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Opinion: 1 Unfathomable Toll Of The Coronavirus Outbreak — Dying Alone

An ambulance backs into a parking lot on Friday at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., which has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state.

The toll of coronavirus in the U.S. and around the world is being told in the numbers of people who have died, been infected, tested or quarantined — and the economic costs of canceled events, vacations and travel. But there's another consequence that's harder to categorize.

At least 10 residents of the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Wash., have died from the virus; more may have died without being tested. Older people, including those with respiratory problems, are considered to be especially vulnerable.

Family members of the residents have told reporters they've been given inadequate or inaccurate information about their loved ones inside, even as they say they understand how health care workers in the home must be overworked and anxious, too.

But the hardest part might be that they can't see in person — can't touch or hold — the person they love who may be in pain, and scared and confused, as they die alone. It may be like seeing somebody drown, at a distance.

"We are watching from the shore and not being able to do anything," Alex Stewart, whose 95-year-old grandmother lives in the nursing home, told The New York Times. "It is a very helpless feeling."

Vanessa Phelps' 90-year-old mother lives in Life Care, and has breathing difficulties. Her daughter couldn't even speak to her. She told ABC News: "It's horrific. My mom being there all alone, it's just heartbreaking, and it's unacceptable what they're doing,"

This may be a problem that causes anguish and outrage but has no immediately apparent solution. If families were permitted inside the home to be with their loved ones, they would likely be exposed to the virus, too, which would risk a vast increase of the number of people who could be infected.

Still it's hard to know that someone you love is dying, but you cannot give them the only comfort you'd wish: your touch; a few loving words; your presence beside them as a kind of last thanks for all the times that they, as a parent or grandparent, brother or sister, stood beside you during the challenges and passages of life.

I don't know of any statistic that can account for the number of people this virus may force to die alone. But it is one more burden to carry, not only for those who may die over the next few weeks and months, but their loved ones who must go on.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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