Kern’s Deadliest Days

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Coronavirus is spreading in our community faster than it has in months. Some thought the virus was gone. It isn’t. It never left.

We’ve been down this road before. We’ve heard the warnings from health officials for more than a year and we’ve had two devastating doses of reality that killed hundreds. Now, we’re about to get our third. More people are going to die.

It may sound grim. It may sound presumptuous to assume a lot more people will die from COVID-19 but this virus is preying on our most vulnerable and takes advantage of our weakness — our willingness to underestimate its power.

In the last 500 days, COVID-19 killed 1,433 people in Kern County. Now there’s concern the virus plans a comeback in the form of its more contagious Delta variant. 1,433 Kern lives lost. It’s a big number. That’s more than all of Kern residents lost in all wars combined. It’s nearly three times as many deaths as San Francisco County. But data collected by 17 News shows Kern’s Covid toll actually may be even higher.

17’s Alex Fisher dedicated months to finding out how the virus targeted our community. Since our first case was announced March 17, 2020, he tracked the trends, collecting data and requesting public records to understand the reality of this pandemic.

His analysis proves 2020 started like any other year. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Then, COVID hit and death came like a tsunami after an earthquake. These were Kern’s deadliest days.

“I’ve never seen the amount of devastation,” said Shelley Simpson, a palliative care nurse at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.

Cancer, accidents, heart disease — more than 8,000 people died in Kern County from all causes during the first 12 months of the pandemic. KGET’s Fisher filed public records requests and obtained every death certificate for the year, each one a clinical, scientific fact sheet describing how a human life ended.

People died from suicide, homicide, car crashes and drug overdoses but COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in Kern County during the first year of the pandemic. It even beat cancer.

In addition to the one-by-one examination of each 2020 death certificate, Fisher collected general statistical data on the number of deaths over each of the past five years. He found there are ebbs and flows every year and 2020 was no different until coronavirus made an unwelcome entrance into our community. 

By the end of the first year of the pandemic, deaths were up 21% from the year prior. COVID was to blame.

“Probably the biggest thing that stands out — how severely we can be affected and how quickly,” said Kim Hernandez, lead epidemiologist for the Kern Public Health Department. The increase in the number of deaths became noticeable in May 2020 but the first overwhelming spike came in June, July and August.

Prior to 2020, our deadliest August over the past five years was 2018 when 488 people died. In August 2020, 728 people died. 154 were Coronavirus deaths. That first surge was our first test. Coronavirus loosened its grip and it seemed at the worst had passed. 

Health officials weren’t backing down and continued sounding the alarm. 

“This is a real threat to our community,” said Matt Constantine, then director of Kern Public Health. “We should use science to dictate what we do and learn from the past.”

Constantine made that warning Nov. 11, 2020. Kern didn’t listen.

As medical experts predicted, Coronavirus returned with vengeance right in time for the holidays. While families prepared Thanksgiving turkeys, nurses prepared extra hospital beds. Sure enough, a week after the holiday, a spike in cases.

The worst day was on Dec. 9 — 13 days after Thanksgiving — when a whopping 1,479 people tested positive for Coronavirus.  From asymptomatic cases to fatalities, the virus jumped from person to person.

But the deadliest days were still ahead.

“We in the ICU and hospital, as nurses, we were sitting there watching,” said Amanda Swanson, an ICU Charge Nurse at Adventist Health Bakersfield. “We had those dates marked on our calendar as, ‘we’re going to get busy’ because hospitalizations typically peak about 10 days after the patient tests positive for coronavirus.”

The virus’ winter reign of terror lasted more than two months. The worst day was Dec. 30 when 20 people died from COVID-19.

By mid-January, Kern was losing more than 90 lives a week to the virus.

Healthcare workers saw the human tragedy up close and personal.

“Just seeing the kids, watching their father as he’s taking his last breath and the mom is sitting in the room crying, telling them ‘your dad’s dying,’ I still remember that night,” said Swanson.

The Miranda family knows that pain too well. Although they tried to do everything right, the virus entered their home in December. Their father, Daniel, the patriarch of the family, tested positive on Christmas Eve. By New Year’s, he was in the hospital.

“It’s just so shocking to see your dad, the one person that’s supposed to be the strong one, supposed to be there for you, takes care of you, and he’s just hopeless and you can’t take care of him,” said Eric Miranda, Daniel’s son.

Since visitors weren’t allowed to wait in the hospital room, the family sat outside and waited.

“Every morning when I would wake up, I would go sit out there, I would talk to him,” said Sylvia Miranda, Daniel’s wife. On Jan. 10, the family received a phone call from the doctors. Daniel didn’t make it. His family wasn’t able to be there when he passed.

“We had to say goodbye through glass,” said Sylvia. “I wanted to go caress his face, hug on him, kiss his lips, all I could do is take a picture of the time.”

Although the Mirandas did everything possible to keep the virus out of their house, it still crept in, as more than a thousand people tested positive for the virus each day in Kern. 

“It just shows that it’s a group effort,” said Eric. “We were as safe as can be but because someone who wasn’t as safe came into contact with us, unfortunately, it led to a domino effect that ended with someone else being taken from it.”

Since COVID-19 was rapidly jumping from person to person, sometimes, it still struck those who took precautions. That’s what happened to the Longoria family.

Israel Longoria, Sr. and his wife, Juanita, both in their early 80s, were cautious, as were their five grown sons. They rarely left the house. Ernie Longoria, 60, was perhaps the most cautious. He took the coronavirus seriously.

Then he got it.

He recovered but everyone else got sick with what turned out to be COVID-19. Longoria’s mother recovered, but Israel’s brother Rolando died Dec. 22, his father Dec. 31 and then, incredibly, his brothers Abel and Rene just a few hours apart, on Jan. 8. The three brothers were all in their mid-50s.

“It doesn’t matter your race, it doesn’t matter your gender, it doesn’t matter whether you think you’re healthy or not, whether you’re in shape or not,” said Israel Longoria. “It doesn’t matter your political affiliation, for goodness sake. It attacks everybody without cause, without reason. It just does.” The day the Longoria brothers died was Kern’s deadliest day.

It was two weeks after Christmas and a week after New Year’s. 47 people died that day. 14 died of COVID-19.

Our analysis shows 1,004 people died from all causes January 2021 — a 77% increase from the previous January. 370 of those deaths — more than a third of all deaths for the month — were COVID deaths.

In the first 365 days of the pandemic, 1,331 people died from the virus in Kern County.

We found more people died during the pandemic than in previous years and there’s no clear explanation for the increase.

After you take away the COVID deaths, we found an additional 631 lives lost in the first year of the pandemic. COVID was not listed as the cause of death. The only causes of deaths that we found that increased during the pandemic — homicides and deadly accidents. Statistically, those increases are minimal. They don’t explain the spike in non-COVID deaths.

Health officials say it’s possible people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered died because of the effects of the virus. Since COVID wasn’t in their system at the time of their death, it’s possible the virus was not necessarily listed as an immediate cause of death.

“There’s a lot of conversation and a lot of research going into what we call COVID long haulers,” said Hernandez. “What we see, for people who have recovered from that acute infection, they have cleared that infection, they no longer have that virus circulating in their body but damage has been done.” 

Damage that isn’t reparable. It could even lead to other health problems or death years after the pandemic. Now with the Delta variant making frightening gains and much of the country choosing not to vaccinate as cases go back on the rise, there’s a rush to end this disease. 

Longoria, who lost his father and three brothers, says the blame lies squarely on those who haven’t taken the pandemic seriously. His family understood the threat but it reached them anyway because it’s been so pervasive in the community.

“To say, ‘I don’t believe it, it’s a hoax,’ after so many people are dying — I’m angry at them because I believe it’s them who caused my family to die,” said Longoria. “If they would have been more cautious, been more considerate, been more humane towards other humans, it wouldn’t have happened.

“We could have done a whole lot better than this,” Longoria said. “But there are just too many people that just thought of it as a hoax, that it was no big deal.

“But it is a big deal.”

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