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This Bronx Grandmother Died Alone in Her NYCHA Apartment. The City Refused to Test Her for COVID

84-year-old Dorothy Widman died in May in her apartment in the Bronx River Houses.
Dorothy Widman, 84, died in May in her apartment in the Bronx River Houses.
Courtesy of the Widman Family

After Dorothy Widman died alone in her apartment in a Bronx public housing development in May as the pandemic’s first wave ebbed, her family wanted to know whether COVID-19 was to blame.

They never got an answer. City medical examiner officials rejected their request to perform a post-mortem test on the 84-year-old Bronx River Houses resident, saying they didn’t do that for people who died alone at home.

The family now believes Widman may be one of the uncounted victims of the pandemic — particularly after THE CITY reported that the public housing development where their matriarch lived and died had a COVID infection rate higher than the then-citywide average.

Widman’s case raises new questions about whether more New York City residents may have succumbed to the coronavirus — and been left out of the city’s official tally, which stood at 24,305 as of Thursday afternoon.

For Widman’s family, the pain of not knowing lingers more than six months later.

“I am absolutely heartbroken about my mother,” said Birdean Clinton-Hoskins, one of Widman’s daughters.

She said she repeatedly asked the medical examiner to determine whether her mother had the virus.

“They said ‘We don’t test anybody who died at home,” Clinton-Hoskins recalled. “I said, ‘You didn’t test for COVID? You didn’t give her an autopsy? So you don’t know if she died from COVID or not?’ We’re just trying to figure out, how the hell did she get sick?”

The medical examiner listed the immediate cause of Widman’s death as “old age.”

Shortage of Tests

Last March through May, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) took the position that because of a shortage of testing supplies, officials simply could not test people who died at home alone.

According to Aja Worthy-Davis, an OCME spokesperson, the medical examiner only performs post-mortem COVID testing on individuals who die at home “when it is necessary to complete our medical investigation.”

“When the fatality rate was higher and more testing also became available, we tested every decedent who came into our office,” she added.

She noted that the medical examiner currently only performs post-mortem testing for COVID-19 if the person had a “relevant” prior medical history.

Worthy-Davis noted there are “no plans at this time for OCME to do retrospective testing” for COVID-19. She did not respond to THE CITY’s question about the OCME’s protocol when a family requests a post-mortem COVID test.

Not all deaths believed to be COVID-related involved people who had been tested. At NYCHA, for instance, city health department data states that 298 deaths of tenants in March through mid-May were listed as “probable” COVID.

None of these individuals had been tested for the virus.

‘It was a Sad Situation’

Widman died on May 19, a day after the city Department of Health released data outlining the scope of COVID-19 infection and related deaths in city public housing.

All told, the health department data showed that between March 1 and May 11 — at the height of the first wave — 7,818 NYCHA tenants tested positive citywide and 1,241 who died were either COVID-positive or presumed COVID-positive.

An analysis of that data in October by THE CITY found that 47 of the authority’s 302 developments registered levels of COVID infection above what was then the citywide rate of 2.9%. Among those developments: the Bronx River Houses in Soundview.

A building for seniors in the Bronx River Houses saw a spike in deaths during the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Dec. 2, 2020.
The Bronx River Houses saw a spike in deaths during the coronavirus outbreak.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Located next to a rusting railway catenary abandoned in the 1940s and just south of the perennially clogged Cross Bronx Expressway, the Bronx River Houses is home to 3,200 tenants in two developments: 1,246 original apartments dating to 1951 and 226 seniors-only “Bronx River Addition” units that opened in 1966.

During the spring, 101 tenants living in the original Bronx River Houses tested positive, for a rate of 3.4%. Some 21 who died either tested positive or were deemed likely COVID victims.

Another 11 tenants in the seniors-only buildings tested positive, an infection rate of 4.7%. During that time, city health officials recorded no COVID-related deaths there.

Norma Saunders, the tenant association president of the Bronx River Houses, shudders when recalling the havoc unleashed by the virus across the development last spring.

“When it first started, the most vulnerable was our seniors and that’s where most of the deaths occurred. It was a sad situation,” said Saunders, 52. “Every other day we was finding that someone had passed away.”

‘People Were on Edge’

At the height of the crisis, she was summoned to the apartment of an elderly man who hadn’t responded to phone calls. When the building manager opened the door, Saunders discovered the man dead, alone in his apartment.

Saunders said she doesn’t know whether he died of COVID because, like Widman, he was not tested.

“We don’t know if it’s COVID. It could have been,” she said. “It was very stressful here at Bronx River. A lot of people were on edge.”

Among them was Dorothy Widman.

The octogenarian grandmother remained all but cloistered inside her second-floor Bronx River apartment, rarely venturing out and interacting with as few people as possible, her daughter recalled.

Widman had lived in the Bronx River Houses for nearly 50 years, raising four children there while working as a security matron at Alexander’s department store in Midtown.

She served on the tenant patrol and on multiple committees planning events for the neighborhood. She attended nearby Mount Carmel Baptist Church.

The Bronx River Houses was her community.

“She would not leave,” Clinton-Hoskins recalled. “She did not want to leave. She raised her children there. She had her memories there.”

‘She was Terrified’

While the virus took its toll elsewhere in the development, Widman showed no signs of illness — until May 18, her daughter said.

“She was fine one day and then she threw up blood,” said Clinton-Hoskins, who tried to convince her mother to go to nearby Montefiore Hospital.

Her mother — fearing the presence of the pathogen at the medical center — refused to go.

“She was terrified,” Clinton-Hoskins said.

Widman’s other daughter, Belinda Young-Douglass, stayed in the apartment with her mother that night. She left the next morning to go to work in Queens, and the sisters then tried to arrange for a doctor to visit.

At 8 p.m., Clinton-Hoskins called to check in and her mother said she was okay.

She called again an hour later and got no answer.

At midnight, Young-Douglass arrived and opened the door. She found her mother unresponsive on the living room couch. The ambulance arrived shortly after but it was too late, Clinton-Hoskins said.

“They worked on her for a little while but she didn’t make it,” she said. “I just had that nagging feeling that something caused my mom to die quickly like that. People don’t just die like that.”

‘I Never Go Outside’

The citywide rates of COVID infections and hospitalizations in New York City have been on the rise since the beginning of the month, with health officials warning that the approaching colder weather will likely drive those ominous statistics even higher.

As of this week, the Bronx River Houses sat inside a state-restricted “yellow zone” due to a spike in COVID-infections in much of the South Bronx.

For the moment, the situation at Bronx River Houses has quieted significantly since last spring. Saunders said she no longer hears about residents dying of the coronavirus, and during a recent visit by THE CITY hardly anyone ventured outside the buildings during the day.

1440 Bronx River Ave. was part of a cluster of coronavirus outbreaks in the public housing complex, Dec. 2, 2020.
The Bronx River Houses
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Asked about the presence of COVID there, one tenant exiting a Bronx River Addition building responded, “I have no idea. I never go outside. This is the first time I’m outside in a week.”

But for Saunders, the battle has hit home again.

Last week, she said, she tested positive for the virus and is now suffering with a plethora of symptoms, including difficulty breathing.

Saunders is quarantining in her apartment with her 18-year-old son, who leaves meals outside her bedroom door and communicates via FaceTime. She carefully scrubs down the bathroom that they share every time she uses it.

“He tested negative. He has asthma, so I have to make sure that he stays away from me,” she said.

Saunders added a warning to those who don’t take the virus seriously

“This virus? I’d rather have twins natural birth than to go through this,” she said. “The body aches? These symptoms? Jesus, Mary.”

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