GLOVERSVILLE — Decked out in blue hospital scrubs and a surgical mask, Denny Darby was one of nine health care workers photographed April 17 for a panel of images encouraging people to stay home to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Just 31 days later, Darby, a 31-year-old certified nursing assistant (CNA) at the Fulton Center nursing home was admitted to Albany Medical Center Hospital after he became gravely ill from COVID-19.
On May 20, he would die from the infection.
The Rev. Bonnie Orth, pastor of the Mayfield Presbyterian Central Church, would encounter Darby when she ministered to congregants residing at Fulton Center and was impressed by the passion and commitment she said he brought to his job.
"I don't think it was just a job for Denny," Orth told CNHI after presiding over Darby's funeral service. "It was a calling. He was obviously called to that position. I know he is going to be really missed by a lot of the residents at Fulton Center and the staff. He was very well loved by everyone. This is so very difficult for his family. But it's also difficult for the residents who counted on him. Somebody like him who really does care is not something you run across all the time."
New York has been the nation's epicenter for the contagion. And the biggest clusters of cases health authorities have had to respond to have been in congregant living facilities — with the nursing homes dominating that category..
Some 6,000 New Yorkers have died at the nursing homes since early March, according to state data, The tally does not include nursing home patients who died after being transported to hospitals.
The state Department of Health, which recently mandated that nursing home workers get tested for coronavirus twice a week, has not been keeping statistics regarding fatalities of health care workers by occupation, according to the state agency.
But those familiar with the kind of work Darby did at Fulton Center said these caregivers have been unsung heroes in the battle against COVID-19.
"They do great work under daunting and trying circumstances," said Richard Mollott, director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a group that advocates for nursing home patients and has recommended the state do more to address understaffing at the state-licensed facilities.
Mollott cited federal data showing nursing-related jobs in residential health care facilities consistently rank among the occupations with the greatest risk for injuries and illnesses.
As a CNA, Darby was one of the workers who regularly fed and bathed the elderly and infirm patients at Fulton Center. Infection risks have long posed hazards at nursing homes but the dangers have been multiplied by COVID-19, easily transmitted when people come in close contact with one another.
Darby worked with some residents who had tested positive for COVID-19, according to his cousin, Elizabeth Duplago, and others interviewed by CNHI.
"He was not going to let his patients lack for care," Duplago said. "He made a promise he was going to go in there every day and take care of those people."
When Darby started as a nursing home worker approximately a decade ago, she said, he probably would have doubted he would have stuck with the occupation for very long. And while it was a low-paying job, he found he got satisfaction for improving the lives of the patients, she said.
"He ended up dying from doing what he loved to do," she said.
According to the Fulton County Department of Public Health, 109 residents at the Fulton Center have tested positive for the virus along with 21 employees, a combination that accounts for more than half of the county's total of 199 infections. According to state data, the death of six Fulton Center patients have been caused by COVID-19.
Darby lived with his companion, Staci Morrison, in Gloversville and became a father figure to her two young sons, Duplago said. He rooted for the New York Yankees and after he died coworkers encouraged each other to wear a Yankees cap or jersey to honor him.
"We are really indebted to these health care workers who have been out there on the front lines," said Michael Burgess, former director of the state Office of Aging.
Societies, he said are judged in part on how they treat people in the twilight of their lives.
"When you see these young people go into the caring professions," Burgess said, "they just don't expect that they, rather than the person they are giving care to, could end up losing their lives taking a risk."
In Gloversville, a small city once home to a leather tannng industry that has largely moved overseas, Darby's death has become a grim reminder that COVID-19 is no longer just a health threat in the New York City region.
"When it hits home like this it becomes reality," said Orth, noting a crowd of mourners stood sobbing outside the funeral home because of virus-driven restrictions.
Nursing home patients and workers face serious risks because usually two residents share a room with staffers going in and out of them.
"Denny followed his heart by doing what he loved doing," the pastor said. "And, boy, we need that in this country now because we have so many folks in nursing homes who really need loving care."
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org