63, Margarita Vazquez, who lived in Springfield and worked at Walmart for nearly 20 years before retiring, got sick with COVID-19 in late March and died April 14, said her daughter, Lissette Pica. As it turned out, Margarita had become eligible for the vaccine just days before she got sick. But Massachusetts’ complicated and uneven rollout left many who qualified for shots unable to immediately secure appointments.
Movies on the Lifetime channel were Margarita’s favorite, and she would watch the same ones over and over again despite enduring teasing from her children. She loved fuzzy socks and would often receive them as gifts for Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, because as a single mother of seven, “She was also our dad,” Pica said. She often did word searches, forgoing apps on her phone in favor of her trusty book and highlighter.
To commemorate Margarita’s life, Pica and her family planted a garden at her sister’s Holyoke home, filling it with their mother’s favorite flowers — mostly orange ones, her favorite color — and sprinkled some of her ashes over it. A priest came over to say a few words, and the family released balloons, a celebration Pica said they would not have held earlier in the pandemic.
Such celebrations, which are now possible as social distancing restrictions have lifted, can help ease the grieving process, said Christy Denckla, a clinical psychologist and an incoming assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Those who lost loved ones in earlier months of the pandemic were denied the comfort of being at their side in the hospital, forced to say goodbyes through FaceTime or Zoom, and couldn’t hold funerals or gatherings to celebrate the person’s life.
“I can’t imagine not having that final closure,” Katie Boisseau, 31, who lives in Southampton, said of the wake and gathering the family held for her husband, Phil, who died of the virus in early May. “Especially because I didn’t get to say goodbye to him physically.”
For Boisseau, the timing of the eased visitor policies at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, where Phil was hospitalized, was particularly painful. Phil died early in the morning on May 3, the same day the hospital allowed some visitors again. The hospital told Boisseau she could say goodbye to her husband at 1 a.m. that day, but she was at home with her two young children and 30 minutes away. A final moment with him would have provided some comfort.
“The last time I saw my husband, he didn’t seem any sicker than a bad cold,” Boisseau said. “I have a hard time realizing that this is even my reality.”
Phil, who was 34, was an avid outdoor enthusiast who loved hunting and spending time in the woods of western Massachusetts, going on annual deep sea fishing trips with friends, and taking his son ice fishing. He loved to spend time with his three children, watching hunting shows on TV with them, baking cookies, and looking for deer together. Phil and Boisseau would go on cruises together to reconnect. One Christmas morning, Phil surprised her with the paperwork for a trip — he had been secretly saving up.
He was an incredibly hard-working person, Boisseau said, a heavy equipment operator and the owner of an asphalt maintenance business.
For Boisseau, Massachusetts’ reopening represents a welcome change after a year filled with tragedy.
“I think there’s going to be a time no matter what when things need to reopen,” Boisseau said. “And I don’t know that putting it off would make any difference.”
She feels that even in his death, Phil has guided her, as he did 10 months ago when Boisseau’s mother died. She hears his voice in her head, encouraging her to show up for work and be present for their two children, who are 2 and 3 years old, and her 10-year-old stepson.
“He was the most cheerful, optimistic, loved, loved, loved life kind of guy,” Boisseau said. “And I hold on to that. And I just think that he would not want me miserable. That’s just not even an option. So I have to hold my head up because Phil would not have wanted it any other way.”
For others, there’s a dissonance between grieving the loss of a loved one to the virus while those around them revel in restored freedoms.
“It’s not fair that my mom passed away from this virus, and now it seems like a month later, we’re back to normal,” said Pica. “To me, this will never be normal.”