Georgia closes in on 5,000 coronavirus deaths

Candles line the wall before a memorial service for Kyle Gregory on July 24. He is one of nearly 5,000 Georgia residents who have died of coronavirus. 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 have died of coronavirus. Photo: Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

James Holmes spent a lifetime in public service.

A Chatham County Commissioner since 2005, Holmes previously worked for 35 years at the Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club in his hometown of Savannah, serving as its longtime youth sports director.

“Nurses, doctors, lawyers, CEOs – all of them stay in touch,” Holmes’ wife, Yvonne, said of kids turned adults whom Holmes mentored. “They still call him ‘Coach.’”

Coach Holmes started feeling sick at the end of July and tested positive for COVID-19. He entered a Savannah hospital after developing high fever, severe cough and shortness of breath. On Aug. 17, after more than two weeks at Memorial Health University Medical Center and days on a ventilator Holmes died. He was 82.

Holmes is one of 4,998 people in Georgia who had died from COVID-19 as of Friday, according to state public health data. Georgia will likely surpass 5,000 COVID-19 deaths Saturday, when Holmes is laid to rest.

UPDATE: Georgia passes 5,000 deaths from the coronavirus

Nearly 175,000 people have succumbed to the coronavirus in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University, the most of any other nation. Georgia, the eighth most populous state, ranks 10th in overall coronavirus deaths.

So far this year, COVID-19 has killed more Georgians than suicide, septicemia (bacterial blood poisoning) and kidney disease combined killed in all of 2017, the latest full year of available death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heart disease and cancer kill more Georgians each year than any other condition. In just about six months of the pandemic in Georgia, COVID-19 deaths would rank third.

‘He’s not coming home'

Yvonne Holmes rushed her husband to Memorial because his blood-oxygen rate had crashed. At reception, she had to say goodbye as they took Coach Holmes to isolation.

James Holmes was a Chatham County Commissioner since 2005 and planned to retire at the end of the year. He died Monday after being hospitalized with the coronavirus more than two weeks ago. He was 82.

Credit: File Photo

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Credit: File Photo

“I talked to him the Sunday before he passed and he was so short of breath,” she said. “I told him not to talk. He told me, ‘Be strong for me.’”

The hardest part was not being able to see her husband of 38 years after he entered the hospital, Holmes said.

“The second hardest part is getting adjusted to the fact he’s not coming home anymore,” she said. “I don’t have my friend anymore to sit in the swing and sit in the sun in the morning time.”

‘Exposes all the cracks'

COVID-19′s pain has been most acutely felt among the poor, in communities of color and among the elderly, who are more likely to have pre-existing conditions that worsen COVID-19.

Black residents make up about a third of Georgia’s population but account for about 44% the state’s coronavirus deaths.

Though people 50 and younger make up two-thirds of Georgia’s nearly 250,000 confirmed cases, people older than 50 make up more than nine out of 10 deaths. At least three COVID dead were children.

More than 2,000 of the dead ― roughly 40% ― have been residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Though populous Atlanta-area counties like Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett have reported the most deaths, on a per capita basis, poor and rural counties like Hancock, Randolph, Early and Terrell have some of the highest rates of death in the nation.

The virus has exposed longstanding inequities of health care access and health care outcomes between whites and minorities, rich and poor, experts said.

“A pandemic is really going to expose all the cracks in our system,” Robert Bednarczyk, an assistant professor of global health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, said in an interview earlier this month.

‘Layers on layers of grief'

People started dying from COVID-19 in rural Hancock County in April. There was a trickle of deaths at first. But the pace picked up in May.

So far, 37 have died there. Most succumbed at the two nursing homes in Sparta, the county seat.

Home to about 8,500 residents, Hancock now has the highest death rate per 100,000 residents in the nation, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.

As Hancock’s coroner and as a funeral director, Adrick Ingram is witnessing the devastation up close. This is what he sees written on the faces of mourners: Bewilderment. They are stunned, he said, by how quickly their loved ones are dying.

“Sometimes, you have people who have driven themselves to the hospital to get tested because they think something is wrong or they feel like something is wrong and they never come home,” said Ingram, who owns Dawson’s Mortuary in nearby Warrenton.

Then death comes “out of the blue,” he said. “It’s like a double whammy.”

Hancock residents, he added, have grown fearful of contracting the disease in the county, which has limited access to health care. Hancock Memorial Hospital closed in 2001.

“It has caused people to panic ― to be fearful of so much of the unknown,” he said.

It’s personal for Ingram, who has led funeral services for many of the Hancock residents who have died from COVID-19. He knew all of them, some since he was a child.

“It’s a lot,” he said. “It’s layers on layers of grief.”

White House urges Georgia to do more

Georgia was one of the last states to order residents to shelter-in-place in early April and one of the most aggressive to reopen.

Georgia reported week-over-week case increases in nine out of 10 weeks from early May through mid-July, peaking the week of July 12, according to an AJC analysis of state data.

Hospitalizations and deaths followed.

Georgia reached 3,000 deaths on July 12, surpassed 4,000 deaths on Aug. 6 and is knocking on the door of 5,000 deaths a little more than two weeks later.

As measured by date of death, Georgia’s deadliest day is now Aug. 7, with 65 confirmed coronavirus deaths.

“Our family prays daily for COVID-19 victims and their loved ones,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement Friday. “This is a terrible virus and it must be stopped. To win the war against coronavirus, we need every Georgian to do their part: wear a mask, watch your distance, and wash your hands.”

Though cases and hospitalizations have declined since the peak in mid-July, health experts and the White House Coronavirus Task Force have urged the state to do more to stem the tide of cases. This includes a statewide mask mandate and closing bars and gyms in the highest-risk communities.

“I’m happy to acknowledge small movements in an improved direction, but it does not take away from the severity of the crisis,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health.

Kemp has resisted a statewide mask order, though his most recent emergency decree allows local governments to enact a mask mandate on public property. Businesses can opt in to allow enforcement on private property.

In a statement, Kemp said, “we also urge all local leaders to enforce the current Executive Order, including the large gatherings ban and shelter in place order for the medically fragile. Together, we will protect the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians.”

‘Anybody can be hit with this'

But survival and death aren’t the only outcomes. For some, the disease lives on through prolonged fatigue. Others have heart conditions and damage to the kidneys, lungs and brain.

Teresa Sardine, 62, of Fayetteville, tested positive in July.

Initially, Sardine suffered from a cough and a fever. Her body hurt so bad that it felt as if someone were pulling her hair whenever she touched her head. An asthmatic, she struggled to breath. Sardine dialed 911. An ambulance took her to Piedmont Fayette Hospital, where she was given medication and sent home.

Coronavirus survivor Teresa Sardine, center, with her sons, Jason, left, and Gary. Family photo

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Sardine’s condition worsened to the point where she could no longer walk down her stairs. She returned to the hospital and was diagnosed with pneumonia and COVID-19. During her second night at the hospital, Sardine worried she would die. She prayed God would heal her.

“Everything went through my head: Did I finish my will? What about my insurance? Are my kids going to be OK? Am I going to see my grandchildren again? Are they going to put me on a ventilator?” she said. “And my anxiety went out the roof.”

In all, she was hospitalized for five days. But COVID-19 still reverberates in her life today. Worried she will contract the disease again, Sardine takes sedatives for her anxiety and sleeplessness.

“Anybody can be hit with this,” she said. “It’s real. It has happened. I survived it. But not everybody does survive it.”