At the start, waves of doubt

Medical Director Hospitalist at Floyd Medical Center, Dr. Daniel Valancius, right, and Radiologist Matthew McClain, MD, left, speak with Josetta Cooke at Floyd Medical Center in Rome earlier this week. In March 2020, Cooke became one of the first diagnosed COVID-19 patients at Floyd Medical Center. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Medical Director Hospitalist at Floyd Medical Center, Dr. Daniel Valancius, right, and Radiologist Matthew McClain, MD, left, speak with Josetta Cooke at Floyd Medical Center in Rome earlier this week. In March 2020, Cooke became one of the first diagnosed COVID-19 patients at Floyd Medical Center. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Doctors recall uncertainty with first case, before deluge overwhelmed them

In late February, Josetta Cooke went to the emergency room at Floyd Medical Center with what seemed like “the worst flu ever.” But the flu test was negative and her chest X-ray looked clear.

Three days later, as she struggled to breathe, her family members had to carry her downstairs from her home in Rockmart and place her in a car to return to the ER.

It wasn’t until Dr. Matthew McClain saw her CT scan that the radiologist knew what they were dealing with.

The hazy, white-flecked pattern, the very unusual round-shaped, ground-glass opacities, the unusual distribution in the lungs. It was almost certainly COVID-19 — one of the first known cases in Georgia. A disease McClain had known only from journals and research at that point.

ExploreReturn to the COVID timeline: A year of loss

McClain called the ER doctor, Dr. Garrett Barnes. “I don’t know the patient’s travel history or what you are seeing in the emergency room, but I am telling you what you are looking at is very likely the coronavirus,” McClain told him.

Cooke had not traveled outside the county, Barnes told him.

“I am not swayed by no travel history because of the picture I am seeing,” McClain replied.

Cooke initially was placed in isolation, in a windowless, bunker-like room in the basement, set aside in case Ebola were to show up.

At first, it seemed highly unlike that Josetta Cooke was sick with the coronavirus because she hadn't traveled outside the country. 
(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
At first, it seemed highly unlike that Josetta Cooke was sick with the coronavirus because she hadn't traveled outside the country. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Dr. Daniel Valancius, director of the medical center’s hospitalist program, thought maybe they were wrong. Maybe Cooke didn’t have COVID-19. Maybe they were overreacting by putting her in a bunker room in the basement.

The state Department of Public Health said she didn’t meet the COVID-19 screening criteria to be tested. But Cooke was very sick, coughing uncontrollably and needing oxygen at the maximum.

She went to sleep that night — and woke up five days later.

For a short time, Valancius and colleagues thought maybe she would be their only COVID-19 patient, but they prepared for the worst.

But no one was prepared for the days and weeks and months ahead.

Radiologist Matthew McClain embraces Josetta Cooke at Floyd Medical Center in Rome earlier this week. McClain helped to diagnose Cooke one year ago. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Radiologist Matthew McClain embraces Josetta Cooke at Floyd Medical Center in Rome earlier this week. McClain helped to diagnose Cooke one year ago. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Cooke survived, improving little by little, day by day, even though that early in the pandemic there were no treatments and doctors were limited to helping with supportive care.

Survival was largely out of doctors’ hands. Some would get better. Others didn’t.

The losses have been immense.

”Husbands and wives die. A mom dies and then we have to break it to the daughter; she didn’t know because she was intubated, a woman waiting for the birth of her first grandchild,” Valancius said.

“It is the same thing across the state. The suffering of these patients and families is enormous.”

ExploreReturn to the COVID timeline: A year of loss