Cheryl and Corrina Thinn were almost joined at the hip. The sisters, both members of the Navajo Nation, shared an office at Tuba City Regional Health Care in Arizona. Cheryl conducted reviews to make sure patients were receiving adequate care. Corrina was a social worker. Their desks were just inches apart.
They lived together with their mother, Mary Thinn. They helped raise each other’s children.
And they died weeks apart, at ages 40 and 44, after falling ill with Covid-19.
Lynette Goldtooth, a co-worker and close friend, can’t go near their workspace, afraid she may break down.
“I used to sit in Cheryl’s chair. Corrina and I would just start talking, catch up on what we did during our time off, laugh and joke,” Goldtooth said.
Cheryl and Corrina are among hundreds of frontline healthcare workers who have died of Covid-19. The Guardian and KHN are investigating more than 1,000 of these workers’ deaths in the Lost on the Frontline project.
The Navajo Nation was ravaged by Covid-19 this spring. In May, it reported the highest per-capita infection rate in the United States. The sisters are among nearly 500 members of the reservation who have died of the virus, according to the Navajo department of health.
Experts attributed the spread to the prevalence of multigenerational housing and poor sanitation infrastructure – many homes lack running water. Like medical centers across the country, local hospitals across the Navajo Nation experienced shortages of personal protective gear.
In early March, Corrina saw a patient who was later discovered to have had Covid-19, her sister Chris said. The patient died, and Corrina, who hadn’t been using protective equipment, developed symptoms a few days later.
The sisters’ employer declined to comment for this story.
Corrina’s first concern was for Cheryl, who started showing symptoms of the virus around the same time that she did. Cheryl’s job as a utilization review technician required face-to-face interaction with patients to verify their insurance and discuss workers’ compensation. She had underlying health conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis.
Chris called Cheryl on her 40th birthday, on 19 March. Cheryl joked about how, as the baby of the four siblings, she was “still young and pretty”. But she also complained that it was difficult for her to breathe. She was admitted to the Tuba City hospital the next day.
Corrina’s condition worsened as well, and she checked herself into the emergency room at Tuba City on 21 March. Hospital staff tried assisted-breathing treatments on her, to no avail.
Cheryl was airlifted to Flagstaff medical center on 24 March. She never knew that Corrina was briefly in the hospital with her.
Corrina was airlifted to Banner Thunderbird medical center in Glendale later that night.
“She just messaged us saying she was going to get flown out, that she loves us and that she was going to be back,” Chris said.
It was the last time she spoke with Corrina.
Because of shortages, the sisters weren’t tested for Covid-19 until they were transferred out of Tuba City. They both tested positive and were then intubated at their respective hospitals. Cheryl died on 11 April, and no family members were allowed to be with her.
“I couldn’t even hold my baby,” her mother said. “I couldn’t even hold her hand when she passed.”
The family had a small service before burying Cheryl next to their late father, Sgt Jimmie Thinn Sr of the Navajo police, and Cheryl’s ex-husband, who died in January.
Numbed by the pain of Cheryl’s death, the family shifted their focus to Corrina.
“You tell yourself that we just need to get her healthy enough to come home,” Chris said. “And then all of the sudden, she’s gone.”
Corrina died on 29 April – 18 days after her sister’s death and two weeks after her birthday, which she spent on a ventilator. Although she was unconscious, her nurse sang Happy Birthday.
Corrina’s oldest son, Gary Werito Jr, had tried for weeks to take leave from his Fort Bliss army post in El Paso, Texas. His superiors declined his requests out of concerns he might contract the virus while on leave.
Werito tried to reach her through prayer.
“I was telling her, ‘Mom, you’re going to get through this. You’re going to come home. You’re going to meet your granddaughter,’” he said.
Werito and his wife were expecting their second child, Corrina’s first granddaughter.
Werito remembers his mother as a “model Navajo”.
Goldtooth, the sisters’ friend and colleague, said Corrina was particularly effective because she spoke English and Navajo fluently.
“A lot of people aren’t fluent in Navajo any more,” she said. “When elderly people would come [to the hospital], they don’t speak a lot of English. She was there to talk with them.”
Cheryl was more soft-spoken than her sister. Mary remembers her as empathetic and insightful. Her siblings often sought her advice.
Both sisters left behind young sons. Corrina’s son Michael is 14, and Cheryl’s son, Kyle, just turned 12. The cousins are keeping each other company, reminding Mary of the way her daughters behaved.
Since June, the Navajo department of health has enforced strict curfews during the week and lockdowns over the weekend. Those measures have been effective, as they’ve seen cases decline over the past two months. Navajo Nation began its first reopening phase in mid-August, allowing most businesses to operate at 25% capacity.
In late July, Werito left the army for good and came home to Tuba City. His daughter was born on 5 August in the same hospital where his mother and aunt worked. Her middle name is Lois, the same as Corrina’s.
Werito said he sometimes forgets his mother is gone and expects her to come home from work.
“My grandmother told me it’s a little peace of mind that I’m home now,” he said. “It kind of fills that void that my mom and my aunt left.”