A grieving family in Trump country is fighting to prevent more Covid-19 deaths
When she died, the condolences — and praise for Bunjes — poured in.
“May Bunjes was nothing short of a saint on this earth,” the local Habitat for Humanity organization, where Bunjes had volunteered for decades, wrote to the family. “And her impact in the world will live on forever.”
Now, her family is asking the community — and the country — to pay it forward by taking measures to stop the spread of Covid-19.
But Greeley is the seat of Weld County, where leaders and officials aren’t enforcing the governor’s coronavirus mandates, even as the state recently elevated the county to the state’s second-highest level of Covid-19 risk.
The county is now in the red tier, which bans or limits a number of activities, including limiting restaurants to takeout or delivery only, bans all indoor seated events and entertainment, and lowers last call for bars to 8 p.m. The two-week Covid-19 test positivity rate in the county was more than 15% on December 8, according to county data. Of the county’s 324,492 residents, at least 16,745 have been confirmed infected with the virus.
The Weld County Commission said it would not enforce any of the state’s mandates.
“The state’s decision to move Weld County into the red portion of the dial does not change the stance of the Weld County Board of Commissioners with regard to enforcement of the state’s mandates,” the board said in a statement November 20, a day after Bunjes died.
“Instead, county government continues to do what it has done since March, which is promote and encourage residents and business owners to take individual responsibility and make decisions to protect themselves, their families, their community and their businesses.”
The Weld County Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly said the mandate should be enforced by the health department. “There’s been a lot of noise in the news and on social media about a lack of enforcement here in Weld County of the governor’s executive order mandating face masks,” the sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post. “We have said throughout this pandemic that as a law enforcement agency we don’t have the authority to enforce a public health order.”
Bunjes loved volunteering
All of that is infuriating to Bunjes’ family, who say the county’s leaders aren’t setting a good example and are “almost goading their citizens to not comply with what seemed to be very simple, relatively simple restrictions,” said Jeanette Strumpf, one of two of Bunjes’ daughters.
It would make May Bunjes angry, too, Strumpf said.
Bunjes worked for more than two decades as a court appointed special advocate for abused children. “She was passionate about that,” Strumpf said.
Bunjes loved to sing and root for the Denver Broncos. But she loved nothing more than her community and volunteering. She volunteered for the American Cancer Society, and every year, she and her husband, Fred, dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Claus for disadvantaged children.
“What you saw was what you got, and what you saw was love and light all the time, and we are blessed to have her in our lives,” Strumpf said of her mother.
Bunjes was at high risk
Bunjes had suffered from asthma for years, then pulmonary fibrosis, which led to a dual lung transplant.
“And she came home, and one of the first things she said was, ‘I can’t wait to get back to volunteering,'” Strumpf said.
Her mother would even deliver Meals on Wheels while carrying around her oxygen tank in the car.
But her health issues meant Bunjes was at high risk of severe complications if she caught the virus, and she became sick with Covid-19 at the end of October.
As the disease worsened, the family decided to fly her to Phoenix for specialized treatment where she had received the lung transplant, even though her health insurance wouldn’t pay for it.
“She’s that important,” Strumpf said. “Not just to us, but she was that important to this community.”
Final goodbye via a video call
Strumpf went to Phoenix and was allowed to visit her mother, dressed in full protective equipment, for 30 minutes a day.
Her mother was afraid, asking at one point, “Am I going to die?” Strumpf recalled, crying. “And I said, Mom, no, you’re like this fighter, you defy the odds all the time, and you’re not going to die.”
The doctors and nurses did all they could to save Bunjes, but her organs began shutting down.
Strumpf was with her mother when she died. The rest of the family had to say goodbye on a Facebook video call.
“It’s horrible to sit there and watch my Mom gasp for air as she was dying,” Strumpf said. “And when they took out that tube, it’s horrible. And we couldn’t do anything for her. She had perfect, beautiful new lungs and this monster virus killed her.”
Fred Bunjes said he told his wife he loved her in that final video call, adding “I want you to come home, but it never happened.”
The family has started an initiative called “Mask up for May,” trying to get people to wear masks in the hope it will help save lives and prevent others from experiencing the pain of losing a loved one.
The family members have been lifelong Republicans in a conservative area, and feel let down by the lack of leadership during the pandemic. President Donald Trump carried Weld County with almost 58% of the vote, according to the county’s election website, and the Bunjes family feels that the county’s disregard for masks and other measures is a reflection of the President’s lack of leadership on the issue. Trump said many times during the campaign that the virus would disappear after November 3, suggesting it was a ploy by Democrats.
“Oh, our own president saying, the day after the election that the coronavirus would disappear. Well, guess what, Mr. President, my mom died 15 days after your election and it didn’t disappear,” Strumpf said.
“It didn’t go away. It’s not going away. It’s not a joke. My mom died 16 days after your flippant remarks, and I am devastated.