Hiltrud Saje emigrated from Germany after World War II. On May 8, she died in Salt Lake City of COVID-19 and dementia.
Now her daughter looks at her mother’s home country with some envy. Germany has done a better job than Utah and the United States at containing the coronavirus.
“The federal government issued some statements saying masks are not going to help you save them,” Natasha Sajé said, recalling the early weeks of the American pandemic. " … In retrospect, that’s nuts. I probably should have known better, but I didn’t.”
Sajé, who lives in Millcreek, is part of a grim but growing fraternity of Utahns who have lost loved ones and become increasingly frustrated by the national and state response — and the unwillingness of individuals to take basic preventive steps — to slow the spread of a tenacious disease that has killed more than 200 Utahns and 135,000 Americans.
In interviews, the relatives of some of those who have died wondered aloud if Utah’s best-known and most-influential institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would have to wield its political power and considerable clout for the state to adopt effective prevention measures.
Some also said the pandemic and the loss of their spouse, parent or sibling have them thinking differently about whom they will vote for in November.
Families described deaths aggravated by what happened before their agonizing losses and now. After all, the infectious virus meant they were unable to visit their loved ones in the minutes, hours, days or months before their passing. Despite the personal pain, they lament, it seems that this trail of tears isn’t influencing the policymakers in Washington and Salt Lake City.
“They couldn’t care less about my mom,” said Matt Theel, whose mother, Corinne “Benoni” Theel, a retired special-education teacher who contracted the virus at a skilled nursing home and died May 5 at age 67. “They’re putting a literal price on human lives.”
Theel is among the mourners who believe politicians were more concerned with revving up the economy than slowing down the pandemic.
“I feel very little compassion at all from the government,” he said, “state or federal.”
While the family members who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune certainly had differing opinions, themes emerged from the majority. Most have found the federal response to the pandemic to be poor, with some casting blame squarely on President Donald Trump for failing to have the country prepared and then pushing responsibilities to the states for testing, providing protective equipment and encouraging mask wearing.
“The national leadership has been disgraceful,” said Hank Kennedy, whose father, William H. Kennedy, died June 24 after contracting the virus at the William E. Christoffersen Veterans Home in Salt Lake City. He was 93 and served in the Navy during World War II.
The younger Kennedy is among those who favor a 9/11 Commission-style investigation to examine how the United States has handled the coronavirus and to recommend ways to be prepared for the next pandemic.
Robert Moody, whose 71-year-old mother, Carol Moody, died from the virus May 21 at LDS Hospital, said he got so upset watching a Wednesday news conference with Vice President Mike Pence and Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, on the reopening of schools he had to shut it off. Moody wonders how federal officials expect children and teachers to be safe in schools when case counts are soaring.
“They passed the buck, and there’s no responsibility,” said Moody, who also contracted the virus and is recovering. “I mean, not that I expect the government to do everything, but I think their heads are in the clouds.”
The families tended to give only slightly higher marks to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. The latter, who is the heavy favorite to succeed Herbert as the state’s chief executive, was placed in charge of much of Utah’s coronavirus response with the former making the final decisions on issues like whether to require masks and shutter certain businesses.
Most of those who lost loved ones want Herbert to mandate masks in public across the state. (Those who don’t favor the mandate said they want people to wear them voluntarily.) Some also expressed frustration at Utah spending millions of dollars for initiatives like TestUtah, a tracking app, and a malaria drug that, critics say, have produced questionable results or been unnecessary.
“I’m angry and frustrated at the federal government, at the White House response,” said Colleen Shino, a retired nurse whose father, Ralph Shino, died at the veterans home June 9 at age 97. “The state didn’t do much better when they [planned to purchase] en masse all that hydroxychloroquine.”
Moody said he knows Herbert and Cox have had to weigh lives against livelihoods, but he wishes they would require masks for all — not just schoolchildren, as Herbert ordered Thursday. He understands, though, that face coverings have become so political that politicians may not want to force the issue.
“I just feel like you half-assed it,” Moody said, “when you say you’re going to make the kids do it and not everybody else.”
Even so, Moody said he still plans to vote for Cox, the Republican nominee for governor, in the fall.
Theel does not. He said he considered voting for Cox in the primary but has been disappointed by Utah’s pandemic response and will cast a ballot for another candidate. Theel will be “voting against” Cox in the general election.
“I don’t even know who the Democrat is,” Theel said. (It’s University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson.)
George W. Hewitt, who taught business and coached debate and drama in the Granite School District before retiring with his wife, Thayes Ann Hewitt, to Diamond Valley, died Monday at age 82 after being sick with the virus for about three weeks. As his widow prepared for his services Thursday, she said Herbert became too worried about the economy, and his opening of businesses and raising the limits on gatherings have prompted Utahns to make poor decisions.
Thayes Hewitt said she recently drove into St. George and saw a drive-in ice cream restaurant whose tables were full; no one in line was wearing a mask. A public pool was filled with kids.
“I don’t understand how they think they’re safe there,” she said.
The 63-year-old widow, who also is recovering from the virus, doesn’t know whom she will vote for in November but said the pandemic and her husband’s death will spur her to examine the candidates more closely.
“Generally, I vote Republican,” she said. “I’m not sure. Honestly, I’m just so discouraged with the whole system and what everybody’s doing. I don’t know.”
A poll conducted by The Tribune and Suffolk University of prospective Republican primary voters found 79% of them either strongly or somewhat approved of Utah’s response to the pandemic. However, the survey was conducted June 4 to 7 — just as Utah’s coronavirus cases started spiking.
To break what they see as inaction at the Capitol, some want the state’s predominant religion to push for masks in public across Utah and for lower limits on gatherings.
Masks already are required in some Latter-day Saint congregations because top church leaders have vowed to heed guidelines spelled out by public officials and medical authorities. Worship services are limited to fewer than 100 people and require such social distancing precautions as leaving every other pew empty.
In the faith’s temples, where members perform their most sacred rites and which have been slowly reopening to limited services, the church has insisted that “all government and public health directives ... be observed,” including “the use of safety equipment such as masks.”
After witnessing the alarming spike in coronavirus cases, the church’s top Utah leaders amped up their support for masks Friday night by asking all members in the Beehive State “to be good citizens by wearing face coverings when in public.”
“Doing so will help promote the health and general welfare of all,” wrote the faith’s Utah Area Presidency. " ... Please join with us now in common purpose for the blessing and benefit of all.”
The letter stopped short, however, of calling on government officials to require that Utahns don face coverings in public — a plea that many health care authorities have invoked.
General authority Seventy Randy D. Funk, first counselor in the church’s Utah Area Presidency, also joined other clergy in signing an interfaith appeal last month urging the state’s residents to put on masks.
Jesus commanded his followers “to love one’s neighbor as oneself,” the letter stated, and “one cannot claim to love one’s neighbor while deliberately putting them at risk.”
Shino, who described herself as an inactive Latter-day Saint, credited the church for implementing precautions.
“But that should be statewide,” she said. “That should be nationwide.”
Martha Beach, whose mother, Mary M. Miller, died June 9 at age 89, is frustrated with Herbert not mandating masks. Lobbying by the Latter-day Saint leaders might be necessary, she said, to nudge the governor into ordering face coverings.
“I wish they would step up,” Beach said, “and get in his ear.”
Beach and her family bought a full-page ad in the June 21 edition of The Tribune announcing her death from the coronavirus and encouraging everyone to wear a mask. Beach said the ad seemed effective in the first few days.
Since then, she said, Miller’s death and the family’s advocacy haven’t seemed to influence any decision-makers. Beach said the ambivalence is adding to her grief.
“This was something she contracted from someone,” Beach said, “and we look at it as a preventable death.”
Grief stretches on
The fear of COVID-19 does not subside after a relative has perished. Many of those who spoke to The Tribune are themselves in high-risk categories for developing complications from the virus due to their age or other health concerns.
“I don’t have an underlying condition,” said 65-year-old Natasha Sajé, “but I am in the demographic.”
Nancy Vanderwerff has asthma. The 73-year-old doesn’t leave her Roy home and wipes down any deliveries. She said the coronavirus also cheated her out of time with her 92-year-old mother.
LaPreal Hull lived at Heritage Park Healthcare and Rehabilitative Services in Roy. Vanderwerff stopped being able to see her when the facility banned visitors in March. Then an outbreak landed at Heritage Park.
Hull, who enjoyed painting, making lamps from secondhand crystal and playing big band songs and Latter-day Saint hymns on the piano, died May 28. The funeral the family planned and paid for years in advance didn’t happen. Hull was buried the day after she died.
“It took a heck of a lot longer for the grieving process for my family,” Vanderwerff said.
She wishes Utah would require masks in public and go back to some of the closures it had in March and April. Even after losing a parent to the virus, she doesn’t believe any politicians would listen to her if she sent her desires to their inboxes or communicated them at the ballot box.
“There are already so many, many people with opinions,” Vanderwerff said, “and no one’s opinion is golden.”