Jann Smith’s first response was to ask for another cooler.
Ryan Phelps started calculating the numbers.
“I was thinking 13. Thirteen was the number that I had in mind for deaths due to COVID, just based off of simple math,” said Phelps, funeral director at Hood Mortuary in Durango.
For many Americans, facing the prospect of death on a regular basis was a new experience that arrived with the coronavirus pandemic. But Phelps and Smith, a mortician and a coroner, have been able to take it in stride – mostly.
January marks the one-year anniversary of the first recorded deaths caused by COVID-19 in the United States. In some communities, professionals who care for the dead have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 deaths. For Durangoans, Phelps said, the year has been marked by months of interrupted grief mixed with tragedy.
“If you know of someone who’s had a passing due to COVID, I mean, hug him that much harder – when you can – because they’ve gone through a really, really tragic thing,” Phelps said.
In the first eight months of viral spread in Colorado, a relatively small number of La Plata County residents died after having COVID-19.
The county reported its third death in November. The person’s passing was categorized as a “death among case,” meaning the person had COVID-19, but it was not clear if he or she died because of the disease.
During this time, Smith, La Plata County’s coroner, focused on making sure her department had enough personal protective equipment, sanitizing “like crazy” and finding extra refrigerated space to store bodies if necessary.
“It has created extra work,” she said. “It’s part of the job.”
Phelps, who describes himself as a “field guy,” made it easier for families to stream funeral services for families joining remotely. He added hand sanitizer to the chapel on East Third Avenue and wiped down microphones between speakers. An additional sound system allowed people to spread out and hear the service, he said.
In November, La Plata County turned its eye to a severe coronavirus outbreak at Four Corners Health Care Center, which resulted in 22 deaths among those who had COVID-19.
As of Jan. 9, the county lost 24 of its community members because of COVID-19, according to the latest preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It was a difficult time communitywide, as family members, neighbors and residents watched with concern.
At Hood Mortuary and the Coroner’s Office, staff members worked as quickly as possible to care for families and their loved ones.
The Coroner’s Office, which primarily helped store bodies and transfer them to Hood, went from handling two cases a day to three or four, Smith said.
“It just impacts you sometimes mentally with all these people passing away and you can’t do anything about it,” Smith said. “With our job ... you kind of put that wall up to not be quite so affected by the death. But when you have so many, it starts to eat on you a little bit.”
Most people were cremated, but Phelps embalmed two individuals who died with COVID-19. He did them personally so staff members would not feel like they had an exposure risk, he said.
“When I think back to it, oh man, we were exhausted. We were constantly picking up the Coroner’s Office, processing the care that we needed to do to have a cremation occur,” he said.
For families, the grieving process has been tragic, Phelps said. They haven’t been able to see their loved ones, and many have a lot of doubt, believing that the death must have been caused for another reason.
“They don’t want to believe that this thing that they’re hearing on the news actually happened to them,” Phelps said.
Their in-person viewing time had to be limited to minimize exposure risk.
Although the patient was not breathing, and therefore there weren’t respiratory particles in the air, the materials touching the patient have some infection risk, said Phelps, who has a clinical way of talking about death like many in his profession.
When only one household is in the chapel, Phelps allows them to take off their masks.
“What’s the first thing you do when you’re grieving? You start crying. It’s next to impossible to wipe your nose with this thing on,” Phelps said. “I say, ‘Just take the mask off. It needs to be your time.’”
Few families have been able to have the services they wanted to grieve for their loved ones. Those who lost a family member because of COVID-19 have come away with a changed view of the pandemic.
“The personal perspective I’ve gotten from (them) is the seriousness of it all – the frailty of it all,” Phelps said. “And that everyone needs to do their part so we can get through it together.”