Vanessa Daniels prayed under a tree in the parking lot of the Southeast Georgia Health System Thursday with her sister, niece and two nephews for Rhonda Hudson, another niece.
Hudson is the seventh member of her family to contract the disease.
Daniels has lost four siblings to COVID-19 in the last month. Linda Lewis, 73; Sarah Nell Rooks, 77; Velma Underwood, 75; and Thomas Underwood, 75, all succumbed to the disease.
Daniels and her sister, Debbie Underwood, were born into a tight-knit group of 15 siblings. They had lost five of their brothers and sisters over the years.
It took just a month to reduce their numbers to six.
“We’re thinking, ‘Are we cursed?’” Debbie Underwood said.
Daniels, Underwood, their niece Tammy Wentland and nephews Joey Carroll and David Carter started meeting up whenever they could to walk around the hospital and pray.
Daniels said she was inspired by the Biblical story told in the Book of Joshua, in which the Israelites marched around the walls of the Canaanite city of Jericho for a week, their devotion to God eventually bringing the walls down.
There’s not much more they can do, Carter said. Visitation is restricted for COVID-19 patients.
“What hurts worse is knowing they’re in there all alone,” said Carter, Velma Underwood’s son-in-law.
They were a close family, said Debbie Underwood. Wentland, Velma Underwood’s daughter, said it was a joy to go to family reunions and watch her mother interact with her siblings.
Daniels said her brother, Thomas Underwood, was the most recent to pass away due to COVID-19. She and her family had only just recently held a memorial for Velma, giving them less than a week to mourn.
She shared her own experience with COVID-19. Wentland was hospitalized, but for much of the time, she was unconscious and on a ventilator. She found out shortly after waking up that her mother had passed away.
“We’re all kind of numb,” said Wentland. “You didn’t have time to mourn the last one because the next one went, and then the next one went.”
Daniels said she would go from one funeral straight to planning the next and has no time to process any of it.
As the family started holding funerals for one of her siblings, Debbie Underwood noticed they were seeing the same photos over and over again on slideshows during memorial services. All of their siblings were in them.
It’s hard to feel anything, Daniels said, but she’s been extremely jittery and has had a hard time eating. She took time off from her job because she didn’t feel like she could go back to the day-to-day routine.
Debbie Underwood said she believes her family members contracted the illness at a late June church function in Waynesville. A dozen or so other church members contracted the disease as well, including the pastor, resulting in two other deaths among the congregation.
Deaths from COVID-19 typically follow a somewhat predictable pattern, according to health officials.
“The typical pattern starts with an increase in reported cases, followed by 10 days to three weeks of increased hospitalizations followed by a week or so with increased deaths,” Coastal Health District Director Lawton Davis told The News last week. “Then the hospital rates will come down and the death rate will come down.”
Hospitalizations have dropped slightly over the past few weeks. On Friday, Southeast Georgia Health System reported 51 inpatients with COVID-19 in its Brunswick hospital and 10 in the St. Marys facility, much fewer than the two weeks prior.
At one point, COVID patients accounted for 30 percent of all inpatients at both hospitals.
The number of deaths in Glynn County has more than quadrupled in the last month, rising from 10 deaths a month ago to 55 as of 3 p.m. Friday, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Statewide, the health department reported 4,573 deaths linked to the virus. Across the nation, 166,317 have perished, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Glynn County is on the downward slope of a major spike that put the Golden Isles on the map as a COVID-19 hot spot.
As noted by Davis, deaths typically lag behind spikes in infections and hospitalization, and these seem to be the result of heavy social activity on and following Memorial Day.
Churches have also proven to be at high risk of causing outbreaks unless congregants take precautions.
Luke Jackson, owner of L.W. Jackson & Family Mortuary, said funeral homes in the area are seeing a definite and substantial increase in business as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s catching families off guard,” Jackson said. “I don’t think anybody has seen anything like this in this generation or the previous generation. It’s still fairly new. I don’t think there has been an epidemic that’s taken people out this fast and in these numbers since maybe smallpox or the AIDS virus.”
Even during the AIDS epidemic, Jackson said funeral homes did not have to go to such lengths to sterilize their facilities and protect their staff.
“Everyone had to really go all-out with (personal protective equipment),” Jackson said. “One of the problems is the supply is so limited now you really have to put more emphasis on finding, especially in the funeral business and first responders.”
John Martin with Martin’s Funeral Home said it’s changed the way they conduct services.
“The only thing I can say, you can’t do the traditional funerals,” Martin said. “You have to do graveside and you have to be proactive and truthful with the families. A lot of times people want to do things but you have to follow the (CDC).”
Having suffered it herself, Wentland said she wouldn’t wish COVID-19 on her worst enemy.
The issue is not political at all, Daniels said, and asking anyone who believes the coronavirus won’t seriously affect them or a loved one to think about their story.
Wentland said she’d wouldn’t change anything if it would convince someone else to take the necessary precautions: wear masks in public, practice regular hand-washing, cover coughs and sneezes and stay home if feeling sick.
“Otherwise, get used to this parking lot,” Carter said of a parking area near the Brunswick hospital’s emergency room entrance. “Because this is where you’ll be waiting to hear about your loved ones.”