Around the beginning of September, Colorado COVID-19 deaths began to climb steadily, from around 40 deaths each week, through the fall and into the winter, to now around 260 each week.
And although the rate of COVID-19 deaths has reached the same level as the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020, the current surge has been marked by a change among patients and the families left behind.
Hospital staff have said patients and their families are more combative and argumentative now, as vaccination becomes increasingly contentious. Hospital communications staff, who link reporters with families and get permission for photos, say families have more often been unwilling to consent to interviews.
The Gazette recently put a request on several social media platforms, asking for the families of COVID-19 victims to share their stories with the paper. More than a week later, the paper has not received a single response, despite El Paso County having the highest death toll in the state.
Experts say the way people are experiencing grief has likely shifted since earlier in the pandemic, as new social dynamics, mostly around peoples’ choice to be vaccinated, have set in.
Since the middle of 2021, when vaccines became widely available, COVID-19 deaths per capita have been around five times higher for unvaccinated Coloradans than for vaccinated Coloradans, underlining the effectiveness of the vaccines.
For the loved ones of people who choose not to be vaccinated and died from the novel coronavirus, the choice can add complexity to an already emotionally painful loss.
The result, grief researchers say, could be a perceived stigma, and perhaps unhealthy grief processing.
Dr. Julie Cerel, a professor in the college of social work at the University of Kentucky, said COVID-19 deaths have become stigmatized, in a way that is reminiscent of the way cancer was discussed in the 1960s, how the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was treated or how suicide has been discussed, with reform efforts recently.
“People used to say ‘the c-word’ instead of cancer,” Cerel said. “I’ve talked with a lot with people about this: the stigma about COVID deaths right now is a lot like the stigma around suicide deaths.”
Martha Greenwald, the founder of WhoWeLost.org, a website designed to allow people to tell the story of a loved one who died from COVID-19, said she started the website after learning of secret bereavement groups meeting. They were meeting specifically away from social media, where she said people mourning a loss have encountered harsh reactions from family and friends.
“I’ve heard about family members or friends who will just deny that COVID kills people,” she said. “Or other people who will go out of their way to point out that someone who died was anti-mask or anti-vaccine.”
Dr. Natalia Skritskaya, an adjunct associate research scientist for the Center of Prolonged Grief at the Columbia School of Social Work, said the stigma can prevent people from properly grieving, leaving them stuck without resolution.
“We’ve looked at some factors, some ways people think of a loved one that can get in the way, like protesting the death, thinking that it shouldn’t have happened, or that the person shouldn’t have died like this way, or that someone should have prevented it. But if the bereaved person can’t lay it to rest, it can contribute to a delay, and they can get stuck in grief.” she said, “sometimes for years or decades.”
The researchers all agreed that the politicization of COVID-19 deaths only adds problems to the already tragic nature of death.