On March 26, Delaware health officials announced that a 66-year-old Sussex County man died with COVID-19, becoming the first Delawarean lost to the highly infectious virus.
Two days earlier Gov. John Carney had implemented Delaware's initial stay-at-home order, and the state was just starting to grapple with how much life needed to change to prevent the virus from reaching the state's most vulnerable populations and overrunning its hospital capacity.
Now, nine months later, 930 Delawareans and more than 300,000 Americans with COVID-19 have died as of Jan. 1. The coronavirus has led to fundamental shifts in the patterns of daily life and is the dominant topic of public discourse.
The state and the nation have yet to collectively grieve, consumed first by the race for personal protective equipment and testing kits and now by the unprecedented rollout of a vaccine for the disease.
To date, about 6 in 100 Delawareans have tested positive for COVID-19.
"Truthfully, nobody could have foreseen this," said Tabe Mase, a nurse practitioner and head of employee health services at ChristianaCare. "We all thought, 'OK. All hands on deck, we're going to take care of this.'
"We're here now, and we're dealing with it."
Entering 2021, just more than a year after scientists discovered the virus in China, its spread in Delaware is worse than it has ever been. Every day for the last three weeks, more people have been hospitalized in Delaware with COVID-19 than at any point in the spring.
The state on Wednesday reported 23 new deaths, the most ever in a single day. In December, 133 people died in Delaware, the most in a month since May.
Many of the families who have suffered a loss are dealing with "the unsettling feeling of when is the end, and when will I be able to just feel my grief instead of adding COVID on top of it," said Meredith English, a bereavement counselor at Delaware Hospice.
"The constant stress or fear without any break or sense of normalcy is what’s making it so intensified."
The pandemic has disrupted the way Delawareans grieve deaths, including those related to other causes besides COVID-19. Funerals have been drastically limited by safety precautions, and many families have decided to forego them until the virus subsides.
The most difficult part is family members not being able to physically console each other, says pastor Gary Whetstone of Victory Christian Fellowship in New Castle.
"It’s just next to impossible to have a cousin not hug an aunt," Whetstone said.
Older people with underlying health conditions are most likely to suffer the disease's gravest effects. Long-term care facilities where residents live close together, increasing the chance of exposure, became early epicenters of the virus's spread and are still among the state's most impacted venues.
About 1 in 4 long-term care residents who have tested positive have died. As of Dec. 24, long-term care residents accounted for 54% of Delaware's deaths, the 10th-highest share of any state, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
The mortality rates for younger people are much lower, but it's still unknown what the long-term effects could be. More than half of the state's cases have been in people aged 18-49. Thirty-four people in that group have died.
As residents adapted their daily lives, it became clear that not everyone carries the same amount of risk. While thousands of jobs converted to work-from-home in the spring, many workers such as those in poultry plants — one of Delaware's early epicenters — continued in person, sometimes without the necessary protection.
Outbreaks in the spring and late fall have plagued Delaware's prisons, leading to positive cases in almost 1 in 4 prisoners who spent at least three weeks in prison from April to mid-December. Today, as each of the state's four prisons is handling an outbreak, 12 inmates have died after a positive test.
2020 is on track to be the deadliest year on record in the U.S., with the death toll expected to exceed 3 million. As of late November, the New York Times estimated Delaware has suffered about 20% more deaths than normal.
During his weekly coronavirus press briefing on Tuesday, Gov. John Carney said his heart "goes out to those folks" whose loved ones have died of the virus.
"Our heart aches for them," Carney said. "I hear stories all the time of parents and grandparents dying alone. And the thought of that, having been through that with my own father a few years ago, is just really devastating, to think that you can’t be with your loved one as they pass."
"It should be, for all of us, just extra incentive to do our part," he continued. "They want to be with family; they should be with family. But we can all do a little bit by doing our part to prevent the continued spread."
This fall and winter, amid the worst surge of the virus, Carney has avoided implementing a full shutdown similar to that in the spring, which closed schools, in-person dining and most retail.
A more wide-ranging version of the mask mandate he ordered in April remains in effect as Delaware enters the new year, along with limits on private gatherings, restaurants, stores and places of worship that escalated throughout the fall.
So far, the restrictions have achieved their goal of "flattening the curve" so that hospitals don't exceed capacity. But they haven't been able to stem Delaware's tragic losses, which are expected to continue for several months before the vaccine is widely distributed.
Here are some of the stories of Delawareans connected by the shared tragedy of COVID-19.
Rose Mattia, one of five children born to Italian immigrants, grew up in Wilmington working at her mother's sub shops — The Circle U on Union Street, Charlie’s on Madison Street and Lena’s on Lancaster Avenue.
At 17, she ran off and married Louis Persoleo Jr., a Navy man from Hockessin who was also born to Italian immigrants. His sister changed the date of birth on Mattia's birth certificate to make it happen.
Soon after, the Navy called on Louis to serve in the Korean War. When he was gone, Rose Persoleo worked as a hairstylist and saved enough to buy a new house before he returned. She liked to say she made the purchase with quarters she rolled from her tip money.
Persoleo raised two daughters, Gina and Judy. Once they were older, Persoleo worked at the Towers Beauty Salon, which she later owned until her retirement in her 60s.
"She loved what she did," said Gina Bosick, who worked with her mother at the Towers and described her as "glamorous," but a hard worker. "She always wanted to do right by people."
The couple spent their later years traveling to naval reunions across the country. Persoleo also enjoyed spending time with her family at the Delaware beaches and in the Wildwoods.
Louis Persoleo Jr. died in 2006 after a brief illness at age 76. Rose spent the next decade in relatively good health until she started having pancreatic issues and moved to an assisted-living community two years ago.
Bosick still doesn't know exactly how her mother contracted the virus. She noticed the first signs of her mother's worsening health — she began repeating herself on the phone, saying she'd talk later multiple times only to change the subject — roughly five days after she tested positive.
Too wary of the risk of exposure to visit her mother in person at the hospital, Bosick watched her mother's final days through a Zoom-like camera feed. She said her mother looked scared, as her wide eyes continually scanned the empty room.
"It's devastating not being able to hold her hand and say, 'I love you,' or 'I’m here,'" Bosick said.
Persoleo died at age 87 on Dec. 1, 11 days after she tested positive.
"I kept waking up thinking this is a bad dream," Bosick said. "I felt that it was surreal, that it can’t be real, that I'm sitting back watching this happen to someone else, but it's my mother."
— Brandon Holveck
Owen "Bud" Parks
Before April, every time Michele Parks-Cale would get a call about another condition her father Owen "Bud" Parks developed, she would be shocked for only a moment. Then, it would be the same routine.
"My husband and I would look at each other and burst out laughing like 'Seriously?'" she said. "The cat with 10 lives is what we call him because he never died."
That's why when she got a call from her father's nursing home saying he had a fever, she wasn't as worried as most daughters would be.
But it was different this time. After that initial fever hit Parks, it was less than a week before he died due to complications from the coronavirus.
"This was just sort of like it was too fierce for him," Parks-Cale said. "It was too strong."
Parks was born on March 2, 1940, in Wilmington, but he and his two brothers were raised in Folcroft, Pennsylvania, where he graduated from Sharon Hill High School.
He loved sports and competition. He used to tell his daughter stories of his time as a certified referee through the American Soccer Association. There wasn't a sport he couldn't officiate, he'd say.
But he didn't stop at officiating. He loved to go fishing and used to enter competitions in his spare time. His favorite thing to do, however, was bowl. If there was a league nearby, Parks was in it.
He died on April 16 at Genesis HealthCare's Milford Center. He was 80.
"I just try to focus on the positive and believe that Bud is at peace and reunited with my brother," Parks-Cale said. "I'll certainly never forget how the COVID-19 virus swept through my father's nursing home and took his life, but I'll try not to dwell on it either as this virus has shown us that life is too fleeting."
— Marina Affo
Robert V. Martin
Robert V. Martin was born in the midst of the 1918 influenza pandemic. He lived to be 101 before a new pandemic arrived.
"Bob," as he was known, was a talented musician. He played the piano, clarinet, baritone and tenor saxophones and flute. His grandchildren claim he worked his way through college playing “jazz gigs in speakeasies.”
After living through the Great Depression, Martin fought in World War II, flying torpedo bombers over the Atlantic. Later, he and his wife, Ruth, settled in Wilmington and raised two sons. They were married for 60 years, until her death in 2002.
Martin held advanced degrees in music instruction. He served as both a teacher and administrator in his career, including as principal of Wilmington High School in the 1960s. Later, he moved to Georgetown and worked as director of secondary education for Cape Henlopen School District.
Despite being a centenarian, Martin still lived at home alone and was quite active. He liked to run errands, go to the beach and spend time with his family. The virus halted all that.
"Because he was high risk, he was basically confined to the house," his son Peter Martin said. "The lack of socialization, I think, hurt everybody."
After suffering a gastrointestinal bleed, Martin was hospitalized at Beebe Medical Center in mid-October. From there, he was planning to go to a rehabilitation facility.
That required a COVID-19 test. It was positive. It was around that time that Beebe stopped allowing visitors for the second time since the pandemic began.
Martin’s eldest grandson, Christopher Martin, is a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. If not for his access to certain personal protective equipment, Martin would have been alone in his last days.
Christopher said his grandfather was agitated and mumbling a lot, but jazz music calmed him. He died on Oct. 25.
"It saddens me terribly that so many of our Greatest Generation have had to die completely separated from their loved ones," Christopher said. "It did not have to be this bad."
— Shannon Marvel McNaught
Carla Coleman and her husband, Ronald, developed symptoms roughly two weeks after the state shutdown in mid-March. They were both admitted to Kent General Hospital in their hometown of Dover.
While Ron recovered after a short stay, his wife did not. Carla died on April 13 at the age of 70, leaving behind seven children, 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren who called her "Mommom Carla."
Born in Johnson City, Tennessee, Carla was known for her infectious laugh and her ability to make anyone feel welcomed and loved. She was always ready to greet someone with a smile and a hug, and her kitchen table was a place of shared laughter, tears or nostalgic stories over coffee.
She was the stepmother to 39-year-old Dustin Coleman, a forklift driver for a Walmart distribution center in Smyrna, ever since he was very small.
"After the loss, it's about realizing how lucky and blessed I was to be able to have two great moms in my life when I knew kids who didn't have any," Coleman told Delaware Online/The News Journal in November.
— Ryan Cormier and Sarah Gamard
Doris Kohr Ford
When Doris Kohr Ford's daughters compiled a book about the early years of her life during quarantine, they titled it "Unexpected Fire: The Frozen Custard Girl Finds Love."
Ford's father was Leonard Kohr, one of the founding brothers of Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard. In fact, Ford was born some 400 miles from her childhood hometown of York, Pennsylvania, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where her parents were visiting a store they managed.
The unexpected part of the title came when they discovered around 50 letters Ford had sent her husband, Walter Ford, when they were in college — she at Hood College in Maryland and he at Yale in Connecticut.
They had known their mother to be quiet and reticent — on a Zoom call after her death her grandchildren remarked that she was a great listener — but the letters showed a deep connection between her and their father.
"We just never realized how deeply they loved each other," said Mary Ann Ford.
Their four children considered them adventurers. They led the family on annual camping trips, reaching 48 states before they were done, and later hiked every 4,000-foot peak in the New England region as a couple. Ford was also part of the Skiers 70+ Club of the U.S.
Earlier this year, Mary Ann and Kathryn Beers showed Ford the book through a window at her assisted-care facility, Foulk Manor South in Wilmington. Although she suffered from dementia in her later years, Ford recognized some of the scenes, Beers said.
About two months later, Ford tested positive for COVID-19. She died three days after testing positive on Nov. 28, at 93 years old.
"That sense of adventure really defined who they were, and who they are in each of us," Mary Ann said of her parents.
— Brandon Holveck
The last time Ta’Tra Bradshaw saw her mother, Denise, she was dropping her off in the emergency room at Saint Francis Hospital in Wilmington.
"They grabbed her out of the car, put her in a wheelchair, and that was that," Ta’Tra said.
It was the early stages of the pandemic, and Ta’Tra, her husband, Randy, and Denise all had caught the virus. “We were the guinea pigs,” Ta’Tra joked. She had mild symptoms. Randy had none, but Denise, who lived with her daughter and son-in-law in Wilmington, was having trouble breathing. And so a trip to the hospital was needed. Two weeks later, Denise Bradshaw, 63, died.
Like many other families during the pandemic, Ta’Tra and her brother, Tyrran Smith, had to say goodbye to Denise via FaceTime.
“It was heartbreaking,” Ta’Tra said. “I lived with my mom. I took care of my mom every day. As she got older, the roles reversed. It was like having a baby that I couldn’t love and hold and kiss on. It was a grueling, heartbreaking experience for my brother and I.”
Denise Bradshaw was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a product of the foster system, and moved to Delaware in the '70s to attend nursing school at Delaware Technical Community College. She never finished, Ta’Tra said.
Denise had Tyrann and became the loving mother she never had. A forklift operator and chemical handler by day at General Chemical, where she worked for 26 years, Denise was a hands-on mother away from work.
“She was a big ball of happiness,” Ta’Tra said. “She always had a smile on her face. She made everyone laugh. She loved to hug and kiss on you and never really acknowledged bad days.”
Denise never married, but Ta’Tra said she had “admirers.”
Three years ago, Ta’Tra said they threw Denise her first real birthday party. More than 200 people were there to celebrate the woman whom some called "Aunt Neicy."
Denise's niece, Leonette Davis-Collins, said her aunt was "like a second mother."
Ta’Tra said she’ll miss traveling with her mother the most. There were plenty of times, she said, that she would tell Denise to pack a bag. The destination would be Las Vegas or Miami or maybe Atlanta. It didn’t matter.
"She was beyond a good mother," said Ta’Tra, who is a photographer.
In addition to her children, Denise left behind what Ta’Tra called "honorary grandchildren," as well as her sister, Hazel Fulford; best friends Carolyn Hines and Valerie Smith; brother Robert Fulford; and another sister, Dianna Hutton.
— Jeff Neiburg
Dover resident Jane Zink was an avid collector of teapots.
She had so many that her home was overflowing with them and, if you weren’t expecting it, the sight when you walked into her home could be overwhelming. She had over 200 functioning teapots and at least 100 other teapot-related items such as a Christmas tree covered in teapot ornaments and curtains with teapots on them.
“Whenever I see a teapot, I think of my mother,” said Jane’s daughter, the Rev. Nancy Zink.
Jane died of COVID-19 at 86 years old on Dec. 22 while living at Westminster Village, a retirement community and assisted living facility in Dover.
“In my naivety, I actually thought that she was tougher than COVID because she was such a strong woman,” Zink said.
Zink remembers that, at the start of her isolation due to contracting COVID, she called her mother to find that she seemed fine, drinking ginger ale and eating Oreos. But the next time she called, her mother was declining.
A hospital chaplain in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Zink decided that visiting her mother in person could jeopardize her fellow co-workers if she contracted the virus. So her last conversations with her mother were on FaceTime through an iPad. Her mother became less and less responsive, but Zink continued to talk to her because she believed she could still hear her.
“At one point, I remember her opening her eyes, and this was sort of the middle of it all,” Zink said. “And I said, ‘Do you see Daddy?’ And she didn’t respond. And I’m like, ‘Well, don’t worry, he’s there. You’ll be able to see him in a little bit.'”
Jane met her late husband, Ron, when he was serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Her daughter said she taught her to be independent and encouraged her studies as she graduated from three different universities and a seminary.
Jane was a preschool and elementary school teacher, who lived all over the country — Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, New Jersey, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois and New York — thanks to her husband’s career working in management for nonprofits. She eventually retired in Dover in 1998.
She was known for being spiritual and religious and was a member of the Christian Church, the United Church of Christ and the Newcomers Club of Dover. Whenever she and her husband moved to a new place, they’d quickly join a congregation and settle into the community. She loved reading, playing bridge, crafting and traveling, but most of all spending time with her family.
— Sarah Gamard
Krys'tal Griffin, Marina Affo, Sarah Gamard, Shannon Marvel McNaught, and Ryan Cormier contributed reporting.
Graphics by Jared Whalen.
One of the toughest parts of this year has been all the people we've lost. If you lost a loved one in Delaware during the pandemic, and are willing to share your story, please contact reporter Brandon Holveck at firstname.lastname@example.org.