The family would have held a traditional Buddhist funeral for 80-year-old Tam Mai, but the same virus that killed him prevented all but four family members from gathering in a Nebraska funeral parlor on Friday morning
“A brief viewing, just the four of us,” his 22-year-old granddaughter, Vy Mai, told The Daily Beast. “I guess it was just goodbye. That was it.”
When the hospital reported that her grandfather had tested positive for COVID-19 late last month, Vy Mai and the rest of her family figured she was the most likely source of infection.
After all, Vy Mai had passed through several airports while returning from her final semester at a college in Pennsylvania to her home in Lincoln.
Upon her return, she had spent time with her grandparents, who had been sheltering-in-place in apparent safety. They lived with her paternal uncle and aunt, who worked at the Southwick meat-processing plant in the nearby town of Crete.
The uncle and aunt seemed to be in good health. And the family did not yet know that their place of work had become a virus hot spot. Vy Mai might have otherwise been spared experiencing just how terrible it can be to feel that you have passed a deadly pathogen on to one of the people you love most in the world.
Her grandfather was what she calls the family’s “good luck charm.” He had survived long years of war and imprisonment in Vietnam before coming to America in 1994. He had gone to work at the now shuttered Cook’s Family Foods meat-processing plant, which required endurance but not English.
“I’m sure it was tough work, but he’s a very hard working man and he pushed through it,” Mai later said.
Mai had been just 3 years old when her grandfather arranged for Mai and her parents to follow him to Nebraska as refugees in 2001. He retired not long afterwards and picked her and her sister up after school. He guided her along the immigrant’s path that continues to make America great.
“My grandfather came to the United States for a better life,” she reported. “There was no way in hell I was going to throw away my life and not get a good education.”
He was there for one of the lesser rites of passage.
“He actually took me to get my driver’s license,” Mai recalled. “He was real scared of my driving.”
The outcome seemed further proof that the grandfather brought good fortune to the family.
“I passed,” Mai said. “My father says any time my grandfather takes someone they pass. He’s just a lucky man.”
The culminating rite was to have come this spring, when the grandfather was supposed to attend Mai’s graduation from Juniata College.
But the college was one of the many that closed early as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. Mai was back in Nebraska on April 28, when her uncle called and put her grandfather on the phone.
“He said, ‘My throat hurts, I can’t breathe,’” she remembered.
At the Bryan Medical Center, Mai fixated on one of those minor things that can grab you in an emergency.
“I was freaking out, ‘Grandpa doesn’t have socks on, I need to get socks,’” Mai recalled. “My mom’s saying , ‘It’s OK, they have socks in the hospital.’’”
Mai had made other visits with him to the hospital, she knew it was not a place he wanted to be.
“He hates being in the hospital,” she recalled. “He hates the food. He’s a very frail old man, but he’s very restless. He wants to get up.”
One difference this time was that she was not allowed to go along with him when he was rolled away in a wheelchair. She pleaded with the nurse.
“Can’t I please go with him? He doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t know what’s going on and he’s really scared.”
COVID-19 is COVID-19 and Mai had to just stand there, still feeling that she likely caused it. She only learned otherwise when she and her sister went with their parents to get tested.
“We were all negative,” Mai said.
Her grandmother fell ill with COVID-19 the same day, but the hospital deemed her well enough to go home and self-quarantine. Neither the uncle nor the aunt were experiencing symptoms, but the family figured that they should also get tested.
Mai made all the arrangements. She was notified of the results two days afterwards, at which point she had to tell her uncle and aunt that they tested positive. They were both asymptomatic carriers.
“There was no way they could have known,” Mai later said. “They took all the precautions in order to protect themselves and protect [the grandparents].”
Any relief Mai may have felt at not being the cause of the grandfather’s illness was offset by having to place the burden on them.
“That feeling is now on my aunt and uncle,” she reported. “I think they were very, very shocked. I don’t think they even knew there was an outbreak at the plant where they worked.”
This was May 3, two weeks after the first news reports of workers testing positive at the Smithfield plant in Crete.
The numbers got to where the company had been poised to shut down the plant on April 28, when President Trump issued an executive order requiring meat-processing plants to remain open.
“Grandpa, you have to make it through! I graduate next weekend!”
— Vy Mai
That was the same day the grandfather fell ill, but Mai had not made a connection. Neither had the uncle and aunt. They had been taking some personal time off from work. And language proved to be all the more a barrier when the news is filled with conflicting reports such as can confuse anyone.
“They don’t speak very good English,” Mai said. “How are they supposed to figure out things that are very hard for everyone to figure out?”
Even a native speaker might think that when the president says plants must stay open that means they are safe and when he calls meat plant workers essential he is also saying that their lives and the lives of their families are valued.
The grandfather’s condition was worsening when a nurse arranged for Mai to speak to him via FaceTime. He appeared to be unconscious and she will never be sure if he could hear her.
“Grandpa, you have to make it through! I graduate next weekend!”
As May 4 turned into May 5, the grandfather was pronounced dead. Mai took to Facebook with her grief and received a surprising outpouring of sympathetic messages from workers at Smithfield and others who were aware of the outbreak there.
Mai saw something online tagged to Smithfield’s Instagram account. She went to the page and saw images and catchy phrases meant to convey the company’s supposed care for its workers. She wrote a message of her own.
“Hi. Both my aunt and uncle work for you in Crete, Ne. They both tested positive for COVID and passed it on to my grandmother and grandfather who never left the house. My grandfather lost his battle last night after fighting for his life for a week. I want you to know he died in the hospital alone, isolated and scared.”
She went on , “I want to know what excuse you have for not shutting down a plant with 50+ confirmed cases. And most importantly, I want you to see him as a person who has been affected by this and not just another statistic of your carelessness.”
Smithfield responded with what Mai took to be a hollow “cut-and-paste.”
“We are deeply sorry for your loss,” the company wrote. “Please know we are thinking of you and your family during this difficult time. As a Smithfield Family, we ache at the devastation wrought by COVID-19. Both as individuals and a company, we are deeply saddened by the passing of every one of the tens of thousands of people who have succumbed to COVID-19.”
The exchange and Mai’s tale inspired a moving column in the Lincoln Journal Star.
The grandfather might still be alive and ready to attend Mai’s delayed graduation if there had been contact tracing and testing such as the experts say is needed to control the spread of the virus.
The White House staff and their families would be as COVID-19-ridden as the workers and their families at a meat-packing plant were it not for the testing that Trump says he does not like. Also vital is clear and accurate information, no matter what language they speak, especially in an industry where a great many of the workers are immigrants.
Back on April 23, around the time Mai’s uncle and aunt were likely unknowingly infecting her grandfather, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts spoke about a Tyson meat-packing plant in Dakota County. The billionaire’s son warned of “civil unrest” if the food supply chain was disrupted. He tried to say that the workplace was only part of the problem.
“Well, we see people concentrated together,” said Ricketts. “And that’s certainly true with our food processors where you have people together. But it can also be true in households if you have multiple generations of people living together, or a lot of people living in a household.”
Ricketts was following the lead of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who had remarked on Fox News about a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls where 783 workers had tested positive. The count among family members was around 200. Noem offered some Trumpian math.
“Ninety-nine percent of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility,” she said, adding that the problem was “more at home, where these employees were going home and spreading some of the virus because a lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the community, the same building, sometimes in the same apartment.”
The proportion is roughly the same down at the Smithfield plant in Nebraska where Mai’s uncle and aunt work. The latest stats there are 139 confirmed cases among workers, maybe a dozen among family members.
But there may be no more numbers from Nebraska. Ricketts cited “privacy” concerns when he decreed this week that the state will no longer be reporting COVID-19 counts from meat-processing plants. Local health officials who have until now been issued the count in Crete did not respond to a request for comments. Nor did Ricketts or Smithfield.
So, we will have no idea where the count stands in the days ahead when Mai figures her uncle and aunt will return to the plant.
“A lot of the workers at Smithfield are immigrants and this is their only form of income,” she said. “They can’t afford not to work. They can’t get a job anywhere else.”
“It’s really not just about Smithfield. It’s about all these plants. It’s how they are treating their workers.”
She noted, “They keep telling them that they’re essential workers.”
But from what Mai can tell the workers are being treated less as essential than as expendable. She was told via Facebook that one plant had installed a worker to check temperatures at the entrance
“The person taking the temperature tested positive,” Mai reported.