Editor’s note: Karen Kay died Sunday, April 11, 2021. She was 61.
My Aunt Karen Kay has a sneaky smile with crooked teeth, a rebellious stubborn streak and a purse collection that rivals even Cardi B’s.
She loves cold Cokes, black “kiki” cats and dozens and dozens of photo albums full of family.
And as Friday morning, Karen Kay is fighting for her life in a Pocatello ICU after testing positive for COVID-19.
My aunt is autistic, which means she doesn’t exactly know what’s going on. Doesn’t understand why she’s hooked up to breathing tubes. Doesn’t understand why her family cannot visit her and is instead surrounded by a dedicated team of strangers working 24/7 to save her life.
She doesn’t understand that this could have been prevented had more people in Idaho worn masks, gotten tested, adhered to social distancing and heeded other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations like getting vaccinated when they were able.
She must be so afraid, so confused to not be able to give long, long hugs to friends and strangers alike like always.
We are an Idaho COVID-19 family. The most painful realization that comes along with that? We always will be.
The day the first case was documented in Idaho will forever remind me of my Grandpa B, my Aunt Karen Kay’s father. He was in a Pocatello nursing home, and from March 13, 2020, onward, I worried endlessly about his safety and care.
Were the people in his nursing home regularly wearing masks? Were they staying home to protect themselves and their patients? Would an outbreak happen in his building as they had in hundreds of other long-term care facilities across the U.S.?
Somehow, I always knew it would. The coronavirus just took longer than I thought to get to him.
It infiltrated his nursing home in December. He died a few hours after my mom got an email saying his facility would get the vaccine in the next week. I had to put my arm around her as she told emergency responders over the phone to stop resuscitation after his heart gave out.
That’s a decision that will haunt her the rest of her life. It’s a memory I will carry with me for the rest of mine.
Now I must comfort her as she waits for updates on her sister. I no longer know what to tell her.
I do know I want people to remember that those who have died or been very sick from COVID-19 are real Idahoans. They’re your neighbors. Your teachers. Your health care professionals working around the clock against this disease. They’re the agricultural workers who put food on your table. They’re the people you see every Sunday at church. They’re our small business owners worried about their employees’ safety. If you’re like me, they’re family.
My aunt is not just another statistic, another of the 182,841 Idahoans who have tested positive.
Karen Kay is a person who loves her friends and the job she’s had at New Day Products and Resources, a community therapy program that gives jobs and resources to people with disabilities in southeast Idaho. She knows no other way than to simply love people, flaws and all. She has a story, memories and successes.
And every Idahoan we’ve lost to COVID-19 does, too.
Grandpa B was a Korean War veteran born in Chesterfield, a Mr. Fix It, a comedic genius, an unparalleled storyteller. He lined up at Deseret Industries every morning to get the best deals on tools and treasures. He helped everyone who asked for it — and many still who couldn’t bring themselves to.
On my father’s side of the family, we lost my great Uncle Lee, a proud Vietnam War vet with a snowy white beard and a fine talent for leatherworking.
As of this writing, there are 1,989 other Idaho families — 560,000 families nationwide — feeling the same disbelief, anger, sadness, disappointment and loss as we are in mine. I cycle through all of those feelings daily; I seem to get stalled most often at the anger stage.
That scares me most of all.
I grapple with simultaneously feeling immense comfort that I am not alone in this experience, then feel immense sadness that so many other Idaho families are struggling under this weight, too. How can we feel both so strongly all at the same time?
While we know Idaho has opened vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 or older and hundreds of thousands of people are protecting themselves and their families by getting the shot, we also know deadly and more contagious coronavirus variants are making their way into our communities. It’s a race against time to build herd immunity before this indiscriminate virus steals even more Idahoans from us.
This is my ask to you: Recognize this is not yet over. This is not the time to become complacent.
Continue wearing masks to slow the spread of the disease. Get vaccinated just as soon as you can make an appointment to help save Idahoan lives. Keep social distancing for a while longer until all of us, especially those who may not be as able to protect themselves like my Aunt Karen Kay, can gather safely.
My aunt keeps repeating “home, go home” to her caregivers. She’s tried escaping her hospital room, desperate to get there.
I keep thinking about all the other Idahoans in hospitals — 161 people as of Monday — who are just as desperate to get home to their loved ones, too.
Together, by taking a few simple precautions and continued compassion, we can make sure Idahoans like Karen Kay don’t end up there in the first place.