‘We are not invincible’: COVID-19 victims in Georgia skew younger each wave

New analysis finds the delta variant was a transition point in which younger Georgians fell victim to COVID-19
Candles line the wall before a memorial service for Kyle Gregory on July 24. He is one of nearly 5,000 Georgia residents who had died of COVID-19 by July 2020. The state's death toll has now surpassed 30,000. Photo: Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Candles line the wall before a memorial service for Kyle Gregory on July 24. He is one of nearly 5,000 Georgia residents who had died of COVID-19 by July 2020. The state's death toll has now surpassed 30,000. Photo: Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At the start of every day at school, Rashida Clayborn Kimmons stood outside her pre-K classroom at S. L. Mason Elementary School in Valdosta and doled out encouraging advice and daily affirmations.

Today is going to be a great day. Please look out for your classmates who may need a little help today. You are loved.

When Kimmons was sickened with the coronavirus last August, friends, family and co-workers fully expected the wife, mother and pre-k paraprofessional to recover. She was only 40 years old. But her condition quickly worsened and she died at a local hospital on Aug. 19, 2021.

As the delta variant raged across Georgia last summer, many patients flooding into hospitals were young like Kimmons — well under 50. The variant marked a stark shift from the early days of the pandemic when victims were primarily over 65 and often had pre-existing health conditions that put them at greater risk. An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of death certificates of 28,650 people who died in Georgia from COVID-19 from February 2020 to mid-January 2022 found victims skewed younger during the delta wave.

In fact, 52% of all Georgia’s COVID victims under 50 died during the three peak months of the delta variant.

In comparison, only 26% of people 50 and over who died of COVID in Georgia died during that same timeframe.

Public health experts noted the trend at the time as the virus turned more deadly for younger people last summer. They cite a likely combination of factors, including lower vaccination rates among younger adults and the rise of a more contagious and more virulent variant resulting in younger people getting hit harder with COVID.

Many mask-wearing ordinances began to fall away before delta emerged. And younger and middle-aged people were slow to take the vaccine, leaving them at higher risk than the older population, which was well-vaccinated by then, experts said.

“I think we can tie this to less robust vaccine compliance among people under the age of 50,” said Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a public health researcher who has been tracking Georgia’s cases. “Maybe they think they’re invincible or they don’t think that this will kill them, and also with their higher rates of exposure. I think both things have to do with it.”

And, younger people are more likely to be “front-line workers,” holding jobs considered essential and requiring in-person work, such as being a health care worker, grocery store employee or a beloved teacher like Kimmons.

“She was a ray of light,” said close friend, Cera Sampson, whose younger daughter, Rylee, attends the elementary school. “She would do anything to help her students. She would make sure they had breakfast, made sure they got to class.”

“Now when I drive to the school to drop off my daughter Rylee, I’ll have this moment where it makes me fall back into a sad place,” said Sampson about Kimmons. “You ask yourself: Why? Why her? There’s not a day people could forget her because she left a mark on so many people.”

Rashida Clayborn Kimmons, a pre-K paraprofessional died last August of COVID-19. She was 40.

Credit: contr

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Credit: contr

Delta was different

A random day early in the delta wave illustrates the toll the virus began to take on younger Georgians.

On Aug 1, as delta deaths began to spike, 36 people in Georgia died of COVID. Eleven of them were under 50. They included a 17-year-old high school student from Douglasville and a funeral service apprentice near Savannah who was 32. A 44-year-old pianist from Heard County and a 32-year-old foster parent from Burke County died. Mothers and fathers, neighbors.

Over two years, more than 31,000 Georgians have died from COVID, and the United States is on track to cross the milestone of 1 million dead from COVID in the coming days.

The AJC’s data analysis of death certificates found COVID victims skewed younger as the pandemic progressed. The median age of a victim during the first year of the pandemic, 2020, never dropped below 70 years old. However, the median age of those dying from the virus fell to 65 during August and September.

The delta variant accounted for the majority of cases in June, and then deaths began to climb in what became the fourth “peak” in coronavirus cases, which didn’t fall back until November.

Deaths tend to lag a rise in cases by two to three weeks because of the time it takes for people to become seriously ill, and there’s no deadline for when death certificates must be sent to the state. Because of those delays, death certificate data obtained on COVID deaths by the AJC are incomplete and can’t be used to draw conclusions on the average age of those who died during the fifth surge of the omicron variant.

Throughout the pandemic, older populations have overwhelmingly been the most at risk. Death certificates show people 50 and older account for 91% of Georgia’s coronavirus victims, and the death rate for Georgians older than 80 has been 2,864 per 100,000. For Georgians younger than 50, it’s only been 36 per 100,000.

From December 2020 to February 2021, a few more than 1,000 people younger than 50 died of COVID. Delta would nearly triple that figure.

More than 2,800 Georgians younger than 50 died from August to October 2021, despite the total number of COVID deaths in Georgia only increasing by 3% compared to the prior winter. Deaths among people 50 and older decreased 23% during that time.

“It was clear that delta stood out,” Schmidtke said, referring to younger COVID victims. “...There needs to be a recognition among those who are under the age of 50 that we’re not quite made of rubber. We are not invincible against this threat.”

The number of children and teenagers falling victim to COVID starkly increased by the time delta became the dominant strain. Only 20 Georgians younger than 20 died of COVID before August, but 29 would die during the subsequent three months.

Something else happened with the delta variant: more people who were fully vaccinated became sick with “breakthrough” infections.

Researchers found the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccines against delta variant infections was 93% a month after the second dose and fell to 53% after four months, according to an observational study published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet in October 2021. Researchers said that even though protection against infection falls over several months — meaning vaccinated people may still catch the virus — vaccines continue to be effective at keeping people out of the hospital.

“Follow the guidelines, especially if you’re immunocompromised and you’re at a higher risk, still wear your mask and get your booster,” Dr. Dominic Mack, Professor of Family Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine, said. “And if you don’t fit those categories and you’re healthy, I would still advise to use your best judgement. Get vaccinated and look at the numbers. There’s still a threat.”

‘Too young. Way too young.’

Last August, Chris Bachelor, a well-liked school resource officer with the Hall County Sheriff’s Department, died from COVID. Also sickened during the delta wave, Bachelor fought the illness for about a month and died at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Only 42, Bachelor was married and father to an 11-year-old daughter.

Assigned to C.W. Davis Middle School in Flowery Branch, Bachelor was known for his kind heart, easy smile, and having an ability to connect with students. In a getting to know your officer video posted on the Hall County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page, Bachelor said he wanted to be more than an officer at the school.

“I want to be a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, or just hang out,” said Bachelor.

He also joked about donuts.

“That’s probably the thing I get asked the most. ‘Do cops like donuts?,’” he said with a laugh. “Yes. Who don’t like donuts?”

Rebecca Massey of Flowery Branch was impressed with the care and concern from Bachelor after her son was bullied at the school.

“From that point on after my son was bullied, he would check on my son, always making sure he was doing OK. He gave me his cell number. He really, really cared about the kids,” said Massey. “...We were absolutely crushed when we heard what happened. It was heart-breaking. He was too young. Way too young.”

Next month, deputies with the Hall County Sheriff’s Department will travel to Washington D.C., where Bachelor’s name will be carved into the limestone walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, a memorial that features two curving, 304-foot-long blue-gray walls.

His name will be among the 619 officers’ names carved into the memorial wall. More than half of the officers being added to the memorial died of COVID, according to a spokesman for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

And next month, the names of 44 officers from Georgia will be added, including 31 who died from COVID during the pandemic. Many of those fallen officers, like Bachelor, were younger than 50.

Health experts worry new, emerging variants combined with lackluster vaccination rates could cause history to repeat itself, striking hard at younger ages.

Schmidtke said the vaccines were first delivered to older adults, and elderly populations have maintained their protection, getting boosters as they were made available. The most recent decision on March 29 was to allow anyone 50 and over to take a second booster — which means a fourth shot.

Younger adults have continued to lag, despite the looming threats of new variants and the mounting death toll.

When delta cases were increasing last summer, Georgians who were 50 and older were twice as likely to be fully vaccinated, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data. By November, 77% of people 50 and older had been fully vaccinated compared to only 47% of people ages 10 through 49.

Omicron and BA.2 are more contagious than earlier versions of the virus but, in most cases, appear to cause more mild illnesses. Younger adults who are unvaccinated remain at increased risk of serious illness but so do older adults with waning immunity from vaccination and have not yet gotten a booster dose. Only about 22% of Georgians are fully vaccinated and boosted.

Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, said the uptick in BA.2 cases in northern states is concerning.

“Things are quieter, and I hope and pray we don’t see another surge. But we’ve certainly had premature celebrations in the past. It’s the old adage prepare for the worst and hope for the best. And we need to do a lot more with the tools we have,” said Heiman.