Life might return to relative normalcy if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations keep decreasing, but for Hazel Dell resident Leonard Mills, life will never return to normal.
During the delta surge in the summer of 2021, Bonnie Mills, his wife of 48 years, died from COVID-19, becoming one of the 740 Clark County residents who died from the disease since the pandemic began.
“My life has been turned upside down and my heart is broken,” Mills said.
With March 6 marking the second anniversary of Clark County’s first reported COVID-19 case, many are eager to put the pandemic behind them. But Mills is one of many Clark County residents who aren’t ready to see pandemic restrictions lifted; he is haunted by what happened when they were lifted last summer.
False sense of security
In August, Leonard, 80, and Bonnie, 79, a retired archaeologist, attended a high school reunion in Portland that she had helped organize. They figured it was safe because mandates had been lifted, and they were excited to socialize after months of isolation. They were vaccinated, but because of Bonnie’s underlying conditions, including asthma and COPD, they socially distanced and washed their hands often.
A few days later, on Aug. 17, while visiting family in Yachats, Ore., Bonnie started to cough uncontrollably. The next morning, she had a temperature of 103. She was rushed to PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Hospital in Springfield, Ore., where it was determined that she had a severe case of COVID-19. She was immediately transferred to the ICU.
Leonard was permitted to visit Bonnie due to her rapidly deteriorating condition. He remembers sitting at her bedside, watching her slow, labored breathing as her oxygen levels dwindled.
“I don’t think anybody should have to experience the horror of watching someone die from COVID-19,” he said. “They lay there 24/7 and they fight for every breath that they take.”
He stayed at her side for 10 days. On Aug. 30, he watched her go. “She knew I was there when she died,” he said, fighting back tears. “She knew I was there.”
Mills is joined by other Clark County residents who are immunocompromised, experiencing symptoms of long COVID-19, have lost loved ones to COVID-19, who have seen the impact of COVID-19 surges firsthand as nurses and others who are hesitant to end restrictions after variants toppled all hopes of a pandemic-free 2021.
Mills said he believes lifting restrictions now is premature, just as it was last summer. He said it would be prudent to wait until at least June. By then, health officials might have a better understanding of what comes next, he said.
“I’m so angry at people thinking that their civil liberties are more important than people’s lives,” he said.
Adding to his frustration is the fact that his sons refuse to get vaccinated and consider the virus a hoax. “My one son is an anti-vaxxer. He still calls it the fake flu, even though his mother died from it,” he said. “And my other son doesn’t like modern medicine, so I’ve had to keep my distance from them.”
On Wednesday, Leonard visited Bonnie’s grave at Northwood Memorial Park in Vancouver. It would have been her 80th birthday. He ate lunch with her beneath a cold blue sky.
“I shouldn’t be going to the cemetery yet,” he said. “If people had remained careful, (COVID-19) might not have taken Bonnie.
“Now we’re dropping the masks,” he continued. “But I will continue to wear mine.”
COVID-19 in Clark County
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Clark County are rapidly decreasing in the wake of the omicron variant spike. Washington is lifting mask mandates March 12. Vaccines are available for everyone but very young children. And the omicron variant infected so many people that it may have boosted immunity nationwide.
Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health director, said he feels “cautiously optimistic” that Clark County’s COVID-19 case rate will continue to decrease heading into the summer.
“I don’t want to speculate and say that it’s going to be endemic, because I don’t have data to say that,” Melnick said. “I don’t know that it will ever go away, but I hope it can become more manageable.”
While optimism is on the horizon, Clark County is still reeling from two years of a pandemic that has so far infected 84,482 people and killed 754 as of last week.
In addition to the staggering loss of life, businesses have closed permanently, students have struggled with distance learning, health care workers are burnt out as protests over public health mandates and misinformation about vaccines and the disease itself have riven the community.
“We need to be able to get a better handle on how to handle the misinformation that’s out there,” Melnick said. “I’m concerned that some of the anti-vaccination sentiment could actually be applied to other vaccines.”
The Washington State Department of Health reported that as of March 3, 64.4 percent of Clark County residents age 5 or older were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Melnick wants to see that number increase.
“We’ll be much better able to manage this if we get that vaccination rate up,” he said.
Dealing with misinformation has been one of the biggest challenges in responding to the pandemic, according to Melnick. He said another challenge has been underfunding of public health efforts at the county, state and federal levels, which is something Melnick hopes to see change in the coming years.
“I hope we learn that we need to adequately fund the public health system, because we came into this with an underfunded system,” he said.
Melnick said he hopes to see Clark County emerge from this pandemic more prepared than it was heading into it.
“I’d like to think that we are coming out of this having learned something to prepare us for the future,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of work that we need to do.”
He said that Clark County will now be better able to deal with future epidemics and pandemics, and that partnerships and collaborations between schools, businesses, organizations and Clark County Public Health have laid the groundwork for responding to future crises.
“We have a great community here in Clark County,” he said.
Health care workers
Underfunding has contributed to burnout among health care workers, which is something that needs to be addressed before Clark County can fully recover from the pandemic, Melnick said.
Someone who has witnessed that burnout firsthand is Sarah Collins, a Vancouver resident and former ICU nurse at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. According to Collins, conditions throughout the pandemic for nurses were unsafe, emotionally draining and physically taxing.
“The staffing situation was so bad that all of our nurses were quitting,” she said. “In the ICU, turnover was awful. I love travel nurses — they are there for a reason — but they are not a part of that core staff. It makes an unsafe environment when they’re unfamiliar with everything. With the supply chain messed up, even core staff were having trouble locating things. It was chaos.”
She said that the pandemic only exacerbated ongoing staffing issues, and that due to unsafe staff-to-patient ratios, nurses were forced to ration care. Breaks and rest periods were actively discouraged, she said.
Collins hopes to see safe staffing standards legislation pass in Washington. Two bills are currently moving through the Legislature that would mandate nurse staffing levels across the state.
“Patients are suffering, nurses are suffering,” she said. “The focus should be on safe staffing and listening to nurses. And now hospitals are in a situation where they need to focus on retaining staff. They need to start listening to us. They need to stop lobbying against safe staffing.”
Melnick said that securing funding for public health, increasing vaccination rates, combating misinformation and rebuilding public trust will be key as the pandemic recedes. In the meantime, he encourages people to get boosted if they are eligible and to continue wearing masks after the mandate is lifted if they are at severe risk for illness or if it makes them more comfortable in public settings.
Protecting the immunocompromised
One person who will continue to wear a mask after the mandate is lifted is Vancouver resident Megan Phillips, 36, who has an autoimmune condition similar to rheumatoid arthritis for which she takes two immunosuppressants.
With her condition, even a cold can put her down for days, even weeks.
“When I’m in a flare, my body attacks random joints, it is typically in my hands, elbows, shoulders, hips, but can hit anywhere.”
Phillips worries about contracting a severe case of COVID-19, and she chooses to wear a mask in public settings.
“I’m so confused by the aggressive hatred of masks and distancing,” she said. “It’s so little to ask people to do in order to protect people. I can’t explain it with anything besides selfishness.”
She said that the politicization of masks has ended friendships for her. But she believes lifting restrictions now will lead to another surge in cases.
“Of course, I’m tired of the COVID restrictions,” she said. “I want to be able to live a normal life and not have to worry about exposure and how many people will be at an event and whether or not it’s safe. I wish I didn’t have to worry about it. I miss concerts. I miss going out to bars. I want to go to the movies without being worried about who I might sit next to. But the reality we live in doesn’t allow for that.”
Loss of life in Clark County
Even if COVID-19 recedes in 2022, Clark County will live with the impact of the pandemic for years. Those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 will not soon forget the pandemic and the lives it claimed.
Ridgefield resident Carol Erwin remembers her mother, Carolina Reynolds, who died from complications due to COVID-19 on July 30, 2020, at age 74.
Reynolds was born in Reynosa, Mexico, in 1945. She entered the United States when she was 8. She came from a family of field workers who traveled between Texas and Oregon. After settling in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1967, Reynolds met her husband, Wally, and together they moved to Ridgefield in 1985, where Reynolds would live the rest of her life.
She was a mother of six. She was a construction laborer before she became a stay-at-home mom. She was a passionate gardener, a doting mother and a devout Catholic. She loved irises and geraniums. She was a proud member of the Local 335 Laborers Union in Vancouver. She was quiet — sitting outside on a blanket in her garden and feeling the breeze was one of her favorite pastimes. She loved her home in Ridgefield and the Clark County community.
In July of 2020, she contracted COVID-19 along with her whole family. It went straight to her lungs. “She commented that she felt like she was dying because she couldn’t find her breath,” Erwin said.
She was taken to Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, where she was intubated. Because her family was still quarantining, they were unable to visit her. They watched her through a tablet screen. “That was the hardest part for me, we weren’t able to be together to support her in the end,” Erwin said.
Erwin remembers her mother’s tamales, her cinnamon rolls with chocolate chips that she made every Christmas, her hard work ethic, her selflessness, her drive to help others.
“She was nontraditional in her methods, in her choice of words, she was a little rough around the edges, but her intent was always pure, she was always a helper,” Erwin said. “She had so much sadness, and she didn’t want others to have to go through that.”
Reflecting on her mother’s final days, she thanked the Legacy Salmon Creek health care workers who did so much to help her in the end. Then, she paused.
“The last two years have just been so surreal,” she said.