THE YEAR OF COVID: Counting and remembering those we’ve lost

In this Oct. 27, 2020, file photo, Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg walks among thousands of white flags planted in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

In this Oct. 27, 2020, file photo, Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg walks among thousands of white flags planted in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

The confirmed COVID-19 death toll as tallied by the state stood at 38,321 at midnight Thursday.

The federal Centers for Disease Control placed the total at 47,068 because it includes thousands of deaths that New York City listed as probable COVID, which the state excludes.

The true death toll may never be known, given that the disease was likely infecting and killing people in New York before it was actually recognized as such.

But by either tally, New York state far exceeds every other state in deaths as percentage of population.

California (50,991) and Texas (42,285) have surpassed New York in total numbers, but because of their huge populations, they don’t even crack the top 20 in per-capita death toll.

In the eight-county Capital Region, we’ve lost more than 1,000 people in the past year to COVID-19. By county, the numbers are:

  • Albany 331
  • Columbia 94
  • Greene 70
  • Rensselaer 131
  • Saratoga 145
  • Schenectady 177
  • Warren 55
  • Washington 52

Neighboring counties in the eastern Mohawk Valley bring the toll to 1,255:

  • Fulton 82
  • Montgomery 106
  • Schoharie 12

Statewide, the victims are more heavily men than women, 56% to 44%, and they’re overwhelmingly older people: 88% were 60 or older at the time they died.

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They were also fathers, mothers, grandparents, sisters and brothers.

For those who survive them, the pandemic is doubly cruel, first killing their loved one, then hindering the traditional ceremonies and rituals for the deceased. For much of 2020, state directives and personal hesitancy significantly limited memorial services.

The words in the obituaries are familiar now: “A celebration of life will be held at a later date.”

Brian Lansley, owner and director of Jones Funeral Home in Schenectady, said the funeral industry in the past year has seen a rise in cremations, which are preferred by some survivors as a way of having the deceased be present, however minimally, when that full ceremony is finally held.

“A lot of times people will do a private service and they plan on doing something in the future,” said Lansley, who has made arrangements for about a half-dozen known COVID victims in the past year.

Graveside open-air services are another option that have gained favor, in temperate months, as a generally safe option.

The state has relaxed restrictions on indoor funerals, and Jones has hosted more of them in recent months than at the start of the pandemic. But normalcy has not returned, Lansley said.

“In our chapel we usually have 30 chairs set up. We’re down to 10. And people don’t stay as long as they used to.”

Trends in the daily COVID death toll typically lag new infections significantly.

The daily count of new infections has been on the decline for weeks in New York, and the daily death toll has begun to follow it down, fluctuating in the high double-digit range for the past week.

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