Vitalina Williams was not a doctor, a nurse or an EMT, but she died on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. She was an immigrant from Guatemala who worked at Market Basket in Salem, and at Walmart in Lynn — until she got sick.
At first, her husband, David Williams, who works at the Market Basket in Danvers, hoped it was just a bad cold — not the coronavirus.
“We pick up colds all the time," Williams said. "I pick up colds too, you know. But it did get progressively worse and worse. And the morning we decided to put her in the hospital, she had trouble breathing.”
Vitalina was sick with COVID-19. Doctors at Salem Hospital put her on a respirator, but as the days went by, she only got sicker. She died a week after she was admitted.
“Sitting there in the emergency room with her coat and blue hat that she loved so much — that image, it’s in my mind," Williams said, as his voice choked. "That was the last time I saw her.”
Vitalina was 59 when she died. David, her husband of 19 years, never got to say goodbye to her.
Her story is one of many that raises concerns about grocery store employees, and lots of other often low-paid workers who are keeping essential business going during the pandemic. For workers like Vitalina, making a living means risking infection every day — often without adequate protective equipment.
"She worked every single day to serve all of us who need to eat during this pandemic — but she still didn't have the gear to keep her safe," said Congressman Seth Moulton of Salem.
Following the death of Vitalina Williams, Moulton asked Governor Charlie Baker to designate grocery store employees as emergency workers like doctors and EMTs, which would give them priority access to important protections, including free testing, and personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and gowns.
Governor Baker has made testing and the pursuit of personal protective equipment for front-line medical workers priorities — and yesterday he expanded access to free testing to include grocery store and supermarket workers.
"Obviously our grocery store workers, folks working in pharmacies, folks working on the public transportation system — there are a lot of folks doing a lot of really important jobs out there," Baker said on Friday.
Baker has also issued guidelines that grocery stores take steps to protect workers, including providing hand sanitizer and imposing social distancing measures. But with personal protective equipment in short supply, he has stopped short of giving grocery workers priority access to protective gear.
David Williams says he understands.
"Make sure the people who are dealing with the sick get [personal protective equipment] first — before us," he said.
Protective equipment might have saved his wife, but Williams says he doesn't blame anyone for Vitalina's death; he just wants to honor a wife whom he loved and will miss.
"She was everything you wanted to have come to this country," he said of Vitalina. "Positive, hardworking, [with the] strongest moral fiber I've ever known in my life. Daily, we said, 'I love you.' And I loved every day of it."
This article was originally published on April 11, 2020.
This segment aired on April 11, 2020.