‘It wears on your spirit’: As the US marks 1 million COVID-19 deaths, a hard-hit Georgia county reckons with loss

·11 min read

SPARTA, Ga. – Titus Wilson last danced a year ago at the Thankful Baptist Church cemetery. A recording of the spiritual “Gracefully Broken” played as the 15-year-old dug his socked feet into the Ogeechee River Basin dirt at his father's fresh grave.

Timothy Wilson, a truck driver, was 52.

Days later, Titus was back at the cemetery for the graveside service of his great-aunt Stella Mae Hill, whom he called "Grandma." She was 71.

Less than three weeks after Hill's death, the teen watched as Helen Smith, the gentle-faced family matriarch who helped raise him, was laid to rest in the same patch of earth. She was 73.

All three died of COVID-19. Titus, known for dancing to hip-hop and gospel hymns at Sunday morning praise, lost his rhythm. He had argued with his dad before he got sick, and he felt what happened was somehow his fault.

“I started going into depression real bad, closing everybody off. I started crying a lot,” he said. "I never really had the time to grieve."

Photos from the funeral programs of his lost family glow under indigo lights that border his small bedroom. When walking to school he imagines them there, Grandma on his left, Dad on the right.

“I’m talking to them, like: ‘We’re going to have a great day. We’re going to do good, finish all our classes,’ and stuff like that," he said. "Sometimes, I would hear them talking to me giving me inspiration and positive affirmations of myself.”

Pastor Lillie Tripp worries about the boy. She officiated Timothy Wilson's funeral and can't forget Titus' last dance.

“He’s suffering,” she said. “You can see it in his eyes.”

As the U.S. reaches the grim milestone of 1 million COVID-19 deaths, few places in the country have seen as much loss as north central Georgia’s majority-Black Hancock County. The death rate here is the nation's fourth-highest, 3½ times the U.S. rate. About 1 in every 100 people have died in the sprawling county dotted with abandoned brick buildings, pastures, kitchen gardens and family cemetery plots.

Among the county’s 8,600 residents – a quarter of whom are 65 or older and most likely to die of COVID-19 – whole families are gone. For congregants of the many tight-knit church communities, the deaths are intimate. Everyone knows someone who has died or has lost a loved one themselves.

Almost every Saturday, Tripp has memorialized the dead and ministered to those they've left behind.

“Funerals sometimes twice a day,” she said one morning in March. “I’ve done that ever since COVID came in. It wears on your spirit.”

‘This is Sparta’

Throughout the pandemic, communities of color in the U.S. have been hit hardest by COVID-19, suffering the worst of its sickness and death. In Hancock County, residents say the staggering toll there could have been prevented if long-standing inequities were addressed and not left to fester.

A dearth of health care infrastructure has left people exposed to chronic health problems like diabetes and hypertension that the virus exploits. Of Georgia’s 159 counties, only one other ranks worse for health risks and only four have worse health outcomes, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

About 1 in 3 Hancock residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. census, which increases their risk of exposure to the virus as many work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Family Dollar stores are scattered throughout the county, which has one health department clinic and no full-time primary care doctors. Hancock Memorial, the only hospital, shut down two decades ago. The abandoned campus still stands, its walls weathered and stained.

On Broad Street in Sparta, the center of local government for the 70% Black county, a Confederate statue stands on a pedestal by the courthouse. A block down is Webster’s, Hancock’s only pharmacy that doubles as an ice cream joint, down the street from the county's lone grocery store.

Nearby is a colorful butterfly mural that reads “Harmony, love, peace, this is Sparta.” Next door on the window of an empty storefront hangs a small handwritten sign on yellow paper: “I have a DREAM. - Martin Luther King, Jr.”

‘Our leaders have failed us’

Adrick Ingram, Hancock County coroner and Dawson's Mortuary director.
Adrick Ingram, Hancock County coroner and Dawson's Mortuary director.

Black families have called Hancock County home for generations. Residents take pride in their underappreciated trailblazers. Biddy Mason, a young enslaved Black woman who walked hundreds of miles to win her right in court to be freed. Civil rights leader 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 female judge and the nation’s first Black probate judge.

Adrick Ingram, a distant relative of the judge, is the county's elected coroner and funeral director of Dawson’s Mortuary. He has buried many during the pandemic – friends he grew up with, neighbors, church deacons.

“You can’t help but to be angered that some could’ve been prevented,” he said. “When you see someone you know who likely could have made it through, but because they were not treated early on for an illness that led to another, it is frustrating.”

Ingram is dismayed that despite Hancock County having the highest death rate in the state and one of the highest in the nation, Georgia's governor has not visited his community.

“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.”

‘That’s enough’

Bertha Mae Jones
Bertha Mae Jones

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 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.”

‘Collective grief’

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."

‘We got your baby’

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."

Reach Nada Hassanein at nhassanein@usatoday.com or on Twitter @nhassanein_.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 1 million COVID-19 deaths: A hard-hit Georgia county reckons with loss