Two years of COVID: How Georgians have been impacted in ways large and small

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jamaalriya Parker, 22, stood ready at the Viral Solutions site in Marietta one day earlier this month, COVID-19 testing tools in hand for whoever might come next.

The omicron surge was ebbing, and traffic was slow. Not like the days when 700, even 900 cars came through, and customers got out of hand when she had to pause for lunch.

After two years surviving the pandemic’s roller coaster, Parker has now become a fixture in it, a steady guide in one small piece of the storm. “I thought, OK, if I’m so tired of COVID, why not find a job that I can at least help?”

The pandemic has dramatically changed Parker’s life, and millions of other Georgians’ lives, in ways unimaginable before the state’s first two cases of coronavirus were announced on March 2, 2020.

More than 2.5 million times since then, Parker and other Georgia test workers have swabbed someone who turned out positive for the virus. Those cases, and the fear of more, have sewn tumult and transformation across the state. The dead — close to 30,000 in Georgia alone — lived in every corner, every county.

Some COVID-19 survivors have been left with debilitating health problems and many others have lost jobs or businesses. Even those who didn’t suffer severe loss have endured the isolation of lockdowns and social distancing. Young people lost rituals.

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People have adapted, too. Many have become more flexible, more able to come to terms with uncertainty. Some embraced new ways of life they never considered before.

And now, where they thought at some point the pandemic would simply end, they’re coming to grips with something more complicated.

Among Parker’s and the Marietta crew’s customers on the day she spoke to the AJC were others who talked about how the last two years have shifted the course of their lives, sometimes in ways unseen.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Into the fire

“It’s just really a weird, bittersweet thing,” said Parker, of the pandemic, the hardships, and the patients she’s tested for 19 months. “It has made me a stronger person. It has opened new doors for me.”

Two years ago, Parker was a sophomore at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. When COVID-19 hit, the town shut down and she returned home to Atlanta.

Antsy, she decided to join the fray. Her first day as a technician with private testing firm Viral Solutions was August 9, 2020. It was supposed to be her training day, but 900 patients showed up. Five months into the pandemic, Georgia was already facing its second wave of coronavirus, far bigger than the first.

The pandemic waves kept coming, and people kept flocking to test sites. Parker and her fellow Georgia test workers have performed 16.5 million tests.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Day after day, patients’ reactions span the spectrum. Some thank her, and that hits home. “It just makes you feel like, okay, this is worth it, what I’m doing,” she said.

Others boil over. Sometimes lines of waiting cars have stretched for hours through the parking lot and down the street. At day’s end, someone has to go out to the street, choose the cutoff, and tell the drivers outside it the site is closed. They pick a crew member who won’t go soft. If one car pushes in, others behind will follow suit.

ExploreTwo years of the pandemic in Georgia: A COVID-19 timeline

Once as Parker cut off the line, a man “actually told me that he would hit me with his car,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Sir, over a test? Even if you hit me with your vehicle you’re still not going to get tested today. So who wins here, you know?’”

Somewhere in all that, Parker decided that working with patients was for her. She has returned to school here in Georgia to become a nurse.

“My grandma has always told me, ‘If you’re gonna do something you can’t stop. You have to finish it. You never quit.’” Parker said. “So I didn’t go for this until I knew that I was 100% in.”

Losses

Michelle Hlavaty came through the testing line near the end of the day. She was getting tested to prepare for medical procedures. Like much of her extended family — and thousands of Georgians — Hlavaty has an autoimmune disease that requires lifelong attention, and could mean great danger if she were to catch COVID. Vaccination helps, but might not help enough. They’ve been careful.

Hlavaty and her family moved from New York to Atlanta at the moment the pandemic began. They moved to have an easier life, to see family in Florida and North Carolina more often. That never happened.

To this day the Hlavatys wash their vegetables with soap to kill possible virus before putting them in the fridge, and they leave dry groceries and their mail and packages in the garage for a couple days before bringing them inside.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Some relatives tried as hard to avoid coronavirus, but were not as lucky.

In the spring of 2020, many Americans including public health experts assumed the pandemic wouldn’t last a year. For the Hlavatys, the pandemic’s worst has been year two. In 2021 her grandmother and two cousins in their mid-thirties were infected and all hospitalized for weeks. Her grandmother died of the virus in May. Both cousins survived, but still suffer long term effects. One just learned he may have kidney damage.

”No one’s talking about it because I feel like we’re all going through the same thing, losing people left and right,” Hlavaty said. “And we’re all just going about our lives.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Career decisions

Safia Arif was another one getting tested on that day.

Her family hasn’t had deaths or long COVID. They’re all vaccinated. Her toddler son is doing well so far in the pandemic: He spends time with his grandmother every week, and if Arif feels sniffley, as she did that day, she can stop by Parker’s testing site before heading over.

But Arif is a high school English teacher, and is among the one-in-four U.S. teachers who said the pandemic has caused them to consider leaving the profession.

Arif, of Brookhaven, liked her career path. Nothing got her like the moment when her students really grasped what Shakespeare was trying to say. As 2020 began, Arif was pregnant and knew that she would stay home with her new baby for the 2020-21 school year. Then she would return to the work she loved.

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But day by day she heard about all the chaos and anxiety from her friends back in school.

When the 2021-22 school year arrived, Arif didn’t go back as planned. Instead, she tried something new, joining her mom’s mostly work-from-home credit card processing business. In time she found she didn’t like it.

She wouldn’t have learned if she didn’t try. Now, Arif hopes to go back to teaching, maybe next fall.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

‘Not ready to go’

Kenny Atwood was feverish and weak when he joined the short line of cars for a COVID-19 test at the Viral Solutions site in Marietta on a recent afternoon.

When the first coronavirus case was detected in Georgia, Atwood, 58, was recovering at home from grueling treatments for throat cancer. The cancer treatment weakened his immune system, so he stayed isolated.

By late summer of 2020, he returned to his favorite pastime — pickleball, which is played outside and considered one of the safer activities to avoid COVID.

“When you have a cancer diagnosis, your frame of mind is so important,” said Atwood who is retired and who is vaccinated and boosted. “The last thing you want to do is isolate yourself and get depressed. Pickleball was my escape, it was the one thing I could do, take me away from my situation and keep my spirits up.”

But now cancer has spread to other parts of his body and he is undergoing chemotherapy again. Shortly after getting swabbed for COVID-19, Atwood ended up hospitalized for a blood infection. Not COVID.

A few days later, he was back home. When he received his negative COVID test results back, he broke down and cried.

“I felt like a positive result would be a death sentence for someone in my condition. I’m not ready to go just yet,” he said.

“The truth is I got careless by going out to dinner a few times with friends, and someone so immunocompromised like me shouldn’t be taking those risks. I still want to enjoy hanging out with friends, especially with my time being so short. But I need to avoid being careless.”

“It’s a tough balancing act, for all of us really,” he said.