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A Nurse Lost Both Her Unvaccinated Parents To Covid. She Still Won’t Get The Shot

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A nurse who lost both her parents to Covid-19 says she does not regret their decision not to get the vaccine, but that she resents judgment from friends asking why they didn’t get the shot: “Some people make us feel like it’s our fault they’re gone.”

Michael Lejong fully intended to get vaccinated for Covid-19, his wife said, standing in the pavilion that the prominent architect designed for his hometown.

But he was relatively young, very healthy, and not overly concerned about the virus. He wanted to get his shots separately from his wife, so he could care for her if she had adverse side effects. She got hers immediately in April and he put him off.

In late June, he began feeling sick and tested positive for Covid-19. A week of mild symptoms turned into extreme fatigue. On July 3, he was admitted to a nearby hospital with low oxygen levels; on the 15th, doctors put him on a ventilator. He died four days later.

The death of the 49-year-old Greenwood native, father of two, community leader, mountain biker, and outdoorsman, has rattled this western Arkansas town, where it seems like nearly everyone knew Mr. Lejong. It comes amid a spate of other recent deaths and skyrocketing hospitalizations in a region where many are deeply skeptical of the Covid-19 vaccines, and doctors and political leaders are trying everything to persuade a reluctant populace to take them.

“It’s personal now because he knew so many people,” said his widow, Katie Lejong. “Before, it was happening somewhere else.”

Nearly every corner of Greenwood, population 9,000, bears some mark of Mr. Lejong. The stone and glass pavilion and amphitheater that look like the product of a much larger city. The new fire station, designed to blend into a residential neighborhood. The police station. The columned high school freshman center. The lakeside bike trails that Mr. Lejong painstakingly designed and tested himself repeatedly on his bike. The sign welcoming visitors to the city and the stonework surrounding a veterans’ memorial in the town square. While the architect-designed projects worth tens of millions of dollars around the state and country, much of the work he did for his hometown was as a volunteer, its leaders said.

“I see all this recognition and I just miss my friend,” said Tammy Briley, the city parks director, as she recalled kayaking recently past a $42 million art studio Mr. Lejong’s firm has underway at the University of Arkansas. “I would call him all the time with all these questions, and he made me feel as important as all those national people.”

Sebastian County, which includes Greenwood and the much larger city of Fort Smith, has had 292 Covid-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic and currently has an estimated 737 cases, according to the state department of health, and has been adding about 73 new cases each day. The state overall has been adding more than 2,800 new cases daily and has more than 1,000 patients in hospitals, near the previous high level in January. Deaths, a lagging indicator, has been averaging more than 20 a day, and the percentage of Covid-19 tests returning positive results hit an all-time high last month.

The county had less than 36% of residents 12 and older fully immunized as of last week, compared with 42% in Arkansas overall and 50% in the U.S. overall.

With the Delta variant spreading, today’s Covid-19 isn’t the Covid-19 of last year, Lee Johnson told a roomful of local officials and members of the public at a Greenwood City Council meeting one recent evening. Arkansas hospitalizations for Covid-19 have risen nearly fourfold in just over a month, he told them.

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