This story is part of the Bangor Daily News’ examination of the effects of the coronavirus in Maine, one year after the first case was detected in the state. Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.
On March 16, 2020, Linda Doody moved her husband of more than 50 years into the Presque Isle Rehab and Nursing Center. Rodney Doody’s family had sought enhanced care for him as the 76-year-old dealt with dementia, said his daughter, Jody Coiley of Fort Fairfield.
His family would never be able to sit in the same room with him again.
Four days earlier, Maine had documented its first case of COVID-19 in a Navy Reservist in her 50s from Androscoggin County who likely contracted it while on duty in Italy. The day before Rodney Doody moved in, Gov. Janet Mills had declared a civil state of emergency that prohibited most visitors to nursing homes, where the virus was especially prone to spreading. The day he moved in, Mills called for the statewide cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Two days after that, on March 18, she ordered restaurants and bars to close at 6 p.m., urged nonessential businesses to close and prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people.
In the year since, more than 700 Maine people have died from COVID-19, a death toll from a single cause not seen in Maine since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Relatives had to say goodbye over Zoom or FaceTime.
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And, a year after Maine detected its first coronavirus case, the examples of other kinds of loss are countless. There was the toll on the health of the more than 46,000 who contracted COVID-19, the loss of more than 40,000 jobs and several months of in-person school instruction, the reduced ranks of out-of-state visitors who power Maine’s tourism economy, and the forgone time with family and friends given the risk that any social gathering could become a superspreader event. As the pandemic continued, Maine saw its highest number of drug overdose deaths on record, and the pandemic’s isolation took its toll on many people’s mental health.
The loss has been widespread, but the state’s long-term care facilities have been the epicenters of it time and again. Eighty-eight Mainers died of COVID-19 in April and May, largely the result of large nursing home virus outbreaks in the pandemic’s early months. Nearly a year later, nursing home residents still make up a majority of Maine’s COVID-19 deaths.
Visits through windows
Maine’s first experiences with how easily COVID-19 could ravage a nursing home came in rapid succession in early April, as the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention declared outbreaks at three nursing homes in as many days — the Maine Veterans’ Homes facility in Scarborough, The Commons at Tall Pines in Belfast and the Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation.
Thirteen people each died in the Tall Pines and Maine Veterans’ Homes outbreaks, while eight died at the Augusta nursing home. Some 183 staff and residents were infected. Through it all, families were forced to visit their loved ones through the window, or through phone and computer screens.
While the Presque Isle Rehab and Nursing Center wouldn’t be hit with an outbreak for another seven months, Rodney Doody’s family experienced all the same restrictions on their contact with him.
Doody lived in The County for most of his life, growing up in Houlton. Passionate about education, he spent many years as an educator. He moved up the ranks from working as a teacher at Ashland High School to eventually become the superintendent of schools in Fort Fairfield. He later chaired the School of Education at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
He was devoted to his children and grandchildren. Whenever he could, he drove nearly 1,000 miles with his wife to the Pittsburgh area — where his son Martin Doody lives — to see his grandchildren play baseball.
With the nursing home closed to visitors, Coiley, her mother and other family members were only able to see Doody a few times, speaking to him on the phone through a window. Three of his grandchildren graduated from college in May 2020 — two of Coiley’s children in Maine and one of Martin Doody’s sons in Pennsylvania. For a man who valued education his whole life, it would have been a triumphant moment. Yet the pandemic reared its ugly head.
“They weren’t even allowed to have pictures taken with him,” Coiley said. “So, that was very difficult to see.”
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That was supposed to change at 7 p.m. on Nov. 20, when the family was finally able to book a short, in-person visit. But that afternoon, the nursing home said it was no longer allowing visits after a resident tested positive for the coronavirus.
While Doody initially tested negative, nursing home staff informed the family on Nov. 29 that he had tested positive. The staff said he was doing well despite a cough, but he passed in his sleep on Dec. 4. It was a devastating, surprising blow. He was 77.
“Who knows how much longer he would have lived?” Coiley said. “With cases [now] going down and more vaccines, we probably would have been able to go in and see him.”
Thirteen residents and 12 employees tested positive in the Presque Isle center outbreak. Six died.
“It’s always difficult to watch residents go through their final stages of life. They become family to us and we to them,” said Mark McKenna, the nursing home’s administrator. “During COVID, it was especially difficult on staff because we witnessed the inability of families to be with their loved ones during these final moments of life.”
A ‘huge hole’
Franklin Perry, 73, of Scarborough was among those who died in the pandemic’s first wave, though not at a nursing home.
He passed away in May after contracting the virus in April, creating a “huge hole” in his family, said his daughter Allison Perry.
Franklin Perry was a loving father to his four children with a dry sense of humor that Allison said she didn’t appreciate until she got older. A “quiet gentleman,” one of the few times Allison Perry saw her father get heated was when he believed referees had blown a call during Portland Pirates and, later, Maine Mariners hockey games.
At the time he contracted the coronavirus, Franklin was healthy, active and still working full-time at the Tyson Foods plant in Portland. The COVID-19 outbreak there in April was among the first in Maine outside of a group living setting like a nursing home or homeless shelter.
A few summers ago, when Allison was cutting down trees in her yard, she struggled to keep up with her father as he carried wood and branches to be burned without taking a break.
“We just didn’t foresee anything like this happening,” she said.
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A few days after testing positive for COVID-19, Perry became increasingly ill. His daughter drove him to the emergency room. It was the last day she would see him. He was put on a ventilator shortly after, beginning a 31-day stay in the ICU that Perry described as the “darkest time of my life.”
“Not being able to be with him was heart-wrenching,” Perry said. “It was awful to know he was alone there and probably confused about what was happening. He fought hard, but it was just too much to overcome.”
His health failing, his family made the heartbreaking decision to take him off the ventilator. Only one of his children could be in the room as he died. The others watched over Zoom.
“How awful is that?” Perry said. “Watching your loved one pass away on a computer?”
‘These deaths are real’
The first months of the pandemic showed how COVID-19 could spread and the devastation it could cause. For nursing homes that saw outbreaks during that first wave, there was no guarantee they were out of the woods, as 20 locations saw repeat outbreaks months later. Seal Rock Healthcare in Saco saw three separate outbreaks, infecting 126 and killing 25.
In addition to claiming 372 lives in 127 outbreaks at the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities, the coronavirus took a disproportionate toll on the state’s low-income residents and residents of color.
While most white-collar professionals could continue working from home, those working in health care, service, agricultural and manufacturing jobs did not have the same luxury, exemplified by a series of outbreaks among migrant blueberry workers over the summer.
Maine last spring had one of the worst racial disparities in coronavirus cases in the country. Black residents last June were 24 times more likely than white Maine residents to have tested positive for the coronavirus. Today, Black people, who make up 2 percent of Maine’s population, account for 6 percent of COVID-19 cases for which people’s race is known, according to Maine CDC data.
Homeless residents have also taken a disproportionate hit. As the pandemic hit, shelters reduced their capacity so those staying there could physically distance — depriving people of roofs over their heads. In Bangor, city officials and the organization that runs the Hope House shelter struggled to agree on how to house a growing number of homeless people, many from outside the city. Then, in late April, Bangor saw an outbreak at the Hope House shelter, with 16 clients and four staff members eventually testing positive.
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The most enduring Maine tale showing how the coronavirus could spread, and the loss it could inflict, came from a 62-person Aug. 7 wedding reception on Millinocket Lake that the Maine CDC would later link to about 180 COVID-19 cases and eight deaths.
One wedding guest was a corrections officer more than 200 miles away at the York County Jail in Alfred. He returned to work after contracting the virus at the wedding, putting in five, eight-hour shifts in two separate jail units while showing symptoms. The result was an outbreak that infected 48 inmates and 43 employees, as well as 16 members of employees’ households. It was Maine’s first large outbreak at a correctional facility.
The wedding also led to a general uptick in virus cases across York County, which has had the highest infection rate of any Maine county. The wedding officiant was the pastor of a Sanford church that saw an outbreak. A number of social clubs and businesses also recorded outbreaks.
The death toll stemming from the wedding was entirely indirect. None of the eight who died attended the celebration.
Somerset County saw all but one of those deaths, at the Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison, where the parent of a wedding guest put in an overnight shift on Aug. 11 despite writing in a symptom screening log that she had a sore throat, cough, chills and muscle aches — common coronavirus symptoms. That outbreak, which lasted two months, killed seven and infected 40.
The wedding gained notoriety nationally and even internationally.
As is the case across the U.S., Maine’s more populated, urban counties have borne the brunt of the virus’ effects. York, Androscoggin and Cumberland counties have seen the state’s highest infection rates. But the disease’s second wave that began in late fall spared no Maine county, with more of the state’s remote and rural areas suffering major outbreaks.
At the Island Nursing Home in Deer Isle, more than a dozen died. In Aroostook County, where skepticism of the virus was once rampant, the virus’ deadly effects became far less abstract as the Presque Isle Rehab and Nursing Center, Caribou Rehab & Nursing, Highview Manor in Madawaska, Mercy Home in Eagle Lake and Northern Light Continuing Care in Mars Hill all experienced outbreaks, infecting 255 people and killing 30.
Those numbers included Rodney Doody at the Presque Isle Rehab and Nursing Center. Coiley, his daughter, wants people to know there’s a story behind the statistics.
“People need to talk about this and put faces to the numbers, that these deaths are real,” she said.