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‘COVID doesn’t care about your age’: Georgia’s virus deaths soar

Rachel Pinkerton lights candles before a memorial service for Kyle Gregory at Brookwood High School on Friday evening July 24, 2020. Gregory, who died from COVID-19, played football at Brookwood and then went to Georgia Southern University. Pinkerton was a classmate at both schools. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Rachel Pinkerton lights candles before a memorial service for Kyle Gregory at Brookwood High School on Friday evening July 24, 2020. Gregory, who died from COVID-19, played football at Brookwood and then went to Georgia Southern University. Pinkerton was a classmate at both schools. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

'We’re seeing what happens when you don’t manage a pandemic,” says one critic of state's loose mandates.

For as far back as she can remember, Amber Gregory said she and her brother Kyle were close.

Cherished home videos show Kyle, just two years older than his sister, helping Amber learn to walk. Kyle always seemed to know how to make people feel better, his sister said, whether with a joke, or his bright smile.

When Kyle started feeling sick a few days after July Fourth, his parents urged the former Brookwood High School offensive lineman to come home to Gwinnett County from Warner Robins, where he’d found his dream job in electrical engineering. But his sister said Kyle, who was waiting on results of a coronavirus test, didn’t want to risk exposing his family.

Kyle Gregory checked himself into the hospital July 13 and was later diagnosed with pneumonia and COVID-19. Doctors tried Remdesivir, oxygen and blood plasma and were on the verge of placing him on a ventilator when he went into cardiac arrest, his sister said. Gregory died July 19. He was 24.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

“COVID doesn’t care about your age or what demographic you are,” Amber Gregory said.

Gregory is one of about 3,500 Georgians who have died so far from the coronavirus.

Amid a sustained spike in new cases and hospitalizations in Georgia, health experts have been guarding for the inevitable rise in deaths. That rise, those experts said, appears to have arrived.

Kyle Gregory, seen here at Georgia Southern in May of 2019, was a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).
Kyle Gregory, seen here at Georgia Southern in May of 2019, was a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Credit: Courtesy of Amber Gregory

Credit: Courtesy of Amber Gregory

Georgia reported 327 deaths in the seven days ended Saturday, a weekly record, and an increase of 90% from the week of July 12.

The rolling seven-day average of daily reported deaths bottomed out July 3 at 12, but has since nearly quadrupled, hitting a new high of 47 on Saturday.

African Americans, like Gregory, account for about a third of Georgia’s population, but about half of all deaths, reflecting the disproportionate impact of the virus on minority communities. The poor, minorities and elderly are more likely to have pre-existing conditions that worsen COVID-19.

The overwhelming majority of deaths are from people 50 and older. As of Saturday, people under 50 accounted for 230 or about 7% of coronavirus deaths in Georgia.

There’s a predictable and grim pattern to the coronavirus, health experts say.

“If cases go up, hospitalizations go up and deaths go up,” Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, director of the Prevent Epidemics Team at the global health initiative Resolve to Save Lives, said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “The amount they go up varies on things like age of those infected and co-morbidities. But the trend is up, up, up. It’s never up, up, down.”

Trend: ‘Going up'

The latest spike in cases started in young adults. Though young adults are less likely to die, young people do die and can get very sick from the virus. And experts warn the virus easily spreads into older and more vulnerable populations.

It took about 16 weeks from the first reported case of COVID-19 for Georgia to reach 75,000 cases. The state doubled that figure in about four weeks.

Robert Bednarczyk, an assistant professor of global health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, said Georgia has lost the sense of control over the virus it thought it had in May and early June.

Abby Self, left, and  Dakota Palmisano attend a memorial service for Kyle Gregory at Brookwood High School on Friday evening July 24, 2020. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Abby Self, left, and Dakota Palmisano attend a memorial service for Kyle Gregory at Brookwood High School on Friday evening July 24, 2020. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

“I’m worried as we move forward that trend is going to keep going up,” he said.

On Sunday, the state reported 2,765 new cases, and 167,953 cases to date. That followed a new daily high in cases reported Friday with 4,813, which accompanied a new high in testing. Testing has increased, but the percentage of positive tests has outpaced growth in testing, a signal of substantial community spread.

Georgia is one of nearly two dozen states designated as having “uncontrolled spread” by the non-partisan COVID Exit Strategy, as measured by rate of new cases.

The growth in cases, hospitalizations and deaths nationally is most pronounced in the South and West.

The latest spike in COVID-19 cases started in young adults.

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Georgia was one of the last states to enact a shelter-in-place order and one of the more aggressive states in reopening its economy, despite not fully meeting White House gating criteria at the time.

Arizona, California, Florida and Texas are among the other states to see significant spikes in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Those four states each put some new restrictions on businesses, and states like Arkansas and Alabama recently mandated masks. Arizona has seen cases and hospitalizations plateau, though they remain elevated.

ExploreNew COVID-19 cases push hospitals to capacity

Before the July Fourth holiday weekend, and as cases were climbing, more than 1,400 medical professionals signed an open letter to Gov. Brian Kemp calling for a mask mandate and to close bars, nightclubs and indoor dining. They also urged Kemp to allow local governments to enact tougher restrictions.

Kemp has consistently urged Georgians to wear face coverings but has resisted a mask mandate as “a bridge to far.” Kemp extended earlier emergency orders capping large groups and ordering the medically fragile to remain at home. But that order expires Friday.

He also sued the city of Atlanta for rolling back its reopening plan and for mandating masks, steps his office said were prohibited because they were more stringent than his statewide orders.

A judge ordered the city and state into mediation.

“We’re seeing what happens when you don’t manage a pandemic,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. “You see increased cases, increased hospitalizations and increased deaths.”

The Kemp administration did not respond to a request for comment on the surge in deaths.

A solemn goodbye

Amber Gregory said her family doesn’t know how her brother contracted the virus.

He was out with friends July Fourth weekend, but she said her brother told her another person at his work also contracted the virus, Amber Gregory said. Her brother said his symptoms started with a tickle in his throat a few days after Independence Day.

Amber Gregory, center, wipes away a tear while helping launch a sky lantern in honor of her brother Kyle Gregory. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Amber Gregory, center, wipes away a tear while helping launch a sky lantern in honor of her brother Kyle Gregory. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Then came a fever, chills, headaches and diarrhea. He got a COVID-19 test and waited for the results. Amber said her brother treated himself with hot tea and some cold medicine, but his condition worsened.

After Gregory checked himself into Houston Medical Center in Warner Robins, his diagnosis was confirmed.

Amber said the family wasn’t able to see Kyle because of COVID-19 protocols. They talked each day via FaceTime. She said her brother was treated with Remdesivir, oxygen, steroids and eventually a plasma treatment.

“It was painful not to be able to see him and not be able to talk to him or hold him,” Amber said.

ExploreGeorgia coronavirus cases spike among young adults as virus surges

The day before he died, Kyle said he was feeling a little better. But Kyle’s condition worsened. The doctors tried to put him on a ventilator but he went into cardiac arrest and died. The family says they were unaware of any pre-existing condition.

Since her brother’s death, Amber Gregory said one of the most frustrating things to see is people walking around without social distancing or wearing masks.

On Friday, the Brookwood High community, friends and relatives held a candlelight vigil for Gregory outside the school.

Gregory played on the offensive line for the Broncos and graduated in 2014. He earned a degree from Georgia Southern University in May 2019.

Friends remembered his bellowing laugh and quick smile. They lamented that he wouldn’t be present for milestones like weddings, the birth of children and reunions.

The crowd of more than 100 wore masks and tried to keep their distance from one another. Fist and elbow bumps replaced hugs. The passed microphone was wiped down with disinfectant between each speaker.

“Even though he may be gone, I feel like he showed us what a true friend, what true friendship, looks like,” said friend and former classmate Casimir Isles.