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439 Empty Seats at Shasta County Holiday Tables as COVID-19 Fatalities Climb

As we enter the second holiday season in succession under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 5 million people have been killed worldwide by the novel coronavirus since it emerged in China in late 2019. In the coming weeks, as the pandemic’s second anniversary approaches, COVID-19 deaths will exceed 1 million in the United States, 75,000 in California and 500 in Shasta County.

In Shasta County, the fourth and deadliest wave of COVID-19 yet began in July and crested in September. Driven by the highly infectious Delta Variant, it is still churning away at a 7-day-average rate of 56 new cases per day. Trips to the hospital and the ICU have declined but remain higher than normal.

Twenty-six new COVID-19 deaths were reported in the past week, bringing the total number of COVID-19 deaths in Shasta County to 439 people since the pandemic began.

According to Shasta County Health and Human Services vital statistics reports, annual deaths in Shasta County ranged from 2200 to 2300 deaths from 2017 to 2019. That’s 1.2 percent of the county’s 180,000 population. Presumably, the 439 COVID-19 deaths incurred so far will add to those totals when they’re computed for 2020 and 2021, bumping that percentage up a tenth or two.

But will anyone notice, aside from public health statisticians and family members grieving loved ones lost in the pandemic?

A painted rock on display at the COVID-19 memorial at the Redding Library.

That question occurred to me recently as the political movement against government mandated COVID-19 measures such as lockdowns, social distancing, mask usage and vaccination gained momentum locally, nationwide and indeed worldwide, with ongoing riots in Europe.

“Don’t the people participating in this movement realize COVID-19 is killing people?” I asked myself. “What could make it real for them?”

It then occurred to me that within my own personal orbit, I don’t know anyone who’s died from COVID-19. I know people who’ve caught it and gotten very sick, including more than a few anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, but I haven’t lost a relative, friend or acquaintance, yet. What could make it more real for me?

When I checked the past six months of obituaries at the Record Searchlight, COVID-19 was rarely mentioned as a cause of death. (To be fair, the cause of death is generally not mentioned in most obituaries. ) At any rate, it’s like most of the 439 people killed by COVID-19 to date in Shasta County, along with the grieving loved ones left behind, are invisible, ghosts.

Seeking to track them down, I put out a call for COVID-19 survivors interested in sharing their stories on a local Facebook group. I felt slightly ghoulish, like the dead collector in the “Bring Out Your Dead” sketch in the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

The masters of surreal comedy were referencing the Black Death, the bubonic plague pandemic that spread through Europe and North Africa between 1347 and 1351, killing 75 to 200 million people and nearly taking down the alt-right’s heralded Western Civilization. In today’s less lethal (so far) pandemic, a not-yet-dead elderly relative in the skit might reflect modern indifference toward senior citizens, disposable human beings warehoused in nursing homes devastated by COVID-19.

According to AARP, 186,000 nursing home residents and staff have been killed nationwide in the pandemic. That figure includes deaths from COVID-19 outbreaks in Shasta County nursing homes.

“It’s much easier to accept faceless, nameless deaths, isn’t it?” was the first of many knowing replies to my Facebook inquiry. Another responder, a nursing home employee who requested anonymity, believes the people opposing COVID-19 mandates have made up their minds and it’s pointless to attempt to persuade them.

“The only thing which might change someone’s mind is if someone they love dies of COVID,” the nursing home employee insisted. “And even that’s not a certainty.”

A painted rock on display at the COVID-19 memorial at the Redding Library.

Indeed, members of the local do-nothing-about-COVID movement openly attack those who’ve died in the pandemic and their bereaved survivors. One local Facebook group set up a year ago for COVID-19 survivors in northern California, Shasta Cascade Remembers Lives Lost and Affected by COVID-19, had to go private—making if far less accessible by the general public—after members were repeatedly trolled by the COVID-is-a-hoax crowd.

“We started this Facebook group to try and connect deaths to real names and families in the community,” said the now-private group’s co-founder, who requested anonymity. “We felt so much of our community did not connect because they didn’t know any one and the deaths were nameless.

“However, those that joined and bravely posted about their loved ones who had died from COVID got attacked and we quickly decided that we didn’t want this to be a place where they would get bashed again, so we made it a closed group and kicked those that didn’t comply out. It [the group] was going strong for a while but being a closed group makes it hard to find and join.”

Such online harassment of COVID-19 survivors in Shasta County dates to the very beginning of the pandemic, when the daughter of a beloved local teacher was harassed after posting about her father’s death from COVID-19 last March. It has apparently carried on non-stop since then. For that reason, I’ve granted anonymity to many of the COIVD-19 survivors included here.

It’s the holidays. No one needs to be hassled because their relative, loved one or friend died from COVID-19, and one-third of Shasta County is populated by insensitive dolts (to say the least).

From the private Shasta Cascade group, a friend of the aforementioned beloved local teacher who died from COVID-19 recalls how his death was treated by online trolls: “It was horrific how he suffered and how so-called friends of his talked about his death. It still infuriates me.”

There’s the woman who lost her mother and her brother to COVID-19 last December. Mom had been a caretaker for the brother, who’d suffered a traumatic brain injury from a previous car crash. She asked people to pray for her and her lost loved ones.

“I’ve tried to join into other conversations on Facebook and usually get a lot of negative comments,” posted a local woman who lost her brother to COVID-19. He lived in Reno; she traveled back and forth from Redding during his illness. Her brother is survived by his wife, 7 adult children and 8 grandchildren.

“I’ve been told I was lying and fear mongering,” she said. “I’m so glad to have found this group!”

Another woman watched helplessly as her older, at-risk ex-boyfriend living with his anti-mask, anti-vaxxer son perished from COVID-19 despite her pleas for him to get vaccinated.

Then there’s the niece who lost her gregarious uncle to COVID-19—even though he practiced social distancing religiously and always wore a mask—leaving behind a grief-stricken multiple generations of his extended family.

A 65-year-old man who survived the Camp Fire and now lives in Redding told me he knows eight people who’ve died from COVID-19. Most of them weren’t local deaths; they were friends he’s met during decades of competing across the country in control-line model airplane contests.

“Most of them buried their dead and wept with little interference,” he said, as if the deceased had departed on gossamer wings.

A painted rock on display at the COVID-19 memorial at the Redding Library.

Not everyone declined to use their name for this story, even though they probably should have.

“I don’t give a shit about the anti-vaxxer mob,” Michelle French Towery told me when I asked her if she wanted anonymity. “It’s because of them we are in the position we’re in.”

An employee at Mercy Medical Center for more than 20 years, Towery lost her brother-in-law to the novel coronavirus late last year. She posted the following message just before the Shasta Cascade page went private:

“To the people that want to put it out there that COVID has such a high rate of survivability,” she began, “I hope you never have to get the call that says there’s nothing more that they can do to save your loved one and that every breath that they are struggling to take is so obviously painful and that they compare it to breathing underwater, because the fluid in their lungs turned to gel and the body can’t clear it.

“I hope you never have to be a medical decision-maker to go along with someone’s wishes to withdraw life support. To switch someone to comfort care so that their last hours on earth are at least pain free.

“This virus is not a hoax. It’s not a political ploy to win the White House and shame on any of you who put it out there that it is.”

I asked Towery if there were tensions at Mercy Medical Center between healthcare workers who believe in medical science and those who believe that taking expert-recommended precautions against COVID-19 isn’t necessary.

“Unfortunately, all of this came down to party lines,” she replied. “If you were Republican and you were a Trump supporter you did not believe that COVID was real, you thought that masks didn’t work, and that the pandemic was a hoax. I’m not sure what that man put in the Kool-Aid, but apparently it was intoxicating. Because those that followed him would follow him off the cliff. And some people went over. And they died.”

The painted rock COVID-19 memorial at the Redding Library.

They’re still dying.

“My wife’s friend lost her brother the other day,” a friend replied to my original Facebook query. “He was apparently of the local anti-vax, anti-mask, it’s-a-hoax camp. My wife’s friend is decidedly not in that camp. I’m sure she’s experiencing mixed emotions right now—mostly grief, but also some anger.”

“My friend, perhaps aware as I am that the cruelty of right-wing, anti-vaxxer attacks on COVID-19 victims and survivors is the point of their fascist enterprise, i.e., it’s hard to shame them into contrition by pointing out the blood on their hands, suggested a modest memorial consisting of 400 mock gravestones displayed prominently on a local large lawn, 20 x 20, spaced 6 ft apart.”

“It would be striking,” he said. “I doubt they’d last long, though.”

Another responder suggested appealing to the Trump crowd with “a parade of trucks that can mobilize … crosses for all the victims … or shoes, or something which visualizes the loss. Take the parade to unnecessary super-spreader events. … Have it meet up weekly at different locations where people can gather (safely) to respect those who have been lost.”

Other suggestions included 400 candles and “400 people in yellow T-shirts with faces covered laying on the ground”.

Keeping up with COVID’s death toll, which will exceed 500 deaths in Shasta County early next year, must be taken into consideration for any monument to the fallen. As it turns out, the one memorial to COVID-19 victims in Shasta County could use your creative help.

Throughout this article I’ve interspersed images of hand-painted rocks that can be found on the second floor of the Redding Library, arranged in two lines on the roof outside the large window along the library’s north wall. According to Maddy Walker, who helped curate the COVID-19 memorial, there are currently 330 rocks on display.

“As of yesterday’s update, 423 people passed away from COVID-19 in Shasta County,” Walker said. “So, we are almost 100 behind. Anyone can donate painted rocks to the memorial by bringing them to the second floor of the Redding Library and dropping them off at the reference desk.”

Walker’s message to me came just a few days ago, since then another 16 people have passed away from COVID-19 in Shasta County. As the Delta Variant has spread throughout the state since the summer, the average age of death has dropped from 73 to 66, in part because 73 percent of Californians over age 65 are fully vaccinated, compared to 67 percent in the 18 to 49 age group.

A little drop in the average can make a big difference. In Shasta County, where the vaccination rate is currently 48 percent, it’s no longer unusual for people in their 50s, 40s and even 30s to die from COVID-19. In addition, it remains unknown exactly how many of the 22,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Shasta County and survived the infection suffer from “long COVID” and other symptoms such as loss of taste and smell.

In all likelihood, things are about to get worse. As we enter the holiday season, infectious disease experts warn of an emerging “twindemic,” the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic combined with a resurgent seasonal flu that may be particularly lethal for children who lack immunity because COVID-19 precautions such as handwashing, social distancing and mask wearing reduced last year’s flu to nil. Since children weren’t exposed to the flu last year, they haven’t developed antibodies against it.

If you’re scared to go out because of the coronavirus, those who believe the pandemic is a hoax advise us, then stay home. If wearing a mask and getting vaccinated makes you feel safer, then wear a mask and get vaccinated.

Just don’t tell us what to do, they say.

Fair enough. I’ve never had trouble following their advice. I’m fully vaccinated –including the booster shot — and so are my parents, who are in their 80s. I’ve ceased substitute teaching because I’m wary of getting infected in Shasta County’s public schools and spreading it to my parents. They require in-home care and finding help that is vaccinated and willing to mask up has been challenging in Shasta County, to put it mildly.

That’s why I’ve been complying with scientists’ advice. I’m not complaining. We’re all alive and COVID-free. There won’t be any empty spaces at the Thanksgiving table this year. That’s reward enough.

As for the COVID deniers? I’m sad to say I’m past the point of caring about what happens to them. A warning from German Health Minister Jens Spahn, where the Delta Variant is currently surging out of control because not enough Germans are fully vaccinated, should suffice (but it won’t).

“Some would say this is cynical,” Spahn said at a press conference on Monday. “But probably by the end of this winter, pretty much everyone in Germany will be vaccinated, recovered or dead. That’s the reality.”

Those who say it can’t happen here may be in for a rude awakening.

It’s already happening here. It just hasn’t killed them yet.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.

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