When unvaccinated Utahns die, loved ones are left to process blame, defensiveness, and regrets

Utah’s coronavirus deaths have overwhelmingly befallen the unvaccinated.

(Photo courtesy of Neil Warner) Jeannie and Neil Warner did not have a chance to say goodbye when Jeannie died from the coronavirus. Neil also tested positive and was in quarantine when Jeannie was placed in a medically induced coma. The Provo couple would have celebrated their 36th anniversary less than two weeks after Jeannie's death on Aug. 18, 2021.

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Neil Warner did not get a chance to say goodbye to his wife, Jeannie, when she died of the coronavirus.

He tested positive while she was hospitalized, so he was in quarantine when she rapidly deteriorated. By the time Warner was allowed to visit her, she was in a coma.

But that isn’t the part that haunts him.

“What I’ll never be able to let go is that about three weeks before this, we both decided the time was right, we’d seen enough data, it’s time to get vaccinated,” Warner said.

Then a last-minute work commitment derailed their vaccine plans, and they hadn’t gotten around to rescheduling. Less than a month later, Jeannie was gone.

“I feel like I’ve had the wind knocked out of me,” Warner said a few days after Jeannie’s funeral in August.

Utah’s coronavirus deaths have overwhelmingly befallen the unvaccinated. Of nearly 1,200 Utahns who have died since Jan. 1, only 80 were fully vaccinated, according to the Utah Department of Health.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

That’s consistent with research that shows the vaccines’ protections against serious illness and death are extremely robust. And it’s the reason health officials and doctors describe the current spike in deaths as mostly preventable.

Preventable. It’s a potent, painful word for grieving loved ones, a notion that can trigger anger, regret or resigned fatalism. And families say that tension can be worse when vaccine decisions are linked to — or are seen as being linked to — ideological identity.

Here are three Utahns who recently have lost unvaccinated family members to COVID-19, and how they feel about that now.

‘See you in hell’

Jeanette Sayers thought she had finally convinced her sister, Janet Thomas, to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

(Sayers family) Janet Thomas, left, and her sister, Jeanette Sayers, in an undated photo. Thomas, 48, of Saratoga Springs, Utah, died from COVID-19 on Aug. 28, 2021. Sayers, also 48, wrote in a Facebook post that relatives who discouraged Thomas from getting vaccinated against COVID-19 should "burn in hell."

Thomas had wanted to visit Sayers’ Cottonwood Heights home, but Sayers warned that she’d need to get vaccinated — especially because Sayers’ son has an autoimmune disorder.

“When I said, ‘Hey, we can’t be around you,’ she finally realized, ‘Oh, well, maybe I should get the vaccine, just in case,’” Sayers said.

Thomas had risks of her own, too, Sayers said. The Saratoga Springs 48-year-old had received a kidney transplant five years earlier, and was a breast cancer survivor.

Thomas “realistically knew that COVID was not a hoax,” Sayers said. But other family members felt differently.

“They were anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, and they convinced her to not get the vaccine, and that COVID was a hoax,” Sayers said. “She fell for it. … [She would hear,] ‘It’s political propaganda, and for the pharmaceutical companies to make money, and the government just wants to control you.’ And she listened to it.”

A couple of months ago, when offered the incentive of visiting her sister and immunocompromised nephew, Thomas changed her mind, Sayer said.

But Thomas put it off and contracted the coronavirus in late summer, Sayers said. She spent two weeks in a Millcreek hospital and was released — but then developed internal bleeding and was admitted to a hospital in Orem.

She had been there a week when she died Aug. 28.

Sayers’ grief emerged as fury. That night she posted a scathing message on Facebook, attached to a photo of Thomas lying dead in her hospital bed.

“To those who convinced my sister to not get the COVID vaccine when she falls in the most vulnerable population, screw you. You will never be forgiven. By anyone. See you in hell,” Sayer wrote. “She heard you and she just passed away. COVID is absolutely not a hoax. Get the effing vaccine. This is what unvaccinated COVID looks like. Learn the truth.”

Now, Sayers said, Janet’s death, and the disagreements over COVID-19, “will cause permanent damage within the family. This is going to, unfortunately, be a barrier to any healthy communication in the near future, or in the future at all.”

‘I wish I could have traded places with her’

Neil Warner and his wife Jeannie were stunned when she was admitted to Utah Valley Hospital, in late July, Warner said. She didn’t seem too ill. She didn’t even think she had the coronavirus. They had only gone to the hospital on the urging of a nurse on a coronavirus hotline they called, just in case.

But after some tests, staff at Utah Valley Hospital immediately hooked her up to an oxygen tank.

“I was shocked they even kept her overnight and had no idea she even had any breathing problems until they moved her into the ER,” Warner said.

Warner returned home and also started feeling sick. And he got sicker. Eventually his fever rose above 104 degrees, he said, and he returned to the ER where he had left Jeannie a few days earlier. He also had COVID-19 — but with high enough oxygen levels that doctors sent him back home to recover there.

The bad news was that he would not be able to visit Jeannie until he had quarantined for two weeks. But Warner said he felt pretty ill for most of that time, and he thought there would be time for Jeannie to enjoy a visit after that.

There was not.

Two days after she arrived at the hospital, she was transferred to an intensive care unit.

“I knew then it was serious. But she seemed like she still was doing okay. They had her on oxygen and everything,” Warner said.

About a week after that, doctors told Warner that Jeannie would need to be intubated.

“We were still really hopeful,” Warner said. “We knew a lot of people had been through this and came out of it good.”

But Jeannie panicked on the respirator.

“She was afraid. She was scared. I don’t know what she was thinking at the time because I couldn’t talk to her, but they were giving her some pain medication, and other medication for anxiety,” Warner said, relaying reports from his children, who stayed with Jeannie at the hospital.

“When she was aware of what was going on, she’d start to have these panic attacks which then spiked all these alarms. So they put this big oxygen mask on her face, but she was claustrophobic, and she kept trying to rip it off,” Warner said. “She couldn’t talk to anyone.

“I finally got to go see her two days before she passed away. She was in a medically induced coma,” Warner said.

Doctors said they had discovered internal bleeding, Warner said.

“They thought they’d fixed it, but then they said all her major organs were failing, and she probably wouldn’t live another day or two,” Warner said.

Jeannie died Aug. 18, less than two weeks before the Warners’ 36th wedding anniversary. Before the pandemic, they had wanted to go back to Tulum, Mexico — their special place. Instead, Warner planned to celebrate “in a different type of way.”

“I want to celebrate her life and everything she did,” Warner said. “She was the most kindhearted, biggest-hearted, unselfish person.

“I wish I could have traded places with her.”

Instead, he’s retracing their steps in the weeks before she got sick, replaying their decisions and imagining the alternate reality where this didn’t happen.

The Warners weren’t anti-vaccine, and they weren’t coronavirus deniers, he said. Jeannie was diabetic and very cautious about exposure; they didn’t go anywhere but the grocery store and work, where they wore masks, Warner said.

They were hesitant about the vaccine only because Warner got quite sick after a flu shot in the past — and they were nervous after Johnson & Johnson briefly paused distribution to investigate rare blood clotting in some patients.

But the odds of that looked slim, Warner said, and one day, Jeannie said: “Let’s go.” After a scheduling hiccup conflicted with their plans, they intended to figure out another time to go, he said.

“I understand she could have done it at any time,” Warner said. “I don’t know, my mind won’t stop running from A to Z, every day, through everything that’s happened.

“I guess that’s part of the process.”

‘If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.’

Randy Thomas is less convinced that an alternate reality was ever an option. And he is far more ambivalent than Sayers, who he refers to as his “outspoken” sister-in-law, that the vaccine would have saved his wife Janet.

Janet, he said, had dealt with multiple health issues in the six years they knew each other, including the kidney transplant, diverticulitis and breast cancer.

“She beat all of these,” he said. “She was a champion.

“I don’t think the vaccine is going to save everybody. It’s not a guarantee. Nothing is guaranteed. If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.”

He said he doesn’t fault Janet for not getting vaccinated, although the illnesses she previously survived did put her at elevated risk of a serious COVID-19 infection.

“[She] made the choice not to get the vaccine, OK? She’s a big girl. She’s 48 years old,” Randy Thomas said. “She didn’t feel right about it. And it does have to be a personal choice.”

Randy Thomas said he’s undecided about whether to get vaccinated himself, even though his employer — Cox Automotive, where he is a senior software engineer — has declared that employees must get vaccinated or be terminated.

“I’m still on the fence,” Randy Thomas said. “I was before, I was during, and I am now.”

While refusing the vaccine may be seen as choosing a side of the fence, Randy Thomas said it’s not the appropriate time for conflict in the family, or questions of blame.

“I really don’t want to make my wife’s passing political. I don’t want it to be a mess. She wouldn’t have wanted that.”

Janet, he said, “was very loving and very accepting of everybody, regardless of what they believed or what they did.

“She allowed people to be who they were.”