Mary Harrison, 39, a wife and mother of two from Bangor, was a game enthusiast and designer whose imagination allowed her to freely roam fantastical worlds.
But after she got sick from COVID-19 at the beginning of November, her real life shrank: first to a hospital room, and then to a ventilator.
Harrison died Nov. 22 at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, but it wasn’t from COVID-19, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She had technically recovered from the disease prior to her death, going 10 days without symptoms.
And so Harrison won’t be counted among Maine’s COVID-19 fatalities, which rose to 214 on Tuesday after the state recorded its deadliest month yet during the pandemic, with 67 coronavirus-related deaths.
But her husband, Josh Harrison, said COVID-19 is a big part of why his wife died. Although she recovered from the disease, she was never able to leave the hospital and the realities of the virus meant that her family, including children Titania, 13, and Malcolm, 10, were only able to say goodbye to her over a phone the intensive care unit staff held up to her ear.
“It’s hard,” Josh Harrison, 45, said. “I’m still coming to grips with it.”
While the official COVID-19 death toll numbers more than a quarter million Americans, the pandemic’s true death toll is likely much higher than because the official count doesn’t include fatalities that are indirectly related to the virus. In October, federal researchers said as many as 100,000 fatalities could indirectly be attributed to the coronavirus.
“The bottom line is there are far more Americans dying from the pandemic than the news reports would suggest,” Dr. Steve Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, told The New York Times in October.
For Josh Harrison, who believes his wife is one of many coronavirus-related casualties, whether or not she’s counted as part of the state’s losses from the disease doesn’t change the hard realities of her death.
“I’m not really super concerned with the statistics,” he said. “Whether they tally it under one column or another doesn’t make a big difference to me. This is something that hit home.”
A battle with COVID-19 can weaken people and make them more vulnerable to other health problems, said Robert Long, a Maine CDC spokesperson. Mainers have recovered from COVID-19, he said, before suddenly dying of another condition.
“What we’re seeing, and what is being seen nationally and globally among the medical community, is that the struggle to fight off COVID makes people vulnerable to other things,” he said. “Even if they don’t meet the criteria to be considered a COVID-related death, COVID could have been a contributing factor. It just becomes too much.”
That may have happened to Mary Harrison. In her late 30s, she was decades younger than the older adults who are more likely to get very sick and die from the disease. But Harrison is precisely in the age group — adults in their mid-20s to mid-40s — that has seen the largest percentage increase in “excess deaths” this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research. Excess deaths are deaths from all causes that exceed the number of deaths that can typically be expected in a certain period.
Harrison suffered from underlying health conditions, her husband said, including asthma and lupus, an autoimmune disorder.
“She’d gotten through some health stuff before,” Josh Harrison said. “But [COVID-19] was too much. It got hold. There’s nothing you can do about that.”
The Harrisons worked hard to keep the virus at bay.
“Every attempt had been made to protect ourselves and our family,” he said.
But they have a large house, and if friends need a place to stay, they try to help. They have housemates and one got sick at the end of October and tested positive for coronavirus. Both Josh and Mary Harrison ended up getting sick, too.
“It doesn’t take much,” he said.
Josh Harrison had body aches, fatigue and a cough. But his wife was much sicker almost immediately. The days before she was admitted to the hospital were tough, he said. She had trouble breathing and would get winded doing the smallest thing.
“That’s probably one of the most difficult parts,” he said, “wanting to be able to do something and not being able to.”
He took her to the emergency room. He didn’t know the goodbye at the door would be their last one.
In the surreal few days since his wife’s death, Josh Harrison has been busy making sure the kids are as OK as possible, that the obituary is written and some kind of memorial service is planned.
It’s all challenging, he said. He doesn’t know what to do about a funeral, thinking of the Katahdin-area wedding super-spreader event as a kind of cautionary tale. He hopes that by next summer, it may be more feasible to come together to remember Mary Harrison.
“I understand the desire and need to grieve and be together,” Josh Harrison said. “I completely recognize the importance of those things. At the same time, how would I feel if, in the wake of that, anybody suffered the same way that Mary did? That’s part of the thing that’s so difficult with this — it hits all the weaknesses that way.”