Coronavirus pandemic takes toll on Greater Lansing

Four tales of pain — and triumph — since COVID-19 landed in Michigan

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Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail is used to her phone ringing at all hours. As Greater Lansing had its second wave of COVID-19 cases, hundreds were being hospitalized — some of them dying. And Vail gets phone calls from hospitals for every death.

Vail grabs a notebook and writes down the names, sometimes in the middle of the night, with birthdates, death dates, other hospital data and a patient file number. As of last week, there were four such notebooks in her home — a contemporaneous, albeit haphazard record of the 276 people who have died from complications tied to the coronavirus in Ingham County to date.

Dustin Grimes, 32, has only a digital image of the last days of his fishing and flea market buddy — his grandpa, Gordon Small. Small died May 8 in Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. Because of health restrictions, none of his family could be there to hold his hand or whisper into his ear.

They sat death watch on a Zoom.

Don Cochran, 55, of south Lansing, is an active retired military member. He sings and works in movies on the side. In early January, he was struck by coronavirus, landing in McLaren Hospital in Lansing with perilously low oxygen. But while he has recovered from the virus, he has a constant reminder by way of the supplemental oxygen tank he now has to lug around his home.

Ingham County Medical Director Dr. Adnike Shoyinka took on multiple roles as the pandemic swept across Greater Lansing. She advises on policies and medical response. She treats infectious diseases in a large hospital system. And just three days before Christmas, she became a mourner, having lost four friends and family from across the world in the same week.

These are but four of the stories of local residents that have unfolded over the last year as the coronavirus pandemic washed over Greater Lansing, infecting, as of Tuesday, 26,112 residents and killing 496. Statewide, that tally is 598,969 infected and 15,699 dead. And across the nation, more than 29.1 million have been infected and 526,722 have died.

Today marks the first anniversary of the virus in Michigan, dating from March 10 of last year, when the first two cases were documented.

The novel respiratory virus has challenged both the state and the county in how to respond to an infectious new virus both medically and socially. It also coincided with a presidential election year. And in Lansing, protests against government actions to contain and mitigate the spread have also been met with other massive demonstrations — including a traffic jam and a Capitol protest where armed men and women joined the crowd in storming the building while the state Legislature was in session.

The gathering storm

Vail and Shoyinka watched the public health update systems through late December as news of a new, contagious upper-respiratory virus garnered increasingly dire warnings of a viral storm.

Public health officials had been growing worried about a novel respiratory virus sweeping across the nation for more than a decade. Vail thought: “This is it — what we’ve been worrying about.”

Shoyinka, an infectious disease specialist who treats people with TB and HIV in Ingham County, also saw those early updates as a warning shot over the bow of American public health. She grew up in Nigeria and also did her medical studies there. She had seen outbreaks before.

“I knew what this could mean,” she said. “It wasn’t good.”

Both women were in Washington, D.C., presenting at a conference about medically assisted treatment for substance abuse in jails when their phones began to “blow up.” Health officials from across the state got warning that there had been confirmed cases of COVID in Michigan.

Both cases were in Oakland County, but they both knew I-96 also serves as a freeway for disease. Vail and Shoyinka packed their bags and headed back to Michigan the next day.

Within the first 24 hours of being back on the ground in Lansing, Vail and Shoyinka were already dealing with the first cases detected in Ingham County. Those were announced on March 12.

Life before COVID-19

Gordon Small was a doting grandfather who loved to take his grandson, Dustin Grimes, on fishing trips. Small grew up in Lansing, served in the military during the Korean War and later returned to the area to work with Wyeth-Pfizer. In his younger days, Small would also help collect scrap metal for the war effort. And that only nurtured his love for tin toys — which continued into adulthood, Grimes said. The two also frequently went to toy shows together.

Small had moved into a senior living facility in Mason. And while he had divorced his wife in the ‘80s, they remained close until her death in 2018.

As the state cranked up measures to mitigate the impact of coronavirus with stayhome orders and other restrictions, Grimes and his family recognized their grandfather was at risk both because of age and underlying health conditions. He was also a smoker for many years. They made the decision early on to avoid contact with him in order to avoid exposing him to the virus.

“Between the governor's order and when he went into the hospital, I had seen him only one time,” Grimes said. “We had a nice day at the end of March, and we did go outside, social distance, masks on. He was in really good spirits. He missed the family, but he understood that this was a life-or-death thing. At the time, people were still under the impression that we would just kind of weather the storm and we would be out of this thing in a couple of weeks or maybe a couple of months if it's really bad. And then he ended up getting sick about three weeks later.“

Each week, a support staff from the VA would visit Small and assist with certain needs. In mid-April, the VA aide showed up with what she described as allergies, Grimes explained. His grandfather decided to cancel her work that day. She would soon test positive for COVID-19.

A week or so later, Grimes' mother was calling to check on Small. There was no answer on his phone — an unusual development. Knowing he had also been exposed to COVID-19, she grew concerned. She drove to Mason and let herself into his apartment. He was unresponsive, breathing but clearly in distress. He was transported to Sparrow Hospital in critical condition.

While Small regained consciousness, he never regained lucidity. Family would only communicate with him through Zoom, with a nurse holding up the device for Small to see.

“It was us really saying goodbye,” Grimes said. “Telling him stories.”

Small died on May 8 from the disease.

Grimes said he also witnessed the passing of his grandmother just a year before, also in Sparrow Hospital. The difference between the two deaths was “night and day,” he explained. He was able to camp out with his grandmother in hospice. But how do you grieve remotely?

“You can say goodbye, but the process of saying goodbye and grieving and being able to hug your surviving family members, that's all gone,” Grimes explained. “The people that I would share this experience, trauma, celebration of his life with are in their homes doing their lockdown thing. I've seen these family members, but not in a way to fully grieve and remember.”

Battening the hatches

Vail and Shoyinka spent the early months of the pandemic monitoring disease numbers and fighting to enforce stayhome and gathering restrictions. The infection rates stayed relatively low in the county, with the exception of an outbreak in immigrant communities in zip code 48911.

The families there lived in tightly populated apartment complexes, with some working at an egg farm in Ionia County and others at the Meijer warehouse in Eaton County. That early outbreak skewed Ingham’s racial disparity numbers unlike other communities in the state. Most were of southeast Asian descent. In other parts of the state, Black residents were being hit the hardest.

In June, state officials began to loosen restrictions. And that’s when Vail and her team got slammed with an outbreak tied to Harper’s Bar & Restaurant in East Lansing. The outbreak made international news — and Vail ended up splitting her days between media interviews, working with the owners and also trying to contain the virus from spreading further in the city.

She said she was working up to 18 hours a day — maybe enough time for a three-hour nap.

“I would spend my days dealing with the epidemic. And then I would go home and read all the latest science so I knew what was going on, what I was going to be asked tomorrow,” she said.

The outbreak in East Lansing also coincided with the one-year anniversary of the unexpected death of Vail’s father. He lived in Texas and was planning a visit when he went incommunicado. Several days later, Vail said she asked for law enforcement to stop in and check on him.

“I guess I didn't expect that the one-year anniversary of his death was going to hit me like it did,” she said. “The only thing I can think is that it was really traumatic, you know. So it was like reliving a trauma in a way, because I didn't, I had no clue that I was about to lose my father.”

Vail said it was one of the few times that the stress of the coronavirus pandemic combined with her private life had actually overwhelmed her. She had moments where she would sob, something with which the normally factual and stoic health officer would not usually be doing.

In the meantime, Shoyinka was spending her days consulting with local health providers and businesses to identify proper handling of viral exposures and treatment. There were days she would have to get up and walk through her neighborhood, if only for a very small escape.

“I would just be walking down the street, tears running down my face,” Shoyinka explained. “There were just points where I had to walk away. I had to.”

While Shoyinka and Vail were working to respond to the epidemic, they were also facing mounting criticism from COVID-19 deniers and small government advocates. On April 15, cars jammed downtown Lansing to protest coronavirus mitigation efforts ordered by state officials.

On April 30, hundreds of protesters stormed the Capitol, some armed. Vail was unable to hit those protesters with violation orders because doing so could have jeopardized her safety.

And then, the nasty emails and letters began. Some were laced with profanity and abusive language. Some were direct threats of harm. Those letters continue. Occasionally, they include letters of support. Still, she said the threats resulted in increased police patrols near her home.

“Had it become necessary, the county would have made sure I had security,” Shoyinka said.

The second wave

Public health officials still don’t fully understand why coronavirus exploded again in October. It was a pattern unlike most respiratory viruses that usually start spreading in late December and peak in late February — just another example of just how little was known about this virus.

On Jan. 4, Don Cochran and his live-in girlfriend, who works in a pharmacy, decided to get tested for COVID-19. She had symptoms and tested positive. The two went into quarantine.

Just weeks later, Cochran — a retired military man in peak health with no history of smoking — was struggling to breath. He went to McLaren with a fever. He had also began hallucinating.

He said staff checked his vitals and had him on oxygen “within seconds” of his arrival. Less than an hour later, he was hurried away to a private room to be isolated from staff and other patients.

Later, a CT scan revealed Cochran had COVID-19-related pneumonia in both of his lungs. A devout Christian, Cochran said he was ready to die if the virus wanted. His faith sustained him.

“I'm ready. If it's time for me to go, it's time for me to go. Maybe my work on Earth is done,” Cochran said. “But if not, then there's more for me to do. I'm a positive person and I always looked at the positive side of things. Look on the sunny side of life. I think a lot of your mental outlook, I guess, is where your strength can come from and how you look at things and of course, you've had a lot of struggles dealing with a lot of things in your life, obviously.”

He spent nearly 10 days in the hospital and was released with a prescription for oxygen. When City Pulse interviewed  him in early February, he was attempting to wean himself off the oxygen, but he was still struggling with low oxygen levels and constant exhaustion from the virus.

Even as Cochran was struggling for his life, Michigan and the nation were rolling out vaccines. But an extremely limited supply frustrated operations, causing conflict throughout the county. It also left Vail and other health officials with an inbox full of messages begging for the vaccine.

“Those were hard,” Vail said. “You just want to help, but you can’t. The vaccine just isn’t there.”

One communication from an area senior left Vail emotionally wrought. Shoyinka also received frantic calls from residents in search of the virus. Vail describes the first weeks of the vaccine rollout as among the hardest days of the entire pandemic — even with a solution in sight.

“I wanted to help, but I couldn’t,” Shoyinka said. “It was hard — very hard.”

On Thursday, Vail stopped into her county office to collect mail. On her desk were two letters. One berated her for the lack of a vaccine availability. The other praised her, State Medical Director Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for their work to battle the virus.

“You ladies kick-ass,” the letter read. 

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