COVID deaths an emotional toll on all

Bob Kalinowski, The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
·5 min read

Mar. 7—Military veteran Chad Eddinger and his family took the COVID-19 virus seriously as soon as the pandemic emerged in 2020. They decided to skip the family's annual Easter meetup on April 12.

He tested positive the next day and by the end of the month, the Rice Twp. man died at age 49.

"We are in mourning. He was only 49. He had years and years of life to give," Eddinger's sister Shannon Heimbach Ferrara said. "COVID is dangerous and lethal to a significant amount of our population."

Saturday marked one year since the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Pennsylvania.

Eddinger, a janitorial employee at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Plains Twp., grew up in Nescopeck and graduated from Berwick Area High School. He served four years in the U.S. Marines and eight years in the U.S. Navy, having fought in the first Iraq war.

Because of COVID, he hasn't had the funeral he deserves, his sister said.

"He has not had his military honors," Heimbach Ferrara said. "We want to give my brother the send off he rightly deserves and we don't want to compromise other people."

Ferrara has a Native American spirit post in the yard of her Berwick home as a permanent memorial to her brother. In January, her family created a COVID memorial with hundreds of lights in Berwick in honor of all who died in Luzerne, Columbia and Montour counties.

Despite never having the virus herself, Heimbach Ferrara, 48, considers herself a COVID survivor.

"If you talk to other COVID survivors, that's what we identify ourselves as. When you talk to and listen to the stories of other survivors, it's an ongoing and continuing traumatization. Our society has not come together to fight this virus," Heimbach Ferrara said.

Since her brother's death, Heimbach Ferrara has become one of the most vocal and visible people in COVID support groups in Northeast Pennsylvania.

"I don't want another family to experience what our family has experienced this past year," Heimbach Ferrara said.

Among the first deathsAmong the first people to die from COVID-19 in Luzerne County was Mary Alicia "Mae" Kirwan Noss of Wilkes-Barre.

Noss, 85, died on April 8, 2020 at Timber Ridge Health Care Center in Plains Twp., a nursing home that experienced a COVID outbreak early in the pandemic.

Family members say they placed Noss in the nursing home after she developed Alzheimer's Disease. Now, they feel some guilt.

"We put her there for her own safety and she got COVID and passed away. We deal with that. We thought we were keeping her safe," daughter Mary Ann Duliba, 64, of West Pittston, said.

Duliba said she thinks her mother was scared and lonely in the unfamiliar environment.

"We think she just passed because she gave up," Duliba said.

Funeral industry changedFuneral director Daniel Hughes, the former Luzerne County coroner, said COVID-19 changed everything about his profession from the way he handled bodies to the way he assisted grieving families.

"Through the pandemic, through the past year or so, I've been around lots of people who had COVID and died. I was very fortunate not to get COVID. You wore the mask, and gloves, and respirator. You had to take time to protect yourself," Hughes said. "Funeral directors were as much or more exposed to COVID than regular health care workers. We were in direct contact with those who died of COVID."

Funeral directors tried their best to give people a dignified send off but it was difficult, especially for those who died of COVID since family members who would be at the services likely were exposed as well, Hughes said.

"You were scared. You didn't know what you didn't know," Hughes said. "Funeral homes tried to accommodate people the best we could under the circumstances."

Coroner's office challengedLuzerne County Coroner Francis Hacken said his staff tirelessly worked the past year to cooperate with hospitals, nursing homes, deputy coroners and funeral directors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The major challenge was trying to trace where a person was infected with COVID, he said.

"The thing that is important with COVID is: Where did they contract it?" Hacken said.

The office investigated 2,066 deaths in 2020, up from 1,271 in 2019, the coroner said.

That doesn't necessarily mean there were more deaths overall since the coroner's office doesn't handle all deaths, he said. However, the COVID pandemic led to more death investigations, he said.

Hacken said his office responded to the pandemic quickly by adding morgue space and purchasing a refrigerated trailer in case hospitals and funeral homes were overwhelmed with victims who died from COVID. Luckily, the truck wasn't needed, but still remains county property in case of a mass casualty incident one day, he said.

Hacken said he truly believes local hospitals, nursing homes and funeral directors did the best they could responding to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

"I don't know if people realize how emotional this was," Hacken said. "Especially since families couldn't be with loved ones in their time of need."

Emotional toll on health workersDr. Alison Brodginski, director of infectious diseases for Geisinger Health System's northeast region and associate chief medical officer for Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Plains Twp., said Geisinger "always stands ready to care for our community regardless of the challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception."

"That said, no caregiver wants to lose even one patient, so the last year has been difficult, and the losses we've experienced have taken a mental and emotional toll on all our providers and support staff," Brodginski said. "But the hardships we've faced are minor compared to those of the many families who have lost loved ones to this devastating virus, and our deepest sympathies go out to those families every day."

Treatment of COVID has continued to improve over the past year, she said.

"Fortunately, we're getting better at treating COVID-19 infections with therapies like common steroids, convalescent plasma, and monoclonal antibodies," Brodginski said. "With better treatment options, vaccines and continued masking, distancing and hand hygiene, we are hopeful that we can stop the spread of COVID-19 together."

Contact the writer:

570-821-2055; @cvbobkal