BISMARCK — The coronavirus continues to cruelly take the lives of North Dakotans at an alarming rate with no end in sight, and the state reported on Friday, Oct. 30, that more than 500 residents have now died from COVID-19.

One of them was Katarina Domitrovich's best friend — her sweet and sassy grandmother, Christine Nachtigall.

Domitrovich's grandmother loved chocolate and everything fancy, and the two would sit and have tea and cookies as often as possible. Her grandmother was a long-term care resident who lived with dementia, and Domitrovich said she became very close with her over the last few years by bonding over chocolate and desserts.

"She was truly her sassy, stubborn, loving, sweet, fancy lady self to the end," said Domitrovich, a University of North Dakota student.

Nachtigall would always ask for hot fudge sundaes with extra fudge and then complain about how big they were whenever Domitrovich brought her one upon request. Then her grandmother would eat the whole thing, she said.

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Domitrovich's grandmother died on April 24 at the age of 86. Her family was not able to be right next to her during her last moments, so they watched from the outside of the long-term care facility through a window as a nurse held her grandmother's hand until she died.

Domitrovich said she will never forget standing outside with her mother who was saying "I love you, I love you, I love you" over and over again to her grandmother in a soothing tone through the window until she stopped breathing.

North Dakota has lost a total of 512 residents to COVID-19 since the pandemic hit the state in March, and one of the least-populated states continues to have the nation's highest death rate per capita. Almost half of North Dakota's COVID-19 victims — 241 — have died in October alone.

The virus is still ravaging the state’s long-term care facilities, which have seen a total of 313 deaths.

The majority of COVID-19 victims have been in their 80s or older, according to the North Dakota Department of Health, and many had underlying health conditions, though it is likely that many could have lived longer with their conditions if the virus had not cut their lives short.

“They do want to live,” North Dakota Long Term Care Association President Shelly Peterson said at a Bismarck City Commission meeting Tuesday, Oct. 27. “They may be past the age of 60, 70, 80, 90 … but they do want to live."

Gov. Doug Burgum shut down schools and businesses in March, then allowed businesses to reopen in May while schools remained closed until the summer. The governor has repeatedly dismissed the idea of implementing a statewide mask mandate to curb the spread of COVID-19, while many cities have recently instituted their own mask requirements.

Burgum said at a news conference Thursday, Oct. 29, that in the majority of the deaths in late September and October, the North Dakotans who died were exposed to COVID-19 through community spread. He said communities need to "take action now" and take the illness seriously.

For weeks, North Dakota has had the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita and the highest death rate in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many are angered by Burgum's response to the pandemic, including Bismarck resident Carl Young.

Young's mother, Catherine Jose, died on Oct. 4, and he wants people to know about her death and all the people the state has lost to the pandemic. This week, Young planted North Dakota state flags on the lawn of the state Capitol building to represent the state's victims.

Catherine Jose. Special to The Forum
Catherine Jose. Special to The Forum

Young said even though his mother had underlying health conditions, she could have lived another 15 or 20 years if COVID-19 had not killed her.

Jose was a retired certified nursing assistant "who was forever helping other people," Young said. His mother loved to garden with her "green thumb," which unfortunately she did not pass onto her children, he said jokingly.

She died in a Bottineau, N.D., nursing home, and Young said goodbye to her over the phone, as no one was allowed in the room. He said his mother did not know who he was because she became delirious as she approached the last moments of her life.

The pandemic has taken not only North Dakota's elderly, but also those who would have likely had decades left to make their mark on the world.

Earlier this month, a 17-year-old high school senior in the western North Dakota town of Parshall died from COVID-19.

Elvia "Rose" Ramirez was going to graduate in the spring of 2021 and had plans to marry her boyfriend and possibly go to college. She also wanted to adopt lots of cats when she was older and continue her passion of caring for her eight siblings and drawing Japanese anime characters.

But she died on Oct. 6 at Sanford Children's Hospital in Fargo.

Elvia "Rose" Ramirez (back center) died from COVID-19 on Oct. 6. The 17-year-old is the youngest person to die from the illness so far in North Dakota. Special to The Forum
Elvia "Rose" Ramirez (back center) died from COVID-19 on Oct. 6. The 17-year-old is the youngest person to die from the illness so far in North Dakota. Special to The Forum

"If any of her friends were having problems, Elvia would always be there for them," her mother, Susan Three Irons, an enrolled citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation, told Forum News Service earlier this month. "Just to be a sounding board and just for them to have someone to talk to."

Earlier this week, a Jamestown priest died from COVID-19 at the age of 56. Monsignor Jeffrey Wald, pastor of St. James Basilica, had worked hard to get a $6 million addition built to St. John's Academy. The Catholic elementary school in Jamestown just celebrated the completion of the addition.

"I think we're all stunned and hurting today," said Jeff Trumbauer, principal of St. John’s Academy. "Monsignor Wald absolutely loved Catholic education and in particular St. John’s Academy.”

He said the school building project was a major mission of Wald’s “and I'm thankful that he was able to see it completed."

Monsignor Jeffrey Wald. Special to The Forum
Monsignor Jeffrey Wald. Special to The Forum

As the virus keeps snatching away the lives of North Dakotans, Domitrovich said she cannot help but feel that people are attacking her and her grandmother personally whenever anyone downplays or dismisses the seriousness of COVID-19.

"I feel like people just see numbers, and to make it easier to cope daily, they just think of people as numbers," Domitrovich said. "Each person is not a number — they all have family members who loved them deeply and people that miss them greatly."

"My family is changed truly by COVID. Even when COVID is gone, there is no normal to go back to for me."

Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.