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Desmond Tolbert, 29, of Dawson, Ga., walks alone through the hallway of his parents’ home, where he also lives, on Saturday, April 18, 2020, after both his parents, Nellie “Pollye Ann” Mae and Benjamin Tolbert died a few days apart from COVID-19 in Dawson, Ga. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Published 05/06/2020 | Reading Time 3 min 8 sec 

DAWSON, Ga. — More than a quarter of people in Terrell County live in poverty, the local hospital shuttered decades ago, and businesses have been closing for years, sending many young and able fleeing for cities. Those left behind are sicker and more vulnerable; even before the virus arrived, the life expectancy for men here was six years shorter than the American average.

Rural people, African Americans and the poor are more likely to work in jobs not conducive to social distancing, like the food processing plant in nearby Mitchell County where four employees died of COVID-19. They have less access to health care and so more often delay treatment for chronic conditions; in southwest Georgia, the diabetes rate of 16 percent is twice as high as in Atlanta. Transportation alone can be a challenge, so that by the time they make it to the hospital, they’re harder to save.

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At least 21 people have died from COVID-19 in this county, and dozens more in the neighboring rural communities. For weeks, Weston’s phone would not stop ringing: another person in the hospital, another person dead. An hour before this funeral, Weston’s phone rang again, and this time it was news that another had succumbed to the virus—his own first cousin, as close to him as a brother.

Some here had thought that their isolation might spare them, but instead it made the pandemic particularly cruel. In Terrell County, population 8,500, everyone knows everyone and every death is personal. As the mourners arrived at the cemetery, just the handful allowed, each knew others suffering and dying.

The couple’s son, Desmond Tolbert, sat stunned. After caring for his parents, he’d also rushed his aunt, his mother’s sister, to a hospital an hour away, and there she remained on a ventilator. Her daughter, Latasha Taylor, wept thinking that if her mother survived, she would have to find a way to tell her that her sister was dead and buried.

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At first, Benjamin Tolbert just felt a malaise; he had no appetite. Within a couple days, he could barely stand.

His son, Desmond, took him to the hospital in Albany. By then it was full, and he was sent to another hospital an hour south. Benjamin’s wife, Nellie Mae, who everyone called Pollye Ann, got sick the next day. She was routed from the Albany hospital to another an hour north.

Everyone in town knew Benjamin, 58, as a hard worker. He had worked for 28 years at a Tyson Foods plant, and yet he always found more work to do, washing his car, tending the lawn. He and his wife had been together 30 years. He was mild-mannered, but she found a joke in everything. She was a minister, she played the organ, sang gospel and danced, wildly, joyfully.

“Oh my goodness, she was a dancer, and the dances were so hilarious, you would just fall out laughing watching her dance and laugh at herself,” said their niece, Latasha Taylor, whom they loved like a daughter. Benjamin would hang back, but Pollye Ann would pull him up and he’d dance along with her.

Both were diabetic, Pollye Ann had had heart valve surgery, Benjamin had been on dialysis. Pollye Ann’s sister, Katherine Taylor Peters, often got dialysis treatments with him. They were a close-knit family: Peters lived just blocks away.

Shortly after the Tolberts got sick, Peters called her daughter and said she too had an incessant cough and was struggling to breathe. Latasha was working hours away, so she called her cousin, Desmond, and asked him to check on her.

He put her in his car and drove her to another hospital an hour from home. They soon sedated her and put her on a ventilator.

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Much of the rest is a blur for Desmond and Latasha: calls from doctors and nurses, driving hours among three hospitals, begging to see their parents but being told it was far too dangerous.

“I couldn’t see them, I couldn’t talk to them,” said Desmond, 29, who had lived with his parents all this life. Suddenly he was alone.

And all around them, neighbors were getting sick.

“So many people, it’s a feeling you can’t even explain. It’s like a churning in your stomach,” said Taylor. “People you’re normally waving at, speaking to in passing, at the pharmacy, you’re never going to see them again.”

Desmond was on the phone with a nurse as his mother took her last breath. Two days later, the call came from his father’s caregivers. Benjamin never knew that his wife got sick. She didn’t know her husband was on his death bed. They were apart, far from home, without their son at their sides.

The only solace he can find is imagining them meeting again on the other side, and that neither had to live without the other one.


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