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One year after COVID-19 super-spreader, family finds closure

SEDRO-WOOLLEY, Wash. (AP) – With dish soap, paintbrushes and plastic jugs in hand, Carole Rae Woodmansee’s four children cleaned up the gravestone their mother shares with their father, Jim. Each scrub shone with engraved letters indicating their mother’s name and the days of her birth and death: March 27, 1939 and March 27, 2020.

Carole died on her 81st birthday.

That morning marked a year since she died of complications from COVID-19 after contracting her during a choir practice that sickened 53 people and killed two – a widespread event that would become the one of the most crucial transmission episodes in understanding the virus.

For the siblings, the dark anniversary offered a chance for closure after the pandemic delayed their mourning. Finally, they held a memorial worthy of their mother’s imprint in the community.

“The hardest part is that there was no goodbye. It was as if she had just passed away, ”said Carole’s youngest child, Wendy Jensen.

After cleaning, the siblings reminisce. They say their father must be happy to be back with his 46-year-old wife. They thank them for being good parents and remember that their mother used to say “my” before calling their names and those of other loved ones.

“I’ve always been ‘My Bonnie’,” Bonnie Dawson tells her siblings. “I miss being ‘My Bonnie’.”

“She had missed dad for a long time,” adds Linda Holeman. Their father, Jim, died in 2003.

Of more than 550,000 people who have died from the virus in the United States, Carole was among the first. Her death came just weeks after the first reported outbreak at a nursing home in Kirkland, about an hour south of Mount Vernon. Carole, who is a heart surgery and cancer survivor, fell ill at home. Bonnie looked after her until they called the paramedics.

“You try to say goodbye to your mother, and they tell you to come back. It was very hard, touching… having to shout “I love you, mom” as she gets kicked out the door with men standing in our yard 10 feet away because they didn’t want to. to be near us ”. Said Bonnie.

The rehearsal for the Skagit Valley Chorale, a community choir made up mostly of retirees and not associated with the church where they practiced, took place two weeks before Governor Jay Inslee shut down the state. The choir had taken the precautions known at the time, such as distance themselves and disinfect. But someone had the virus.

“The choir itself called us directly, and they left a voicemail. The voicemail message indicated one positive person in the choir, 24 people now ill, ”said Lea Hamner, communicable disease and epidemiology manager for Skagit County public health. “It was immediately obvious that we had a big problem.”

Hamner and his team got to work interviewing choir members, often multiple times, and those they came into contact with after practice, making a total of 122 people. They meticulously reconstructed the evening, tracking things like where people were sitting and who was eating cookies or stacked chairs.

That level of access and detail is rare among outbreak investigations, Hamner said, so when cases declined in the county a few weeks later, she sat down to write a report.

“There was a lot of resistance to calling it an airborne disease,” Hamner said. “But we’ve found that happy medium with this disease that can be both droplet and airborne. So it was a big change. After the paper, the CDC began to recognize airborne transmission.

The outbreak had gained notoriety after an article in the Los Angeles Times prompting other researchers to study the event, reinforcing the conclusion that the virus had traveled through the air during the rehearsal.

“I think this outbreak in the choir is seen … as the one event that really woke people up to the idea that the virus could be spread through the air,” said Linsey Marr, professor at Virginia Tech and aerial transmission expert. Marr was one of 239 experts who successfully pressured the World Health Organization to change its guidelines on transmission.

The other person who died from choir practice was 83-year-old Nancy “Nicki” Hamilton. Originally from New York, Hamilton moved north of Seattle in the 1990s. She published a personal ad in the Everett Herald, and that’s how she met her husband.

“We went to Everett bowling,” said Victor Hamilton, 85. “We picked it up from there.”

Hamilton was unable to organize a memorial for her. Their families are spread across the country, and he would love to have him in New York if possible. He’s eyeing June 21 – his birthday.

In nearby Mount Vernon, family and friends flock to Radius Church, viewing an installation of a few dozen photos of Carole that the siblings have collected. Wendy also displays a quilt her daughter made from Carole’s music camp t-shirts.

Pastor Ken Hubbard told attendees that the service is not really a funeral, but a memorial, a chance to share stories about Carole.

“I’m pretty sure his prayers saved my life once or twice,” says grandson David Woodmansee.

Relatives recall Carole’s dedication to her family, her faith and her music. Others remember how she welcomed them into her family, taught piano lessons, and volunteered for her church.

They sing “Blessed Assurance”, his favorite hymn. His words were among his last words to his children at the hospital.

After the service, the family returns to the cemetery to lay flowers there. They sing again too, closing the day with a spontaneous and smiling rendition of “Happy Birthday”.

Later, Wendy reflects on the choir practice where her mother contracted the virus, noting the knowledge gained that helped advance preventive measures.

“As far as we know, it was God’s plan for her to be a helper in this area.”

“I think my mom would be willing to give up her life to save lives,” Bonnie said. “She was the kind of person she was.”

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