Vaccinated Henry County teacher who died of COVID-19 loved education, family

The family of Walter Kearse -- wife Quinyonia LaShea Kearse and children (left to right) Katlynn, Kayla and Anderson.
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The family of Walter Kearse -- wife Quinyonia LaShea Kearse and children (left to right) Katlynn, Kayla and Anderson.

In June, Walter Kearse developed a cough that he couldn’t shake and figured it was just the pollen that accompanies changing seasons.

“We just thought it was seasonal allergies,” his wife Quinyonia LaShea Kearse said Friday. “It’s something our whole family suffers with.”

After trying over-the-counter remedies, the cough persisted and Walter Kearse, a coach at Luella Middle School in Henry County, went to the doctor. And then again and again.

Each time, Kearse, who was vaccinated against the coronavirus, took a COVID-19 test — three in all.

Negative, negative, negative.

By late July, doctors said he had bronchitis. But no medicine helped and he ended up in the emergency room on July 30, with doctor’s saying he now had pneumonia and would need to be admitted. They tested him again for COVID-19.

This time, the result was positive.

Kearse, 36, died August 13, one of a growing number of so-called breakthrough cases among people vaccinated against the disease but infected nonetheless as the highly infectious delta variant ravages the country.

“Please man, take care of y’all selves,” he said in a Facebook video posted Aug. 3 from a bed at Piedmont Fayette Hospital. In the post an oxygen tube is strapped to his nose and his voice is labored as he tries to speak.

“This thing is not fun,” he said. “It is not easy. COVID is real y’all. It’s real.”

‘Moving in the right direction’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that while breakthrough cases can result in death, it does not happen often statistically. According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, of the 4.9 million people in the state that were fully vaccinated as of Aug. 10, about 13,332 have tested positive.

Among that group, 198 have been hospitalized and 105 have died.

Harder to discern is how many overall breakthrough cases the nation is dealing with, said Dr. Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. Those numbers were not tracked for a long time and are just now starting to get the attention they deserve.

“The data shows that if a vaccine can provide on the order of 95% protection from a serious or life-threatening illness, that’s a very high level of protection,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean there is not risk.”

Kearse was a diabetic and had high blood pressure, his wife said. However, he had changed his diet and increased exercise and was no longer receiving insulin injections. He also had switched to a lower dosage of high blood pressure medication.

“He was moving in the right direction as far as his health is concerned,” she said. “He did have a kidney issue that we were dealing with where he was losing a lot of protein in his urine. That was the focus of our concerns.”

Mrs. Kearse said she and their children have tested negative throughout the duration of his illness and hospitalization. Their oldest daughter, Katlynn, 12, has been vaccination. Their other children -- Kayla, 7, and Anderson, 4, -- are not yet eligible.

Hundreds posted condolences to Kearse’s wife on her Facebook page, offering prayers and memories.

“I am so very sorry to hear about Walter,” Emily Holzman, a counselor for the district wrote on the page. “He was such a great guy. He always had a greeting and a smile at work….even on the extra tough days.”

Educator and minister

Walter Kearse grew up in Macon and was working as a janitor at a head start program in 2005 when he fell in love with teaching, his wife said.

“After we met, he said: ‘I want to do more,’” Quinyonia Kearse said.

He enrolled in Liberty University and became a substitute teacher in Macon. In 2012, he and his wife moved to Atlanta and he began working as a paraprofessional in Henry County.

Quinyonia, who also is an educator, is a chorus teacher at Luella High School.

In addition to his educational ambitions — he received his bachelor’s degree in education in 2016 — Walter Kearse became an ordained minister, his wife said. He had enrolled at Mercer University to earn a master’s in divinity and would have begun classes Monday.

“This was the year to do that,” she said, adding that he also planned to get a master’s in education after finishing his divinity studies.

Walter Kearse also was adding on to his responsibilities as assistant track and basketball coach at Luella Middle, becoming a graduation coach this academic year.

Spoiled with love

Quinyonia Kearse said there are many things she’ll miss about her husband. He was an avid fan of the New England Patriots, though he was warming to the idea of supporting the Atlanta Falcons — if for no other reason than to create harmony in their household, she said.

“He actually had more Falcons paraphernalia than Patriots paraphernalia, but that’s because he wanted to keep the peace,” said Quinyonia Kearse, an Atlanta native.

She said she’ll miss harmonizing with him as they both sang around the house, and coming home to find him asleep in front of the TV, watching ‘90s sitcoms, such as “Martin,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and “The Jamie Foxx Show.”

But most of all she’ll miss a man who loved his children. Whenever their children achieved a goal, he rewarded them with a treat, including mozzarella sticks or a slushy.

“We would always kid with each other which one of us spoiled the kids the most,” she said. “We really spoiled them equally.”

And she’ll miss the man who even in his darkest hour was thinking of others, she said. The video he posted to Facebook pleading with others to take the coronavirus seriously was the man she loved.

“That final video he posted was an example of his care for his neighbor,” she said. “That’s who he was.”