Voices from the coronavirus pandemic: Oral histories from just a few of the millions whose lives have been changed by it

Lori Wagoner at her work station in North Carolina (Photo by Eamon Queeney, The Washington Post)

As the coronavirus continues to surge across Kentucky and the nation, The Washington Post is continuing its series of oral histories from people affected in significant ways by the pandemic. Here are a few.

Becoming a defacto mask enforcer: Lori Wagoner, 63, never expected that her job as a retail clerk in a small North Carolina town would become so dangerous. But covid-19 has drastically changed her job responsibilities. After escalations with customers who refused to put on a map, Wagoner installed a doorbell and keeps the front door locked. And next to her, behind her register, is pepper spray. With the local sheriff’s office refusing to help enforce the mandate, she said, she is now acting as enforcer of the mask mandate.

A coroner’s taleMichael Fowler delivers his story from Albany, Ga., population 77,000, where he’s in charge of examining deaths and keeping track of the numbers. Since March, cases have exploded, and his work has started to take a toll on him: “I don’t believe in getting hysterical. It doesn’t do any good. This is a numbers-and-facts job. But we have numbers and facts that are screaming out by themselves. I console people on the death of their relative one week and end up pronouncing them the next.”

A grocer’s account
: Burnell Cotlon tells the stories of customers at the small grocery he started in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It’s the only place to get fresh produce in his historically Black neighborhood; his customers have especially felt the pinch of job loss, since the pandemic largely shut down tourism in the city. Here’s one story: “She’d been having a hard time. She lost her income and needed groceries, so we started her on a tab. Then she caught the virus, and I delivered more groceries to her porch. She died last week, and a few days later, I went into the book to look at her tab. There are a few accounts closing like that now, and probably more coming. Hers was 72 dollars and 14 cents. I found her name and drew a line through it.”

One of the first: One of the most heartbreaking stories is about Indiana’s first covid-19 victim: Birdie Shelton from Indianapolis. Tony Sizemore, Shelton’s partner of close to a decade, blames himself for her death. He suspects she got the virus from her job, transporting rental cars, and says he should have made her quit, but “She liked to drive and we needed the money.” At first doctors didn’t know she had the virus; it was mainly in New York and Seattle then, and knowledge of it was still growing, he says: “Would it have gone any different if they knew what it was? Maybe. Or maybe they would have quarantined her right then, and I would have lost a few more days with her. See, I could analyze this to death. I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.”

Reaching for a lifeline
: Johnny Rivero of Tampa, Fla., relays his account of waiting in line at a food pantry for the first time in his life. A former maintenance worker who lost his job due to the pandemic, his family is slowly running out of savings; now they’re running out of food. His wife and daughter also lost their incomes due to the pandemic. The ending is bittersweet, with his delight at the fresh produce and the kindness of pantry workers, coupled with the reality that this food will last for three to four days.

Risking his life in a last-ditch effort to save others
Cory Deburghgraeve is a doctor in Chicago. His job of helping deliver high-risk babies quickly changed to full-time intubating covid-19 patients on the last leg of life. It’s dangerous; when patients can no longer get enough oxygen on their own because of the disease, he sedates them and puts a breathing tube down their throats, inches from their mouths. For him, it’s especially dangerous because he has asthma, which puts him at higher risk of getting a severe version of covid-19.

A son comes home to his mother’s passingPaul Swann delivers the story of his mother’s death due to covid-19 complications. Swann, who recently returned home from the military, serves as his mother’s primary caregiver in the run-up to her death in their home outside Syracuse, N.Y. It’s a heart-wrenching account of her pain and dementia-like symptoms and his struggle to keep her alive.

Guilt over a parent’s death: In Hartford, Conn., Francene Bailey falls ill with covid-19 and self-isolates in a bedroom within her multi-generational family home. Her mother later gets the disease and dies. Convinced she passed it to her mother, Bailey struggles with feelings of guilt and remorse.

Older, alone and at risk
: 75-year-old Gloria Jackson self-isolates in her home in Minnesota, and talks about her feelings as being seen as disposable and in one of the highest-risk groups for death from covid-19.

If they’d seen what I saw: A New York paramedic who has responded to many calls from patients with covid-19, and so many deaths, is frustrated that people have stopped social distancing and carrying out other measures that could prevent more cases and deaths.

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