Heartbreaking deaths of Michigan’s earliest COVID-19 victims: Stories reveal the true toll

Juliette Gilbert, 33, of Detroit speaks about losing her mother Monique Baldridge, 52, to COVID-19 while sitting outside of her home on Detroit's east side on Friday, December 11, 2020 as she wears a mask of her and her mother from a St. Patrick's Day outing last year. Her mother fell ill in March 2020 and was hospitalized for about two weeks. Gilbert said her mother lived with her and her three kids.


By GINA KAUFMAN, ELISHA ANDERSON AND KRISTI TANNER | Detroit Free Press | Published: December 18, 2020

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DETROIT (Tribune News Service) — The sound of oxygen hissed as she stared into the camera on her phone and started recording.

“I’m going to make this short and sweet,” Monique Baldridge announced from the hospital.

As she had during her other Facebook Live dispatches — using them to express her love and vowing never to give up — Monique updated her condition, which was deteriorating. It was March 23, 2020, her sixth day in the hospital. Messages of prayers and well-wishes poured in. Monique said she was having difficulty talking.

“So,” she said, “this is my last broadcast.”

Just 10 days earlier, the Detroit grandmother had been surrounded by loved ones, toasting her 52nd birthday. A few days after that, Monique had outpatient knee surgery.

Now, she was fighting a deadly virus.

Michigan’s earliest victims like Monique fell ill before it was clear how widespread the deadly coronavirus was.

By the end of March, the public was told hundreds of the state’s residents had died. But that was only half the story.

As they lost loved ones, families were left suspended in grief. A wife now trying to learn how to live without her husband. A son missing the visits with his mother. A daughter who will never again hear her dad’s singing. A mom who sees her son in every gift he ever bought her. A husband who feels he abandoned his wife, who died without him by her side.

The Free Press found the early days of the pandemic were marked by:

  • An early start: A man who died in late February may have had the virus weeks before the state’s first confirmed cases, records show.

  • A substantial undercount: Twice as many died with COVID-19 in March — 554 — than the 259 deaths reported at the time.

  • An outdated public health system: The state's communicable disease reporting system was antiquated and at risk for human error.

  • A killer of the most vulnerable: The state’s earliest known COVID-19-related death linked to a nursing home was on March 12, weeks before the state first reported cases in the facilities.

  • An extraordinary wave of grief: Based on a model developed by researchers to calculate losses caused by COVID-19, more than 100,000 Michigan residents, including more than 15,000 in Detroit, are now mourning the death of a close family member.

  • And eventually a major reordering in causes of death: COVID-19 eclipsed cancer as the second leading cause of death for Detroit residents, with more than 1,400 deaths.

“If you told me that something was going to come out of the blue and become the second-leading cause of death ... I would look at you like you were crazy,” Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said. “But here we are.”

To understand the pandemic's origins in Michigan, the Free Press identified, through an analysis of public records and other reporting, COVID-19 victims who died in March, and interviewed more than 100 of their family members and friends about the losses and their impact.

“I cannot believe my mother just died in a pandemic,” said Julia Longstreet, of her mother, Catherine, a 73-year-old from Detroit who died March 25. “I still, still have to say it out loud because I still can’t believe she has died in a pandemic. Not of old age. Not of a heart attack. A virus in a pandemic.”

Those who died suffered common experiences, according to interviews with families. Many were sent home to recover. Some were not initially tested and a handful were never tested at all. Most died at the hospital, but a few died at home. More than a dozen lived in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

Glenn McColor Jr., fell ill early in the outbreak and was hospitalized March 10 — the same night Michigan announced it had identified its first known COVID-19 cases. While at Ascension Macomb-Oakland Hospital in Warren, the 53-year-old Roseville resident tried to calm his daughter’s fears, telling her he would be coming home.

He was comforting Candice McColor, like he had when she was a child afraid of thunderstorms. Back then, she remembers, he told her: “Candice, you don’t have anything to worry about. We live in the United States and the United States protects their people.”

McColor died March 24, leaving his daughter heartbroken and angry at national leaders.

Candice McColor said: “I feel like that same government that my dad had pride for, and said protects us, failed him and allowed for a virus to kill so many people — and kill him.”

‘Like the Golden Girls’

Monique Baldridge was more than a mom.

To Juliette Gilbert, she and her mother were best friends, inseparable, “like the Golden Girls.” Monique and her daughter lived under the same roof, along with Juliette's three children. They were always together — cooking, going out to eat, shopping. They would sit up at home, playing cards, like gin and poker, and watching movies. Everything. Together.

Monique grew up in Detroit, went to Kettering High School and had a large family: five children and 14 grandchildren. In the “About” section of her Facebook page, Monique proclaimed that she has “THE MOST AMAZING CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN THEY ALL R MY HEART, SOUL, AND SPIRIT.”

“She traded us in for the grandkids,” Juliette joked, calling her mom a loving, happy person.

In their home on the city’s east side, Monique would play cards by herself at the table and often fill the house with music from her bedroom. Her favorite: Prince.

“Prince everything,” Juliette, 33, said.

Last year, for her birthday, Monique's cake was covered in frosting in the pop star's signature purple and Prince’s face.

When her birthday came around on March 13 this year, she had all of her children by her side.

Dawn of a crisis

In early March — before the bars and restaurants started to fall dark, before store shelves grew empty, before masks became ubiquitous — Michigan residents went about their daily lives, the virus spreading unseen.

So they continued working out at the gym. Singing in church. Eating out. Working in the factory. Riding the People Mover. Grocery shopping. Flying in and out of town. Even attending a police pancake breakfast.

When Michigan announced its first two known cases on March 10 — both travelers — the governor declared a state of emergency, saying: “The main goal ... is to slow the spread of the virus, not to stop it. It has moved into Michigan."

In fact, a recent study examined blood donations from nine states, including Michigan, and found there may have been COVID-19 infections earlier than previously identified. In Michigan, COVID-19 antibodies were present in a handful of American Red Cross blood donations from as early as January, the study found.

Emily Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, believes the public health community focused too long on out of state and international travelers, rather than the people spreading the virus locally.

“We didn't really have a sense of how explosively this can spread, how big of a cluster you can get from one person," Martin said.

Some communities had residents who likely died of COVID-19 before local health departments had announced any coronavirus cases in those places. These deaths include a nursing home resident who had lived in a St. Clair Shores facility, and an Otsego County man, according to a Free Press analysis of state data. These deaths, known as probable deaths, are those without a test to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis, but the virus is suspected and is listed on their death certificates.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical officer, said the country’s lack of a comprehensive strategy for testing led to an information deficit about how prevalent the disease truly was early on.

“There is no place in this country that had a good understanding of where this disease was, especially in March and April,” Khaldun said. “We were only testing people who were hospitalized. And so, I knew when the CDC told me that we were not allowed to run tests on people with mild symptoms, that the disease was in a lot more places than I was going to be able to know."

Thousands of emails reviewed by the Free Press show how state health officials hashed out public messaging, grappled with data challenges and worked to improve the state's testing capacity. Officials discussed predictions for the disease's spread, concerns for nursing home residents and the number of the state's residents who could fall ill, emails show.

By the end of the month, hospitals were filling up as cases continued to climb.

Warren Johnson, a child advocate for the state health department in its Pontiac office, went to work March 9, but was so sick, he was sent home. The 50-year-old Madison Heights resident called his mother that day to let her know he was going to the hospital, saying he thought he might have pneumonia, like the year before.

Jackie Johnson said she “could tell his breathing was labored.”

She said Warren and two others had gone to a birthday party the weekend before, either at a club or a restaurant and all three fell ill.

When he was hospitalized at the Ascension hospital in Madison Heights, Warren begged his mother, who lives in Illinois, not to come to Michigan. But as his condition worsened, she flew in. By the time she arrived, the hospital ruled she could not visit her son in person. After more than a week in the hospital, he died on March 20, only receiving a test for COVID-19 a day or two before his passing, according to his mother. His death certificate lists the virus as a cause of death.

Jackie Johnson said her son, her only child, was also her best friend and she talked with him daily. She said she can’t look around her home without seeing something he bought for her.

“I see him everywhere,” she said. “I talk to him, you know, mostly just saying that I miss him.”

‘She was so happy’

She's smiling in the photograph, posed under a "Happy Birthday" banner and holding a balloon.

It was March 13, still early in the pandemic and before the severity was widely understood, and Monique was enjoying a night with family.

For the first birthday in a long time, all of her children were in town to celebrate. It was a night of family and laughter and cake, too. They held their drinks high in a local Detroit bar to toast Monique's birthday. Later in the night, they talked and danced.

“She was so happy,” her daughter, Juliette, said.

The day had also brought concerning news: Detroit revealed to the public that it had discovered its first COVID-19 cases.

The state announced its upcoming efforts to slow the spread of the disease, including restricting entry into hospitals and other health care facilities, ordering the cancellation or postponement of large events and launching a hotline to answer questions about a virus few really understood.

And, on the same day, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.

The fog of a pandemic

In the beginning of the pandemic, people didn’t fully grasp how contagious the disease was, said Oakland County Medical Director Dr. Russell Faust.

“We have a painful understanding of that now,” he said.

Maybe it had been hanging onto prayers at the church meeting. Maybe it had been lurking around the airport or the auto plant. Maybe it had been loitering at the baby shower, the wedding or the St. Patty’s Day party. If their loved ones had known more, maybe they would have stayed away.

Maybe Betty Gene Adaway, who lived with an inflammatory disease and guarded her health closely for more than 20 years, would have avoided going into the stores in her Southfield neighborhood.

She was strong by many measures, her son, David Adaway said. She raised her two sons as a single mom. For years, she caught the bus from Detroit’s west side to downtown, where she worked as a financial analyst for Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“I always think to myself, you know, she had to be incredibly strong, to raise us the way that she did and keep us out of harm's way,” he said.

David and his family tried to keep her from harm, too, staying away when they were sick. The 69-year-old grandmother, who didn’t drive and walked to the stores in her neighborhood, was relatively healthy.

But on March 14, Betty Gene came down with a nagging cough. When she saw her doctor on March 20, the physician immediately sent her to the emergency room at Ascension Providence Hospital in Southfield. Within a few hours, she was diagnosed with double pneumonia and sent home. She was given a COVID-19 test, but the results were not immediately available.

“I couldn’t understand why they were letting her go home at her age of 69 and her having a preexisting condition,” her son said.

Four days later, still waiting on the results of that test, Betty Gene’s condition deteriorated quickly. An ambulance rushed her back to the hospital, where she died March 24.

Her son said he wishes more had been done to sound the alarm for the public about the threat sooner. "If they had put out a warning, not just hers, but I think many lives during that time, could have been saved,” David said.

‘My current situation’

On March 16, a few days after her birthday celebration, Monique went in for outpatient knee surgery.

She was a little sore from the surgery and a little tired from the medication, but felt fine otherwise, her daughter Juliette said. Monique had been through surgery on her other knee last year.

After the latest procedure, she posted a picture on Facebook with her right knee, all wrapped up.

“My current situation,” she wrote.

That night, she started feeling sick.

Tests denied

In the beginning, it was difficult to get a test for the novel coronavirus.

Health officials at the time told the public to stay home if they experienced mild symptoms, rather than come into a medical facility for a COVID-19 test in part because supplies were tight.

Despite testing limitations, by March 28, the state’s coronavirus infection rate was doubling about every three days. And Michigan ranked seventh nationally in the number of confirmed cases per capita, behind New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Washington, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

In interviews with the Free Press, family members recounted how sick relatives were sent home from hospitals, only to fall deeper into illness. Some died at home, others made it back to the hospital, but died anyway. Some were never tested. That meant families never knew whether COVID-19 was responsible for their loved ones' deaths.

That is true for Sylvia Cavitt. She lived in Detroit with her mother, her daughter and her grandson. All three women were ill in March.

Her daughter, Kimberly Robertson, said she and her mother both lost their sense of taste and smell. Cavitt also had a bad cough.

Robertson tried to get a coronavirus test on March 21 at an Oakland County hospital drive-thru, but was turned away. She was told the hospital lacked tests and it had to save them for the sickest people. Despite denying her a test, Robertson said she was told she likely had COVID-19. Hospital workers offered advice: Come back if you develop chest pains.

When Robertson returned home, she isolated herself from the other members of her family. But on March 23, Robertson found her mother sitting motionless in the living room recliner. Paramedics came, but her mother couldn’t be revived.

Cavitt died without ever being tested, her family said.

Robertson said her 87-year-old grandmother, Narvellee Cavitt, who also had cancer, was taken the next day to the hospital, where she tested positive for the coronavirus. She died 10 days later, on April 3.

Robertson said her mother and grandmother — both of whom she believes died with COVID-19, even though it is not listed on their death certificates — are now next to each other at the cemetery.

“One long marker,” she said, “with both of their pictures.”

The struggles and uncertainties endured by Robertson's family were not unique.

Joseph Humphreys Sr., a doting grandpa from Waterford, had a 102-degree fever and a cough. He went to the hospital, where an X-ray showed he had pneumonia, but he was told he wasn’t sick enough for a coronavirus test, his daughter said. Two days later, as the 80-year-old struggled to breathe at home, an ambulance rushed him back to the hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19.

He died March 29.

Joseph Drew Sr. was diagnosed March 16 with pneumonia. The 55-year-old disabled veteran, who lived in Romulus and had a history of diabetes and high blood pressure, asked for a test at the hospital, but was not given one, his wife said. He never recovered and, on March 19, died at home. He was tested after his death by the medical examiner's office.

He was positive.

‘You need to go to the hospital’

Monique called her daughter on March 18. When Juliette arrived at the house where her mother was recovering from the knee surgery, she was alarmed by her mother’s condition.

Drowsy and falling asleep in the middle of the conversation, Monique was not herself. And she was really warm.

“Ma, you need to go to the hospital,” her daughter said.

Monique was scared.

“I don’t want them to tell me I have COVID,” she told her daughter.

Juliette promised to call every day.

The ambulance came in the late afternoon and drove Monique to Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit.

The same day, same day, officials announced the outbreak had turned deadly in Michigan.

Deaths before we knew

At first, the public didn't know their names.

On March 18, Beaumont Health said that a COVID-19 patient, a Southgate man in his 50s, had died. He was the first announced death from the virus in Michigan.

The Free Press identified that patient as 52-year-old Keith Howard of Southgate, who died with COVID-19 on March 18 at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn. The engineer and father had first started feeling sick about a week earlier, possibly after a visit to a Detroit bar and grill one weekend in early March, his daughter said.

There were others before him.

Two days earlier, Eric Dubke, who had difficulty breathing, collapsed at his Gibraltar home. The 55-year-old DTE Energy supervisor was rushed to Beaumont Hospital in Trenton and died that day. His positive coronavirus test came back days later.

Before that, on March 12, Detroit resident Shirley Fahner, 73, a mother of 10 with dozens of grandkids, died from COVID-19, according to her death certificate. She had been staying at a St. Clair Shores nursing home, where she was recovering from a broken leg. Her date of death matches the first probable death listed on the state's coronavirus dashboard, which goes back as far as March 1.

But in an earlier case, on Feb. 25, Michael Watson, a 51-year-old firefighter from Gaylord, died after collapsing in a parking lot. Before his death, he had a chronic cough and was diagnosed with bronchitis, his family said.

Otsego County Medical Examiner Dr. Paul Wagner looked at Watson’s medical history and chest X-ray and, in October, amended Watson’s causes of death to include probable COVID-19.

He called it “almost a textbook case.”

‘I’m not giving up’

Out of breath, lying in her hospital bed on March 19, Monique Baldridge went live on Facebook.

“Hey, family and friends,” she said in her dispatch. “I’m working on getting better so I can get out of here. I appreciate all the prayers from everybody.”

All she wanted, she said, is for her kids to be OK.

“I’m not giving up,” she said. “For sure, not giving up. I’m too much of a fighter to give up. I’m not ever going to give up."

She wished she could have visitors, but the hospital wouldn't allow it, so the video was her way of reaching out.

“I love you guys. … I know I’m not the one to say I love you a lot,” Monique said with a laugh, “but I love you guys.”

Detroit bears the brunt

As the virus spread early on, Detroit — the nation’s largest city with a predominantly African American population — was one of the hardest hit, suffering more than a third of Michigan's COVID-19-related deaths in March.

Nationwide, African American and Hispanic residents are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to white residents, according to CDC data.

During the first few weeks of the outbreak, more than half — 55% — of Michigan's COVID-19-related deaths were Black residents, despite only representing one out of every seven residents in Michigan, according to a Free Press analysis of CDC data. Today, Black residents still represent roughly a quarter of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

And when they died in those first weeks, they were often younger than their white counterparts. Among Black residents whose deaths were related to COVID-19, the most common age group was those in their 60s, compared with 80 years and older for whites.

Sandy Smith lost three men in her family to COVID-19, including her brother Ricardo Smith, a 41-year-old autoworker who lived in Southfield. Two other family members — Thomas “Anthony” Johnson, 51, an autoworker from Canton, and Michael Duren, a 43-year-old Detroit pastor — also died.

“It's just a devastating loss," said LaTanya Johnson, Anthony Johnson's wife. "It's just heartbreaking.”

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, who lives in Detroit, has lost two dozen people close to him. Early in the pandemic, Gilchrist, who leads the state's coronavirus task force on racial disparities, said it was nerve-racking to receive texts or calls because it may be news that someone else had fallen ill or died.

“One of the things that I’m really saddened by is that, unfortunately, my experience hasn’t been unique,” Gilchrist said. “There have been a lot of people who lost a lot of people to COVID-19.”

In Detroit, COVID-19 became the second leading cause of death after heart disease and is on track to stay there through the end of the year, according to the state’s preliminary mortality data provided to the Free Press. The data shows that, as of earlier this month, it was the third leading cause of death for Michigan.

Two of the deadliest areas of the city were just east of downtown and in the city's northwest corner. A Free Press analysis of local health department and Census data found that 19 residents who lived in the 48207 ZIP code just outside downtown died with COVID-19 in March. In the 48235 ZIP Code, 27 people died with COVID-19 during the same time.

Khaldun, who used to be the health director for Detroit, has said factors like poverty, housing, access to health care, underlying health conditions and jobs that require contact with the public put residents at a high risk for exposure to the coronavirus.

“People of color are more likely to live in poverty and therefore more likely to have those lower wage jobs, some of our grocery store workers, bus drivers,” Khaldun told Congress in June. During the government's stay-at-home orders, “a lot of those people were unable to stay at home, they had to come out and I believe that contributed to the disparities and the disparate numbers of deaths that we’ve seen.”

In more recent months, however, the number of COVID-19-related deaths in Detroit has dropped, said Denise Fair, chief public health officer for the city. This decline, she said, is “because of the commitment of Detroiters to protect each other.”

‘I’m scared as hell’

Sitting in a chair at the hospital on March 20, Monique wished her friends and family on Facebook Live a good morning.

“I hope I look a little better than yesterday,” she said, joking and cracking a smile. “The doctor just left. He said if I can keep my blood pressure up, I’m going to be good.”

Talking was difficult but sitting in the chair helped cut down her coughing. Her heart was struggling and she was due a visit from the cardiology team.

“I’m up here trying,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you I’m not scared. I’m scared as hell right now.”

But she wouldn’t quit.

“I love you guys with my whole body and soul.”

Delayed reporting hid death toll

Among those who died in March were nursing home residents, clergy members, health care workers, educators, an airport employee, musicians, business owners, veterans and UAW workers.

The state also lost community leaders and front-line workers that month, including Detroit Police Capt. Jonathan Parnell, state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, Wayne County Sheriff's Office Commander Donafay Collins, federal Veterans Affairs nurse Divina Accad and Marlowe Stoudamire, a Detroit consultant and entrepreneur.

By the end of March, health officials had identified 259 known COVID-19-related deaths statewide.

But statistics analyzed by the Free Press show there had been 554 deaths — 513 confirmed and 41 probable deaths — that month.


Experts say there are always delays in the reporting of deaths. In March, the reporting of deaths took about five days for confirmed deaths and 15 days for probable deaths, based on when they occurred and when local health departments updated the cases in the state’s disease surveillance system, said Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health.

The lag, officials said, was caused by the lack of test availability and an overwhelmed health system. Also, the state had not yet started reviewing vital records, which have revealed COVID-19 deaths not already recorded in the disease surveillance system. That process began April 10.

LaShawn Pope, a Detroiter whose mother, Annie White, died with COVID-19 on March 28, said the early weeks of the outbreak in Michigan were scary.

“My 20-year-old cousin was on a ventilator for like a week or so after my mom died," Pope said. "My mom's brother-in-law died. ... It was just every day someone was calling from the church. 'Pastor such and such died' or 'This person passed.' My girlfriend lost her grandmother and aunt. We were just terrified for weeks.”

Mortality data is important for raising public awareness, experts say, and for understanding who is dying from the disease.

Justin Lessler, associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, said deaths reveal how vulnerable the population is, how the disease moves through the population, what groups have been hit hard, and what groups are still at risk.

So even if complete death data is not a part of the real-time public health response, Lessler said, "they remain critical for understanding the overall picture.”

Michigan officials have said to have a timely public health response, they rely on indicators like case levels and hospitalizations.

“Deaths are enormously important because of their finality and because each death represents the end of a unique, sacred life. ... And the public has a right to know about them,” said Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. But deaths “are not the centerpiece of our ongoing, real-time public health surveillance and response.”

'My last broadcast'

In her Facebook Live video March 23, Monique said she was going to keep her message short. That day, doctors had said her kidneys were failing.

Monique, looking weary and aided by oxygen, leaned onto her left side as she recorded the 24-second video. In it, she told everyone she was having difficulty talking. If anyone tried to call her, and she didn’t answer, it would be because she didn't feel well.

“So,” Monique said on her live dispatch, “this is my last broadcast.”

Calamity among seniors

Elderly people in Michigan have been among the most vulnerable to the disease, as they have in states across the country.

In Michigan, more than 3,000 nursing home residents have died. That's 26% of the pandemic's death toll in the state. According to state data, more than 14,000 residents and more than 10,000 staff have been infected with the virus.

The state now reports more information on the virus, though early in the outbreak, details were scant about how rampant COVID-19 was in more than 400 nursing homes.

Elderly residents were isolated in nursing homes and other senior facilities, which restricted access to visitors — including families — in an attempt to keep the residents safe.

That meant Dennis Reading couldn’t visit his wife of 48 years.

She lived in an assisted living facility in Troy. Two weeks after Reading's last visit, his phone rang on March 26. His 71-year-old wife, Laura, had a fever and trouble breathing and needed to go the hospital.

The next day, the hospital told Reading his wife had the coronavirus — and she wouldn’t survive.

Reading was also unable to visit his wife in person at the hospital because of restrictions. A video call was the best option he and other family members had to see her before she died March 31.

“It's even difficult to discuss this now, but I feel as if I abandoned my wife ... I couldn't be with her,” Reading said. “I couldn't go in an ambulance with her to the hospital. I couldn't go to the hospital.”

Officials who work in the long-term care industry say the deaths from COVID-19 have been incredibly tragic.

“This is a virus that has been most unmerciful to the population that we care for in long-term care — the elderly with underlying health conditions,” said Melissa Samuel, president and CEO of the Health Care Association of Michigan, which represents nursing homes.

In March, there wasn’t enough personal protective equipment or testing, she said.

The state has been widely criticized for its handling of the crisis in nursing homes. Some families blame the government or the facilities themselves for failing to protect their loved ones.

There were warning signs of the impact on elderly people. An early outbreak in a Washington State nursing home led to dozens of deaths, sparking worry among families.

Debbie Stokes remembered that facility when she heard about her mother’s symptoms. Pearlie Stokes, a 79-year-old Farmington Hills nursing home resident, developed a fever and cough in mid-March. Her daughter knew how the virus could affect people like her mother.

“I knew she didn’t have a chance,” Debbie Stokes said.

Pearlie Stokes died on March 29 with COVID-19. "It didn't have to happen," her daughter said.

At his wife's assisted living facility, Reading believes there were a lack of safeguards to protect residents. If he could have gone into the facility, he said, he would have blocked the door to her room and made sure everyone who went in took safety measures such as wearing a mask and other proper protective equipment.

“That apparently didn’t happen,” he said. “Otherwise, why would my wife have died?”

Stay at home

As Monique fought for her life in the hospital, the state of Michigan was heading into lockdown.

Already, restaurants stopped in-person dining. Automakers shut down plants. Sports teams cut short seasons.

Stores were plucked clean of toilet paper, one of the hottest commodities of the time. Playground equipment was wrapped in yellow caution tape to keep kids away. The streets suddenly fell empty.

An abrupt halt to life as we knew it.

Whitmer issued a "stay home" order to take effect on March 24, telling the state’s residents they should go out only for essential reasons.

“Today, we have to have a very candid and open, important conversation with you,” Whitmer said at a news conference. “In just 13 days, we’ve gone from zero to 1,232 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, COVID-19. ... This virus is spreading exponentially.”

As of the day the order took effect, the state reported 24 COVID-19 deaths in total. In fact, we know now there had been 86. Deaths continued to climb, heading toward record levels in April.

Working inside an archaic system

When the pandemic of the century hit Michigan, the state's public health apparatus wasn't well-funded compared with other states.

Michigan ranked 44th for state and federal public health spending, at $60 per person, according to a 2020 report from the United Health Foundation. The national average was $91.

“We kind of gave all of our public health workers a bike and then expected them to do a NASCAR race,” said Martin, with the UM's School of Public Health. And now, in the second surge in Michigan, “the tires are low, and the bike riders are tired.”

Michigan has made improvements to its disease surveillance system to increase speed and allow for more data collection. Gordon, director of the state's health department, likened it to “fixing the plane while flying it.”

He called the state's disease surveillance system “ancient.” Officials and public health experts say the system, built in 2004, is difficult to enter data into and susceptible to human error.

The system is getting an overhaul with federal funds. Gordon said it was “not built for the pandemic of the century.”

‘I am sorry to inform you …’

Monique stayed on the phone with her daughter for hours on March 27, from the afternoon into the evening. She wanted to buy pizza for her grandchildren, so she ordered and had it sent to them.

Later, they took a break from talking and Monique said she would call back.

But then, Juliette's 3-year-old wanted to play with his mom's phone, so she gave it to him. He brought it back after the battery died. When she plugged it into the charger, missed calls, voicemails and text messages popped up.

She went to the voicemails first. There was one from the hospital.

“I am sorry to inform you,” the message started, “that your mother did pass away, she had a cardiac arrest, we believe it is a … part of the syndrome of her coronavirus infection. If you could come to the hospital to discuss with other physicians and sign the required paperwork, that would be best.”

Juliette's mind went blank.

It turns out Juliette's aunt also had received a call from the hospital about Monique and had tried to reach her niece.

Juliette couldn't fully absorb the news. She immediately started calling her mother’s phone, leaving her own voicemails.

“I just talked to you, how you not picking up the phone?”

A grief like no other

The way people said goodbye changed almost immediately when the outbreak started.

Families in mourning are the secondary victims of the pandemic, said Dr. Michelle Riba, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.

The usual process of grieving — funerals, burials, religious gatherings — were suspended or truncated, making an already difficult situation harder. People have been replaying what happened in their minds, thinking if anything could have been done differently and what it must have been like for their loved ones to die alone.

“It’s torturing a lot of people,” Riba said. “It’s been very traumatic.”

For years, three generations of Marilyn Flewellen’s family lived together under the same roof: Flewellen, her mother and her daughter.

In March, her daughter, Tanesha Easter, ended up in the hospital after passing out. She had contracted the coronavirus and needed to be put on a ventilator. As her condition worsened, Easter’s heart raced. Flewellen, a nurse, said she knew her daughter's heart couldn't continue to beat so fast.

“The doctor called me and told me that there was absolutely no hope for her at all,” she said. “And they gave me the choice of taking her off the ventilator or just letting her heart beat until her heart stopped.”

Flewellen kept her on a ventilator, giving her only child a last chance.

Tanesha, 47, died March 27.

About five years ago, Flewellen had lost her mother. Staying in her Detroit home would become too difficult after her daughter died. So, after 25 years, Flewellen moved out.

“In order to heal mentally,” she said, “I had to change the environment.”

Some families held memorial services, sometimes months after their loved ones died.

The pandemic also ushered in new ways to honor COVID-19 victims, including this summer in Detroit where Belle Isle was transformed to help bring closure to grieving families. The memorial event on the island featured a procession of cars driving by the victims' oversize photos.

There were smaller gatherings, too. At a Macomb County bowling alley last month, the friends of William “Bill” Randle celebrated the life of the avid bowler and veteran, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps. The 58-year-old, who had COVID-19, died at home in Clinton Township.

And in a park off East Jefferson in Detroit, Dolores Berry’s family gathered on an August afternoon to celebrate the life of the 83-year-old grandmother, who lived in Livonia with her son and his family, and died with COVID-19 in March.

Those gathered took balloons, held them to the sky and released them, thanking God for her life.

Today, in Michigan, more than 400,000 have contracted the disease with more than 11,000 who have perished.

A model to calculate losses caused by the virus shows more than 100,000 residents in the state are mourning the death of a close relative. The bereavement multiplier developed by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, the University of Southern California and the University of Western Ontario, Canada estimates for every COVID-19 death, nine people will be left grieving the loss of a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child.

“COVID-19 has devastated many families in Michigan. Everyone who has died had a family, had people who loved them. They each had a story. They had plans, dreams, and more life to live,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement. “The losses felt across our state are tragic and devastating, but we must honor them by doing everything in our power to combat COVID-19 and protect ourselves.”

'Hearing her voice'

Juliette thought her mom was going to pull through.

Now, she is coping with the loss.

Her young son asks about his grandmother, whether she's at the doctor or when he’ll see her. There was no funeral for Monique, who had to be cremated, her daughter said.

Juliette still cherishes the hours she was able to spend talking to Monique the day she died. Her mom was happy. They laughed and joked. And even though she couldn’t be physically with her mother, talking with her provided comfort.

“Just hearing her voice for the few hours of that day, is, actually, closure for me,” she said. “I believe that was my closure.”

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Steven Moreno set up a bowling event for his friend William Randle, a Marine Corps veteran, in New Baltimore Saturday, November 7, 2020. Randle enjoyed bowling and his friends wanted to remember him with a bowling outing.