Maria and Lorenzo Vinuya
Lorenzo Vinuya shows a photograph of his late wife Maria, who died on April 18 of Covid-19-related complications. He said they called the government’s Covid-19 hotline for 10 days without getting a test. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

When Deputy Premier Carvin Malone announced on April 16 that a patient at Dr. Orlando Smith Hospital had tested positive locally for Covid-19, he implied that she had waited too long to report her illness.

“I understand that the person was showing all the symptoms from before, but, you know, because of whatever reason they didn’t present themselves earlier,” Mr. Malone told the House of Assembly, suggesting that the patient likely had contracted the virus before the ongoing lockdown started 12 days earlier. “Nonetheless, we have a duty to protect all of us by each of us doing what is required.”

Soon after his announcement, social media messages began circulating that identified the woman as Filipino and viciously attacked her and the larger Filipino community.

But Mr. Malone’s account was inaccurate, according to the woman’s widower.

In fact, Maria Vinuya and her husband Lorenzo had been requesting tests from the Covid-19 hotline for more than 10 days by the time she was admitted to the hospital the day before Mr. Malone’s announcement, Mr. Vinuya told the Beacon.

She had also visited the hospital four days earlier with severe breathing difficulties, but after blood tests and an x-ray she was diagnosed with a likely case of asthma and sent home without being tested for Covid-19, he said.

When she died of Covid-19-related complications early in the morning of April 18, Mr. Vinuya received the news by phone while he was alone in quarantine at the Paradise Suites Hotel in Road Town.

He fainted, and he doesn’t remember much of what happened next. But when he came to, he faced obstacles that he said exacerbated his grief.

In the weeks after his wife’s death, he was not allowed to view her body or to accompany it to the airport for its flight to a St. Croix crematory, he said, adding that he received conflicting information about these decisions from a funeral director and government leaders. He still doesn’t know where she was embalmed, and hospital officials told him they accidentally threw away her cell phone after promising for several days to provide it, he added.

Health officials have maintained that they followed protocol in handling and investigating the case, and Mr. Malone told the Beacon that he never intended to blame Ms. Vinuya for her response to her illness.

But the widower said his experience, much of which was confirmed by his late wife’s employer, left him with unanswered questions about whether earlier medical intervention could have saved her life and about how she was treated before and after her death.

“You want a clear answer,” said Mr. Vinuya, who returned to the Philippines last month with his wife’s ashes. “I have it on my heart.”

Working for family

The Vinuyas, who married in 2000 after meeting at a Catholic organisation in the Philippines, came to the Virgin Islands in large part to earn money to provide a better life for their family. Their two sons and daughter — now 19, 14 and 15, respectively — stayed behind in the care of Ms. Vinuya’s sister and mother.

He moved here first, in 2011, and got a job as a technician at BVI Communications. She followed about two years later, and they worked together before moving on to other jobs around 2015: he at Said Electronics and she as a nanny and housekeeper for Ben Bamford, who operates Airbnbs on Tortola.

The Vinuyas lived with five other Filipinos in an apartment in Purcell and pinched pennies to save money for a house they were building in Bulacan, a province near the Philippine capital of Manila.

“When we get married, we are always dreaming to live in a nice house,” the widower said in a June 7 interview before he left the territory.

Vinuyas on cruise ship
Lorenzo and Maria Vinuya pose aboard a cruise ship. (Photo: PROVIDED)

Mr. Vinuya remembers his wife, who had 12 siblings, as a selfless mother who refused to spend money on herself even after he got her a credit card from Scotiabank.

“She never swipe it,” he said. “She don’t want to spend any cents [on herself]. She want to save for our future and my kids and her family. It’s always her family [that is her] concern. Always.”

Mr. Bamford remembered her similarly.

“She looked after us like we were family too. She would bring food when she came, or she would make little bits of artwork,” he said, adding, “She was one of the loveliest people you will ever meet.”

By the start of this year, the Vinuyas’ new home was nearing completion, and they were planning to return to the Philippines by September to move into it with their children and Ms. Vinuya’s mother.

“She was excited to see the house,” the widower said. “She never see it in person. Just the pictures.”

Falling ill

Mr. Vinuya fell ill first. His symptoms started on March 29, four days after government announced the territory’s first two Covid-19 cases and two days in to the first round-the-clock curfew.

“When I wake up Sunday morning, I’m not feeling good, so she give me Paracetamol in the morning,” he said. “And she’s strong, because she’s cooking and everything for everybody in the house.”

Mr. Vinuya said his symptoms — a sore throat and cough — felt like a common cold, but because he had heard warnings about Covid-19 he called a Filipino friend who works as a doctor at the hospital.

The doctor advised him to call the government’s Covid-19 hotline.

“I spoke with the operator and she give me the right person to talk to about my condition, and … she give me the advice to take two Paracetamol every eight hours,” Mr. Vinuya said. “And she told me she would call me back the same day, and she never did.”

The next day, government announced the third confirmed case of Covid-19.

“All three confirmed cases are due to pertinent travel history,” Mr. Malone said at the time. “There is no evidence of local transmission in the British Virgin Islands.”

Early that week, Mr. Vinuya saw two missed calls on his phone that he believes might have come from representatives of the Covid-19 hotline, but the numbers had a foreign area code that he couldn’t call back.

Instead, he called the Filipino doctor, who advised him to continue taking Paracetamol. A few days later, he felt better.

But about a week after his own symptoms had started, his wife developed a fever. The same day — around Sunday, April 5, he said — the Covid-19 hotline called back.

“I tell the Covid team I feel better,” he said. “I tell them I’m okay now, but my wife, she started to have fever.”

No tests

The team advised him to give his wife Paracetamol, and he did. But then she developed a cough, and when he received another call from the Covid-19 team that Monday or Tuesday, he was promised that someone would come to their home to administer a swab test, he said.

No one came, and he grew increasingly frustrated.

“Then Wednesday, I receive a call from them too,” he said. “Then still the same thing. They told me, ‘Okay, I call you back: We need to arrange.’ Again, the same thing.”

In that call, he said, he was asked about the location of his apartment.

“Still, I’m just waiting on what they want,” he said, adding, “It’s like just playing. They not serious; they not studying my situation. I feel that, because I just always calling them.”

In the meantime, he said, his wife’s symptoms were growing worse, with fever, coughing and abnormal breathing.

By Saturday of that week — April 11 — she felt so ill that he got in touch with the emergency hotline, and he was advised to bring her to the hospital. However, because the 24-hour curfew remained in effect, he was afraid to drive her there.

“Because of the lockdown, I am asking still if the police … catch me, what I need to do. They tell me, you need to go the emergency [room],” he said, adding, “They asked me if I have a car, so I tell them, ‘Yeah I have a car.’”

On their instructions, he drove to the hospital, where he and his wife waited outside under a tent for about 40 minutes, he said.

“She asking me, ‘Why it’s too long?’” he said, adding that he urged hospital staff to hurry.

Eventually, Ms. Vinuya was taken inside and treated with a nebuliser that made her feel better. She also received an x-ray and blood tests, and then she was told she likely had asthma, he said.

“I feel happy at the time because the doctor say … the blood and x-ray is normal,” Mr. Vinuya said, adding that she was prescribed Paracetamol and an antibiotic.

However, she wasn’t tested for Covid-19, and no one explained why not, he said.

Hospital Covid tent
Lorenzo Vinuya said he and his wife Maria waited for about 40 minutes underneath a tent during their first visit to the Dr. Orlando Smith Hospital on April 11. She was diagnosed with likely asthma and sent home without a Covid-19 test. Four days later, they returned to the hospital. That time, she was admitted, and she tested positive for the virus. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)
‘Give me the nebuliser’

The next day, a Sunday following seven days of symptoms, Ms. Vinuya had bad diarrhoea. Her husband urged her to return to the hospital for fear of dehydration, but she drank lots of tea and said she felt better.

Meanwhile, her breathing problems continued, and on Tuesday, April 14, he got a prescription from a Filipino doctor for a nebuliser.

“She feel better when she take the nebuliser,” he said.

That night, however, she woke up around 3 a.m. struggling to breathe.

“I wake up because the bed start to shake,” he said, adding, “She told me, ‘Give me the nebuliser.’”

The device helped, but by 8 a.m. she was struggling to breathe again. He didn’t call the Covid-19 hotline that day because by then he felt it was a “waste of time.”

“It’s more than a week, they not respond; they not go by the house,” he said, adding, “They not offer anything. They not studying [us]. They abandon totally. That’s my feeling at the time; that’s why I never call them [that day].”

Instead, he decided to take his wife back to the hospital after speaking again to the Filipino doctor. But she was reluctant.

“She don’t want to go to the hospital, because she told me, ‘When you send me to the hospital, then you cannot go inside. I’m not comfortable without you,’” he said.

To convince her, he made a promise that haunts him to this day: He said he would urge the doctors to allow him to accompany her.

“That’s why she agree,” he said. “Then we make a decision to [take] her.”

This time they didn’t have to wait long at the hospital. In spite of his requests, he was not permitted to accompany her, but a nurse soon told him that she needed to be admitted, in part because her body was deprived of oxygen — a common symptom in serious Covid-19 cases.

“I agree with that, of course, because for sure they take care of my wife good, because, you know, that’s a hospital,” Mr. Vinuya said, adding, “My heart is happy, relieved.”

At the nurse’s request, he went home and brought his wife some clothes and her cell phone.

Optimistic report

As Ms. Vinuya lay in the hospital that Wednesday, VI leaders delivered an optimistic report to the public on the territory’s Covid-19 response.

During one of their regular Facebook sessions, they touted the ongoing lockdown as a success even though it had been widely criticised at the start of the month when large crowds descended on supermarkets across the territory.

“Thankfully, since this 14-day 24-hour curfew was instituted, and the ongoing testing, there have been no new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the BVI,” Premier Andrew Fahie announced, adding that leaders had seen “no evidence” of community spread of the virus. “For this we can only say to God be all the glory!”

Because of this success, he added, Cabinet had decided that the full lockdown would be eased to a night-time-only curfew in three days’ time, and many types of business would be permitted to resume operations under a “phased reopening” of the economy.

premier on April 15
As Ms. Vinuya lay in the hospital on April 15, Premier Andrew Fahie delivers an optimistic update on the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown as Governor Gus Jaspert and Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone look on. (Photo: PROVIDED)
‘You promised’

Throughout that day, Mr. Vinuya still wasn’t allowed into the hospital to see his wife, but he called her from home around 7 p.m. She was upset.

“She told me, ‘You promised you come inside to assist me,’” he recalled. “Then I explained to her, ‘They [didn’t allow me]. I try my best to convince the doctor. I really want to come with you, but they not allow me, and now I’m fighting with the nurse.’”

But she was implacable.

“She told me, ‘I’m not feeling comfortable here,’” he added. “That’s the words she told me. She’s not comfortable. Then I tell her, ‘No, you’re supposed to feel better. That’s the hospital; they take care of you there.’ Then she hung it up.”

At around midnight, a nurse helped him speak to her again by phone using an intercom system, and she was more optimistic.

“I just only tell her I love her and [she] need to be strong. ‘Soon you come out,’ I tell her on the intercom,” he said, adding, “The nurse told me she heard what I’m saying and then she was talking, but I cannot hear on the line. But the nurse hear it and told me [that she said], ‘Don’t worry, I’m okay.’”

The next day — Thursday, April 16 — Mr. Vinuya received a call from the Covid-19 testing team.

“Finally, they make a decision to come to the house to check me and check all my housemates,” he said, adding, “Around 2 o’clock, they come finally: two doctors.”

In the apartment, they swabbed him and six other people, one of whom was a visitor.

‘Seem to be positive’

The same afternoon, Mr. Malone interrupted other business in the House of Assembly to revise the optimistic picture he and other officials had painted the previous day.

“We have a resident who have finally reported themselves, and she is hospitalised now. She has been locally tested, and the results seem to be positive,” he said, adding, “There are seven [other] persons who we’ve taken swabs from. The initial tests all show negative.”

He added, however, that all the local results would be sent to the Caribbean Public Health Agency in Trinidad for confirmation.

Soon after the announcement, Ms. Vinuya’s photograph began circulating on social media along with angry messages asking why she didn’t report her symptoms earlier. Others criticised the entire Filipino community.

A video also circulated of the testing team visiting the Vinuyas’ apartment in white biohazard suits.

The same day, Mr. Vinuya said, he and his housemates were quarantined at their apartment and told they soon would be moved to the Paradise Suites Hotel in Road Town.

“We need to move because the neighbour catch a video where [health officials] come out of the house wearing [personal protective equipment],” he recalled.

Intensive care

At around 9 a.m. the next morning — Friday, April 17 — Mr. Vinuya called the hospital and learned that his wife had been moved into the intensive care unit, he said.

He was upset, but a doctor helped him see her through a video chat. Filmed through a glass partition, she was unable to speak because she was wearing an oxygen mask, but the doctor told him she understood that he was on the phone.

“She make a wave and she make prayer hands, and, you know, the thumbs-up,” he said. “So I happy.”

She also wrote him a message on a piece of paper: “I’m fighting for family. I love you all.”

Around 5 p.m. that afternoon, Mr. Vinuya and his housemates were moved to the Paradise Suites Hotel, he said.

About two hours later, he called the hospital again and spoke to a doctor who told him that his wife’s oxygen levels were unstable.

But when he called back around midnight, a doctor told him she felt better.

“The oxygen is not a hundred percent good, but she’s stable,” he said, adding, “I feel better when I hear she better.”

At the time, he sent an update to Mr. Bamford.

“We got this message, and we’re all really pleased thinking she was all right,” Mr. Bamford recalled.

Mr. Vinuya fell into a fitful sleep, only to be awakened by his phone a little after 3 a.m.

“When I see the number is the hospital, my heart start — I’m telling you,” he said.  “I don’t want to answer it, you know, because I feel something bad.”

He was right.

“She told me directly: ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry: Your wife, she died,’” he said. “That’s the word I get. After that, I don’t know what’s happening. I want to shout. I can’t breathe, and I feel I’m dying.”

In a panic, he called the hospital back.

“‘I need help, I need help’ — that’s the words I said,” he recalled.

The person on the phone instructed him to take deep breaths.

“But after that, I don’t know what’s happening,” he said.

Later he learned that he had fainted. He woke in the hospital, shaking and discombobulated, but he remembers grabbing a nurse’s hand.

“I need to see her,” he begged. “I need to see my wife.”

In spite of his pleas, he wasn’t permitted to see her body.

Lockdown extended

As Mr. Vinuya was struggling to process his wife’s death, government leaders were walking back their previous plan to end the ongoing lockdown.

“The information received so far indicates to us that it would be in the territory’s best interest to extend the curfew period while efforts continue to track and contain possible chains of transmission,” Mr. Malone said hours after Ms. Vinuya’s death. “I will bring you a further update on the health outlook as soon as we receive the test results from CARPHA and a situation update from our surveillance teams.”

The tracking effort, he added, was facing challenges in spite of efforts to quarantine the entire apartment building where the Vinuyas lived.

“We are aware that a number of persons residing in the compound have since left,” Mr. Malone said. “We implore them to call the medical hotline so that we can effectively have these persons examined and/or questioned so that we can determine status.”

Mr. Malone also speculated that Ms. Vinuya’s result did not indicate community spread of Covid-19.

“All indication shows that this was a person who came into contact from an overseas source,” he said, even though Ms. Vinuya hadn’t travelled in recent months and her husband had fallen ill before she did.

Governor Gus Jaspert spoke the same day, providing similar updates and condemning the social media messages circulating about Ms. Vinuya and the Filipino community.

“There should be no stigmatising of any individuals or communities in this territory,” Mr. Jaspert said. “We are only one community — the people of the British Virgin Islands — and we will beat this virus as one community. I deplore some of the social media circulating about the recently confirmed case.”

Confirmed tests

The next day — Sunday, April 19 — officials gave another update. CARPHA had confirmed Ms. Vinuya’s positive result, and a sample from one of her contacts had also tested positive after initially testing negative in the VI.

“This brings the total number of positive confirmed cases in the British Virgin Islands to date to five,” Mr. Fahie said, adding that the fifth case was in isolation.

Mr. Vinuya, who was in isolation at the hospital at the time, said this public announcement was how he first learned that his result had come back positive from Trinidad. He received no confirmation from doctors at the time, he added.

Government also announced that instead of the previously planned phased reopening, six days would be added to the 14-day lockdown.

Mr. Vinuya stayed in the hospital through that Sunday night, but he was moved back to the Paradise Suites Hotel the next afternoon, he said.

“Tuesday morning, I received call from the Covid hotline: They told me, ‘You need to move back into the hospital,’” he said. “They gave me PPE and everything and they transferred me to the hospital again.”

He didn’t understand why.

“I didn’t want to make a problem,” he said. “I just followed what they wanted.”

Paradise Suites Hotel
During his period of quarantine, Mr. Vinuya said, he was moved between the hospital and the Paradise Suites Hotel. (File photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)
‘That’s the lesson’

That week, a group of doctors and other hospital staff also met with him via video chat at his request and gave him a chance to ask questions about his wife’s death.

“I’m asking why [my wife was] not admitted [the previous] Saturday,” he said. “That’s one of my questions. One of the doctors answered it: ‘That’s the lesson for the hospital.’ That’s the words I heard: ‘That’s the lesson.’”

The doctors explained technical details that he didn’t understand clearly, he said, but they also told him that she had removed her oxygen mask before her death and medical staff entered her quarantine area to replace it.

“I’m asking, ‘How long she take it out?’” he said. “She told me it’s three to five seconds.”

He asked if the staff members wore personal protective equipment when they entered the isolation room, and was told that they did, he added.

“That’s why I can’t believe three to five seconds,” he said, explaining that he believed it would take longer for the personnel to put on their equipment.

Cell phone thrown away

He also requested his wife’s cell phone, hoping that it might contain more information about her last hours. Initially, he said, a doctor on the Covid-19 team assured him he would get the phone after a period of quarantine.

“‘How long?’ I’m asking. ‘Maybe a week; it depends,’” he recalled. “Then after a few days I’m asking again: ‘I need my wife phone.’”

Eventually, he said, he spoke to BVI Health Services Authority CEO Dr. Ronald Georges about the phone.

“I tell him I really want the phone because I have a lot of memories for my wife on it,” he said. “He said, ‘They give it to you.’”

He never received it, however. Instead, officials’ story began to change, he said: Now, he was informed that they were “investigating.”

After about two weeks, he received a call from a senior nursing officer, who he said told him, “‘Lorenzo, I’m sorry. Your wife’s phone: They throw it [away] by mistake.’ Then I’m asking what happened. … ‘I cannot believe,’ I tell her. ‘I cannot believe.’”

The officer, he said, explained that the phone had been put in a biohazard bag with the rest of her effects and thrown away. BVIHSA acting Risk Manager Ghislaine Olive followed up with a May 27 letter confirming an April 29 phone conversation about the incident and apologising for what she described as the accidental disposal of the phone.

Officials’ response

In a brief phone interview with the Beacon on June 15, Mr. Malone expressed deep regret about the death, and maintained that he never meant to blame Ms. Vinuya for any delay in reporting her symptoms.

“That was not intended to place any aspersion or blame on anyone as to what happened,” he said of his statement announcing her initial positive result. “It was not intended at all, because I can only go based on facts, based on what was actually reported.”

He also said he had been told that health officials followed the proper steps leading up to the death in spite of Mr. Vinuya’s claim that he and his wife had called the hotline for days and visited the hospital without getting a Covid-19 test.

“I am informed that it did follow the protocols,” Mr. Malone said of the response, adding, “Everyone that may have a situation, certain things could have been done differently, but I could not judge it just sitting and saying.”

He added that an investigation was ongoing.

“If the hospital have any occasion in which there is a death, there is a report that is done by the hospital administration, and I think it is only prudent to state that we would have to let that go through the course,” he said, adding, “I have been informed that the protocols were followed and the report will bear it out.”

He also said that not all the details of such incidents are reported to him.

“As a minister of health, there is certain information that comes to me and some that doesn’t,” he explained, adding that Dr. Georges, the BVIHSA CEO, would be able to provide more information.

Dr. Georges declined to give an interview by phone or in person, but he answered questions by email and WhatsApp.

Asked if the investigation was ongoing and if more information would be released to the public, Dr. Georges responded, “The cause of death is indicated on the death certificate.  This is already a public document and was necessary for the body to be released.”

Ms. Vinuya’s certificate, a standard document filed after every death in the territory, lists three causes of death: respiratory failure; acute respiratory distress syndrome; and Covid-19-related pneumonia.

The CEO also said that no protocols had changed as a result of her death, but he declined to comment on whether any terminations, transfers or other staffing decisions had resulted, citing employee confidentiality rules.

He declined to answer questions about why Ms. Vinuya hadn’t been tested earlier.

“I cannot comment with respect to a client’s medical condition or treatment,” he wrote. “This will be a breach of client confidentiality and also a breach of several local laws.”

Dr. Georges added that no complaint had been made to the “risk manager in the quality department.”

Funeral arrangements

Even before Mr. Vinuya was released from quarantine on May 8, he had to begin making difficult decisions about funeral arrangements for his wife.

As in other countries around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic had been creating complications. Here, funeral restrictions during the lockdown meant there was already a backlog of bodies by mid-April.

“We’ve had numerous deaths during the lockdown,” Davis Funeral Home owner Dr. Robert Wright told 284 Media in an April 15 interview, adding, “The hospital morgue is full. We will be working this week to relieve them of some bodies and embalming them, but after we take the next batch of bodies, we’re full. So it’s safe to say that something has to be done, but it will be done under the guidelines and protocols established.”

By that time, the Dr. Orlando Smith Hospital already had launched its standard “mass fatality plan,” according to Dr. Georges.

“It was anticipated that during lockdown burials would not be allowed, and anticipated delays in processing of the coroner’s cases would lead to an increase in the requirement for storage of bodies in excess of the capacity of the 12 spaces at the morgue,” Dr. Georges explained in an email. “This plan involves supplementing the existing morgue capacity with refrigerated containers kept at the same temperature as the morgue and presents no specific challenge to the storage of bodies.”

Before the lockdown began, he explained, a 20-foot refrigerated container was set up at the hospital with a capacity to hold 10 to 15 bodies. It was maintained at “standard morgue temperatures,” and used “almost immediately” because of the funeral prohibition during the lockdown, he added.

Makeshift morgue
A refrigerated container next to the former Peebles Hospital was used to store bodies during the pandemic lockdown in keeping with the territory’s 2014 mass fatality plan, according to BVI Health Services Authority CEO Dr. Ronald Georges. The hospital’s morgue has space for a dozen bodies, and the container adds space to safely store 10 to 15 more, he said. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)
WHO guidelines

In addition to the backlog, Ms. Vinuya’s body presented additional challenges because she died with an infectious disease.

The World Health Organisation has released guidelines for handling the body of a Covid-19 patient, and many countries have struggled to comply with such rules.

As VI officials navigated such challenges, Mr. Vinuya met with Dr. Wright on May 12 at the Davis Funeral Home, which he paid the same week, he said.

He left the meeting with understanding that he would be allowed to view his wife’s body and to accompany it to the airport before it was flown to St. Croix for cremation the following week, he said.

“He told me, ‘You need to buy the clothes for her,’” Mr. Vinuya added.

When he dropped off her clothes and accessories the following Monday, May 18, he was told she would be flown out the following day, he said.

But Dr. Wright also told him then that the government had decided that he wouldn’t be permitted to view the body after all, he said.

“It breaks my heart again,” Mr. Vinuya said.

To find out more information, he said, he called Mr. Malone, who is also the minister of health and social development.

“He not give me answer,” he said.

Soon, however, Mr. Malone called back and told him that it was the funeral home, not the government, which had decided he wouldn’t be permitted to see the body, according to the widower.

For Mr. Vinuya, the confusion was frustrating.

“I want to fully, a hundred percent, [know in] my heart that’s my wife’s ashes,” he said. “It’s [my only] concern, right? That’s why I really want to see her.”

The WHO guidelines permit family members to view a Covid-19 body while using “standard precautions at all times,” but prohibit allowing them to touch or kiss it.

“The dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout,” the guidelines state, adding, “Authorities should manage each situation on a case-by-case basis, balancing the rights of the family, the need to investigate the cause of death, and the risks of exposure to infection.”

Dr. Georges wrote that hospital policy requires sealing a Covid-19-infected body immediately after death.

“We do not open the bags after they are sealed,” he explained.

However, he added that the hospital doesn’t employ morticians or funeral directors.

“Once the body is no longer in the possession of the hospital, … it is not subject to the policies of the hospital,” he wrote, though he did not disclose when the body was released. “I cannot speak to what the funeral home did with the body after taking possession of it.”

Photograph questions

After being told he couldn’t see the body, Mr. Vinuya asked Dr. Wright to take a photo of it in the clothes he provided, and the funeral director agreed, he said.

The widower also reiterated his request to accompany the body to the airport.

“I want to follow from the hospital to the airport,” he said. “Just I want to see the box; it’s only that [which is] my concern.”

But the next day, he recalled, Dr. Wright provided inaccurate information about the time of departure, causing him to miss the trip.

Dr. Wright declined to be interviewed by phone or in person, but he agreed to answer questions by email.

“While there is a large part of me that wants to disregard Mr. Vinuya’s sad and inaccurate account of his experience, I will provide limited answers to the false picture presented,” he wrote.

The funeral director, though, did concede that he chose not to allow Mr. Vinuya to accompany the body to the airport.

“When Maria Vinuya was removed from the hospital, someone told Mr. Vinuya that his wife had left the hospital and he began to call me, and showed up at Davis Funeral Home long before our opening hours, demanding to, as he put it, ‘Hug and kiss her,’” Dr. Wright wrote. “I took into account his actions and his emotional state and I made the decision to send the body off without telling him. I alone made that choice and I stand by it. In front of me was a man who just got out of quarantine with Covid-19 demanding to make physical contact with a Covid-19 body.”

He added that much remains unknown about the virus.

“I did not tell him the departure time of the aircraft, and looking back I would make the same decision again,” Dr. Wright wrote. “Too much is at stake to gamble with lives.”

Mr. Vinuya was hurt by this decision, which he said was not communicated directly. Because he had been unable to view his wife’s body in person, he asked again for a photograph of her in the clothes he provided.

Mr. Bamford also visited Dr. Wright on his behalf.

“I said, you know, ‘One thing [Mr. Vinuya] needs to know is did you take a picture, and can we see the picture?’” Mr. Bamford recalled. “So he said, ‘I’m not going to show Mr. [Vinuya] the picture because he’s going to be too upset.’ I said, ‘Well, show it to me then; [Mr. Vinuya] gives me permission, because all he wants to know is acknowledgement that she is dressed in [the clothes he provided].’”

With Mr. Vinuya’s permission, Dr. Wright showed Mr. Bamford and Mr. Vinuya’s niece a photograph of the body, which Mr. Bamford said wore a mask.

“She was not in a good condition,” he said, adding that she was not wearing the dress provided by Mr. Vinuya. “I said, ‘Well, you know, when can we see the picture of her in her dress?’”

Dr. Wright, they said, responded that he couldn’t provide the photograph because it was stored on a phone that was in the government’s possession.

“Then he started to say there was some problem with the government,” Mr. Bamford recalled. “He said, ‘This is a much bigger thing than you know about.’ I said, ‘I’m not really concerned about the government’s feelings.’ I said, ‘I’m concerned, like [Mr. Vinuya] is, [about whether] there’s a mistake been made. If the storage wasn’t correct, we need to know that, and we can accept that.’”

Dr. Wright did not respond directly to the Beacon’s questions about whether he had said government was in possession of a phone with a photograph, but he defended his actions.

“There was a picture of Maria Vinuya taken and provided to Mr. Vinuya’s niece as I did not think that he was emotionally ready to handle it at that time,” the funeral director wrote. “His recent actions have convinced me that I made the right decision in giving them to her, not to him.”

Asked if Mr. Vinuya would be provided with another photograph in the future, Dr. Wright answered in the negative.

“There will be nothing else provided to Mr. Vinuya,” he wrote. “Everything and anything that was in the area where the Covid-19 body was worked on has been destroyed/burned.”

He added, “I can only conclude by stating that every effort was made to get this man and his family much needed closure. I sleep good at night knowing that all was done for the good of the family, my business and the country.”

Questions remain

But for Messrs. Vinuya and Bamford, questions remain.

Given the condition of the body in the photograph Mr. Bamford saw, they still wonder whether or not the remains had been stored properly.

Dr. Wright referred questions concerning storage to hospital officials, stating that the body was never in his funeral home. Dr. Georges said he knows of no storage problems either in the refrigerated container or in the indoor morgue, and he believes that all bodies were properly preserved. The morgue, he said, carefully documents the bodies leaving its possession and requires anyone collecting them to sign and acknowledge their condition.

“There are also temperature logs that record the temperatures to ensure that bodies are stored at the correct temperature,” he said.

Mr. Vinuya, though, also said he was never told where the body had been embalmed. On that subject, he explained, Dr. Wright told him only that the body was never in the funeral home and that it hadn’t been embalmed at the hospital.

“They embalm her, but it’s not inside the hospital,” Mr. Vinuya said. “It’s someplace in this island.”

Dr. Wright provided the Beacon with a similar account, writing that his staff embalmed the body to international standards as required by law before shipping it abroad, but that it “has never in any way, shape, form or fashion been inside Davis Funeral Home.”

However, he declined to say where the embalming took place.

Asked if the hospital embalms bodies, Dr. Georges responded, “Embalming is not a medical procedure and so is a private-sector funeral home activity.”

The WHO guidelines recommend against embalming a Covid-19 body. But this advice likely presented a problem in the VI: There is no crematory here, but a body can’t be shipped abroad without being embalmed.

Mr. Vinuya said he would like more information, and that he still wants to see the photograph of his wife’s body in the dress he provided.

“When they show me the [photo] with the dress, a hundred percent I get closure,” he said. “For sure I get closure to my heart. But I don’t know why they don’t give the photos.”

Missing ashes

His problems continued after his wife was cremated in St. Croix. Initially, her ashes were scheduled to arrive to Tortola by ferry on Friday, May 22, he said, but they were delayed until the following Wednesday.

On that day, he drove to the Road Town ferry terminal, where he met a worker from the funeral home. After the contents of the ferry were unloaded, he said, he was told the ashes hadn’t been found.

“When I hear that they not find it, I start shaking,” he said, adding, “I’m still silent. I don’t want any bad words to come out of my mouth. I just want to relax. I hope I get it. I pray I get it.”

The funeral home worker complained to port officials, who called St. Thomas to confirm that the ashes had been placed on the boat, he explained.

“They say they put it,” Mr. Vinuya said.

ashes blessing
A priest blesses Maria Vinuya’s ashes during a ceremony at the St. William’s Catholic Church. (Photo: PROVIDED)

Eventually, he recalled, a customs officer said she would go look in the ferry. She got in a car, drove away, and returned a few minutes later with a box that contained ashes in a plastic bag.

What transpired in between, he said, remains a mystery.

“That’s a big question,” he said. “It’s a big, big question to me now.”

Nevertheless, he believes the ashes to be his wife’s, and he took them to the St. William’s Catholic Church, where the priest blessed them in a ceremony.

“When I received the ashes, I feel that’s her ashes,” he said.

After his return to the Philippines, he was quarantined while he waited eagerly to reunite with his children. In the meantime, he said, he still feels his wife’s presence daily.

“I still talking with her,” he said, adding, “Sometimes if I’m not asleep then I just hug the ashes. … Then I get to sleep.”