‘It wears on your spirit’: As the U.S. marks 1 million COVID-19 deaths, a hard-hit Georgia county reckons with loss
SPARTA, Ga. – Titus Wilson final danced a 12 months in the past on the Grateful Baptist Church cemetery. A recording of the religious “Gracefully Damaged” performed because the 15-year-old dug his socked toes into the Ogeechee River Basin dust at his father’s contemporary grave.
Timothy Wilson, a truck driver, was 52.
Days later, Titus was again on the cemetery for the graveside service of his great-aunt Stella Mae Hill, whom he referred to as “Grandma.” She was 71.
Lower than three weeks after Hill’s loss of life, the teenager watched as Helen Smith, the gentle-faced household matriarch who helped increase him, was laid to relaxation in the identical patch of earth. She was 73.
All three died of COVID-19. Titus, identified for dancing to hip-hop and gospel hymns at Sunday morning reward, misplaced his rhythm. He had argued along with his dad earlier than he acquired sick, and he felt what occurred was someway his fault.
“I began going into despair actual dangerous, closing all people off. I began crying rather a lot,” he stated. “I by no means actually had the time to grieve.”
Photographs from the funeral applications of his misplaced household glow below indigo lights that border his small bed room. When strolling to high school he imagines them there, Grandma on his left, Dad on the appropriate.
“I’m speaking to them, like: ‘We’re going to have an excellent day. We’re going to do good, end all our courses,’ and stuff like that,” he stated. “Typically, I might hear them speaking to me giving me inspiration and optimistic affirmations of myself.”
Pastor Lillie Tripp worries in regards to the boy. She officiated Timothy Wilson’s funeral and may’t neglect Titus’ final dance.
“He’s struggling,” she stated. “You’ll be able to see it in his eyes.”
Because the U.S. reaches the grim milestone of 1 million COVID-19 deaths, few locations within the nation have seen as a lot loss as north central Georgia’s majority-Black Hancock County. The loss of life fee right here is the nation’s fourth-highest, 3.5 instances the U.S fee. About one in each 100 individuals have died within the sprawling county dotted with deserted brick buildings, pastures, kitchen gardens and household cemetery plots.
Among the many county’s 8,600 residents – 1 / 4 of whom are 65 or order and most definitely to die of COVID-19 – entire households are gone. For congregants of the numerous tight-knit church communities, the deaths are intimate. Everybody is aware of somebody who has died or has misplaced a beloved one themselves.
Virtually each Saturday, Tripp has memorialized the lifeless and ministered to these they’ve left behind.
“Funerals typically twice a day,” she stated one morning in March. “I’ve finished that ever since COVID got here in. It wears in your spirit.”
All through the pandemic, communities of shade within the U.S. have been hit hardest by COVID-19, suffering the worst of its illness and loss of life. In Hancock County, residents say the staggering toll there might have been prevented if long-standing inequities had been addressed and never left to fester.
A dearth of well being care infrastructure has left individuals uncovered to persistent well being issues like diabetes and hypertension that the virus exploits. Of Georgia’s 159 counties, just one different ranks worse for well being dangers and solely 4 have worse well being outcomes, in accordance with the Robert Wooden Johnson Basis.
About 1 in 3 Hancock residents stay in poverty, in accordance with the U.S. Census, which will increase their danger of publicity to the virus as many work a number of jobs to make ends meet.
Household Greenback shops are scattered all through the county, which has one well being division clinic and no full-time major care docs. Hancock Memorial, the one hospital, shut down 20 years in the past. The deserted campus nonetheless stands, its partitions weathered and stained.
On Broad Road in Sparta, the middle of native authorities for the 70% Black county, a bronze Accomplice statue stands on a pedestal by the courthouse. A block down is Webster’s, Hancock’s solely pharmacy that doubles as an ice cream joint, down the road from the county’s lone grocery retailer.
Close by is a colourful butterfly mural that reads “Concord, love, peace, that is Sparta.” Subsequent door on the window of an empty storefront hangs a small handwritten signal on yellow paper: “I’ve a DREAM. – Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Black households have referred to as Hancock County residence for generations. Residents take delight of their underappreciated trailblazers. Biddy Mason, a younger enslaved Black lady who walked tons of of miles to win her proper in court docket to be freed. Civil rights chief John McCown, who led Black voter registration drives, secured federal grants and created new jobs on farms and at a concrete plant. Edith Jacqueline Ingram Grant, the state’s first Black feminine decide and the nation’s first Black probate decide.
Adrick Ingram, a distant relative of the decide, is the county’s elected coroner and funeral director of Dawson’s Mortuary. He has buried many throughout the pandemic – buddies he grew up with, neighbors, church deacons.
“You’ll be able to’t assist however to be angered that some might’ve been prevented,” he stated. “If you see somebody you understand who probably might have made it by, however as a result of they weren’t handled early on for an sickness that led to a different, it’s irritating.”
Ingram is dismayed that regardless of Hancock County having the highest death rate in the state and one of many highest within the nation, Georgia’s governor has not visited his neighborhood.
“In a lot of ways, our leaders have failed us,” he said. “We don’t have a hospital, have very few doctors. Sometimes it seems like we are forgotten about. … The hope has had to come from within.”
His late father was a mortician and county coroner, too. But Ingram won’t be running for another term.
“I don’t see how someone does this for 20 years, 30 years, especially at a time like this,” Ingram said. “It becomes very personal.”
Lakesha Jones-Clark lost nine family members to COVID-19. All but two lived in Hancock County.
Her mom, Bertha Mae Jones, a 66-year-old breast cancer survivor, was the last to go. Ingram handled the funeral arrangements for his longtime friend.
A soft-spoken, even-tempered seamstress, Jones spent her days during the pandemic lockdown hand-sewing masks for nurses and tending to her flower garden. But two weeks after Mother’s Day 2020, Jones started to feel ill.
She drove herself to one of the nearest emergency rooms, 30 miles west in neighboring Putnam County. When she got there, her oxygen levels were low, and she was transferred for specialized care to a hospital in Athens, home of the University of Georgia, another 50 miles north.
Her condition quickly worsened. Jones was put on life support and given antibody infusions, but three days later Jones-Clark got a call from the doctor. “How soon can you get here?” he asked. “Your mom is a very, very sick lady today.”
She arrived to find a crowd of nurses and doctors surrounding her motionless mom.
“It had to be the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was about 16 medical personnel around and they were working diligently to try and bring her back,” Jones-Clark said, trying not to cry. “I just remember telling them, ‘That’s enough.’”
Two years later, Jones-Clark finds comfort keeping alive some of her mother’s treasured plants, but she still grapples with the reality of her death. For her mom’s birthday in early March, the 37-year-old bought pink, yellow and red flower bouquets to lay on her on her grave.
“I couldn’t make myself take them there,” she said, unable to stop the tears. Instead, she took one flower from each dozen to put on her nightstand. “This is real. She’s not coming back.”
Community members are finding ways to absorb the breadth of their loss.
Jeanette Waddell, a longtime Hancock County resident and local storyteller, organized a memorial to honor those who died of COVID-19. Artists made colorful windchimes to dangle from oak trees representing “people who mattered to us,” she said.
“It’s a sense of collective grief that we have no way of expressing. It’s not a matter of someone, losing a single person. It’s multiple losses, time and time and time again,” said Waddell, 67.
“We won’t forget the people. But I don’t want us to forget the time and what has happened, how our communities have been left behind, neglected, with very limited access to medical care.”
U.S. Air Force veteran Terrell Reid, a part-time county commissioner, is trying to help his neighbors through education. Raised in Hancock County, he returned in 2008 and recently was hired by the district health department as a community outreach specialist.
Through the federally funded program, Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health, or REACH, Reid and local health officials hope to increase COVID-19 vaccine rates among the county’s men. Though about half of residents have been vaccinated, more women are getting the shot than their husbands, brothers and sons.
Reid said it has been a challenge to counter misinformation that has led many to be wary of the shot. Only some residents get the one weekly regional newspaper, and there is no local television or radio station. Fewer than half of all households have broadband, according to the U.S. Census.
“We have a communications gap,” he said.
Through focus groups, meeting with young men and church outreach, Reid has tried to bridge that gap.
“I take it personal in the county to educate the people, to say, ‘Look, we can beat this thing if we do what we need to do,’” he said.
Waddell, who like Reid left but chose to come back to Hancock County, said she doesn’t want her community to be known for its deaths.
“Rarely,” she said, “do people come to see our resilience and our strength.”
On a cold, windy evening in March, family and friends gathered to honor Kimberly “Money” Barnes at the county’s event hall, a wood-paneled community center with low arched ceilings that sits on a stretch of road flanked by forest and farms.
Inside, upbeat R&B blared from speakers, and tables were crowded with aluminum trays of cornbread, braised collards and crispy chicken. Everyone wore matching memorial T-shirts in orange, Barnes’ favorite color. Clusters of white and orange balloons and a “Happy Heavenly Birthday” banner framed the hall.
Barnes, a Hancock State Prison corrections officer, would have turned 33 the day before. She died of COVID-19 in September, leaving behind a 3-year-old daughter, Kyler.
Her aunt, Gwinnett Bates, a librarian at Morehouse School of Medicine, started to hang portraits of Barnes on the walls but had to stop. She shook her head – too hard, she said. Instead she wiped her tears, scooped up her niece’s little girl and twirled her around to the music.
“We got your baby, don’t you worry. We have Kyler. We’re never going to let go of her,” Bates said. “She’s going to know her mom, as long as I have breath.”
Mourners took turns cradling the girl, wearing her memorial shirt, jeans and sneakers, pearl white beads strung through her braids.
“She was a great mother to all of our kids,” said Tansie Philyaw, who considered Barnes her best friend. “I just hate she didn’t have a chance to raise her own.”
When Philyaw was a teen mom, Barnes babysat while she worked night shifts at the grocery store. Fun, intelligent and kind, Barnes loved cracking jokes with her own dad. The day before she went to the emergency room, she had invited him over to play cards.
Philyaw’s mom, a nurse who helps lead pop-up vaccine events, tried to persuade Barnes to get the shot. Even though she had asthma that put her at greater risk of getting sick, Barnes wouldn’t do it.
During the time set aside for tributes, grieving guests had few words to offer on the death of someone so young: March 9, 1989-Sept. 13, 2021.
Just before dinner as the sun set, Barnes’ family and friends bowed their heads in prayer.
“Y’all forgive me if I break down. This is hard, and I know it’s hard for everybody,” her aunt said. “Thank you for bringing Money into our lives.
“God give us strength to get through. Take care of Kyler, Lord, and we all take care of each other.”