The youngest victims of a national calamity, and the people they left behind
By MARC FISHER, ARIANA EUNJUNG CHA, ANNIE GOWEN, ARELIS R. HERNÁNDEZ AND LORI ROZSA | The Washington Post | Published: February 21, 2021
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Priscilla Morse blames herself. "I had it last," she said. "I was Gigi's primary caregiver."
Priscilla's husband, David, blames himself. He brought the virus that causes COVID-19 into the house after picking it up at the pool supply shop he manages.
Their 11-year-old son thinks it's his fault: He's the one who noticed his 6-year-old sister lying still, eyes open, blank stare. He called 911, but wonders if he couldn't have noticed earlier.
The older kids believe they should have checked in on their sister sooner.
"They were happy, well-adjusted kids," their mother says now. "Then, snap your fingers. They're broken, in therapy, on meds. Struggling, a lot."
COVID-19 killed Gigi Morse in August in Jackson, Tenn. She was a dynamo of a kid who loved Froot Loops and was obsessed with all things "Frozen" — the songs, the characters.
The virus didn't kill anyone else in the Morse family, but Gigi's mother says it might as well have. The pain does not ebb. The guilt gnaws at them constantly.
"You see on the news, 'X amount of people died,' but it's so much more than that," Priscilla said. "Do people see just how destroyed your family and your life is, six months later? Half-a-million families who've had their world torn apart?"
As the nation reaches the milestone of a half-million deaths about a year after the first American succumbed to the coronavirus, the number of children killed by the disease remains relatively small. The necropolis of COVID has grown into a city of sorrow the size of Atlanta or Sacramento — a death toll larger than the combined American losses in combat from the Civil War, World War I and World War II, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In this new national graveyard of virus victims, the section set aside for the young held 271 children as of early February, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Each death represents a shattered family and a trauma deepened, parents say, by the rampant belief that kids can't get COVID, or that it doesn't much harm them when they do.
The day before Gigi died, President Donald Trump said that children "are almost immune from this disease. ... They don't have a problem."
Although relatively few children die of COVID-19, "it's not fair to say it's a benign disease among children," said Sean O'Leary, an immunization researcher at Children's Hospital Colorado and vice chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on infectious diseases. "For every one of these deaths, quite a few kids spend a long time in ICUs and suffer lingering effects."
The children who have died of COVID-19 are, even more than among adults, disproportionately children of color — about three-quarters of those who've succumbed to COVID so far, according to CDC data.
They were kids who were obsessed with vampires and unicorns, thrilled by skateboarding and Mario Kart. They left behind stuffed animals worn raw with love, siblings who still wander into their rooms looking for them, and, next to one child's tombstone, a little white concrete bench, bedazzled with pink rhinestones that spell out "Kim."
They had futures in mind. In Gainesville, Fla., Kimmie Lynum was busy planning her 10th birthday party. J.J. Boatman, a 9-year-old in Texas, was thinking about his future; he wanted to be a police officer or maybe work at Taco Casa so he could bring tacos home every day. Tagan Drone, a 5-year-old in Amarillo, Texas, planned to be a mermaid for Halloween. Elizabeth English, a 12-year-old cheerleader in Arizona, was all about finding what would make people more beautiful; the equipment bag she carried was the plumpest on her squad because she stocked hair spray, gel and bobby pins for her teammates.
Like most kids, they probably had some extra protection against the coronavirus, possibly because their noses and throats contain fewer of the receptors that the virus binds to, or because of their more robust immune systems.
"Younger kids, 10 and under, are both less likely to get infected when exposed and less likely to spread the disease when infected," O'Leary said.
Still, nearly 3 million children in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, about 12% of all cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
For some children, the extra protection wasn't enough. Nor were extraordinary efforts by EMTs, doctors and nurses, who pumped and pressed and prayed long beyond each child's last breath.
Child deaths amount to 0.2% of the U.S. total, and as of early this month, 10 states had suffered no child fatalities. One state that has had more than its share of pediatric cases is Tennessee, where 130,000 kids have gotten infected and seven have died, including Gigi Morse, whose mother called her "Gigi Pickles."
When Priscilla Morse was 7, she watched a documentary on horrific conditions in Romanian orphanages. "It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry," she recalled.
Priscilla, who was adopted herself, told her parents: "I want to get them out."
She and David have devoted their lives to adopting special-needs children from Eastern Europe and Russia. They had already adopted two children when, in 2015, David texted Priscilla a photo of a beautiful girl in a Ukrainian orphanage and this message: "How about one more?"
The Morses knew that Gigi — Gillian, actually, named for Priscilla's favorite actress, Gillian Anderson — had hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluids in the brain. But they didn't discover until she arrived and suffered a seizure that she also had epilepsy and autism.
Once in Tennessee, Gigi swiftly picked up English, leaping from "Eat, eat" to knowing her letters and numbers. At school, she was quickly moved from special-needs instruction to a regular classroom.
From the start of the pandemic, the Morses reined in their lives. No more Walmart, no more Target. David, considered an essential worker, had to go to the store, but otherwise, they stayed close to home.
On July 2, David was diagnosed with COVID. His fever spiked to 104 degrees, and he had trouble breathing, but he recovered in a couple of weeks. Priscilla was next, on July 17. Her case was mild, though even now she can't smell or taste. She sent her youngest kids to stay with her parents and isolated herself in her bedroom until she was cleared on July 31.
Then, on Aug. 3, Gigi seemed lethargic. She threw up. Priscilla took her to the doctor's office, where Gigi drank a blue slushie, ate Oreos and ran around the waiting room. Her heart rate was fine, her temperature 97.4, her breathing clear.
The doctor figured she had a stomach bug and sent her home.
The next day, Priscilla went to the store and left Gigi with her older kids and her son's nurse. Priscilla was two blocks from home when her 17-year-old son called, screaming: "Gigi's dead, come home!"
Priscilla arrived to find two ambulances, three police cars and a firetruck in front of her house. At the hospital, doctors worked on Gigi for 40 minutes, but there was no bringing her back.
A coronavirus test came up positive. There had been no seizure, no sign of any of her other problems flaring. Gigi had drowned in her sleep, a doctor explained. "Her lungs were on fire," Priscilla said, "totally full. Her body couldn't handle the COVID."
"All I could think about was, I'd had it last," Priscilla said. "I felt like a murderer."
For years, the Morses have had a large social media following of people who admire their devotion to adoption and their care for medically troubled kids. That community rallied around the family, raised money, showered them with love.
Others have attacked them: "Keyboard cowboys who scream that the virus is a hoax," Priscilla said.
"You have to have a really thick skin," she said. "I can't have them telling me they're sorry for my loss and then five minutes later screaming that someone's taking their rights because we need them to wear a piece of cloth on their face."
Six months after Gigi died, there are some good moments, such as when people tell the Morses that they weren't going to get a vaccination but will now because of Gigi.
But mostly, there is the everyday of life with those left behind, moments like when Priscilla's 2-year-old picks up his mother's cellphone and looks for pictures of his sister, or when he toddles into her old room and calls out, "Gigi, where are you?"
The night before Jason Boatman lost his only son to COVID-19 in January, the two of them huddled on the couch doing their Sunday night thing, watching cartoons. They clicked on a show about vampires, and J.J., a third-grader, was intrigued.
"I want to be a vampire," he announced. "But not a mean one."
Jason laughed. Being a vampire isn't always so great, he said, because they don't age.
"You want to stay 9 years old forever?" the father asked. "Everyone around you will grow old, everyone will die."
J.J. took a beat to think about it, then replied, "Yes!" But he'd do it under his own rules: "I'll just bite you all!"
Earlier that evening, J.J. — Jason Jayden, officially — had been his normal, high-energy self, running around the house, hiding under blankets, to the exasperation of his older sisters, Sabrina, 13, and Electra, 14. For dinner, J.J.'s mother, Priscilla, had made his favorite meal — hot dogs with melted cheddar cheese, served with chocolate milk. He had devoured it as usual.
But that night, J.J., who typically fought to stay up late, got drowsy while watching the cartoons. When his parents tucked him in, J.J. complained of a tickle in his throat. Later, Jason noticed J.J. wheezing slightly, but that happened often given his asthma. He had no fever and otherwise seemed fine.
J.J. was still sleeping at 6 a.m., when Jason left for the Tyson meat factory where he's worked for 14 years. He had barely started his shift when his boss ran over saying Jason's wife had called, screaming. Something was wrong with J.J.; he was in the emergency room.
Back at their place in Vernon, Texas, a small town near the Oklahoma border, Priscilla had heard her son call out not more than 10 minutes after Jason left for work.
"Help me, help me," the boy cried. He couldn't breathe. Priscilla ran for the nebulizer they kept to treat J.J.'s asthma. She sat him on the couch, but he turned purple. Suddenly, he fell to the floor and began bleeding from his mouth and nose. Priscilla called 911.
By the time Jason got to the hospital, J.J. was on oxygen, conscious but "freaking out," his father said. The next 12 hours were a blur.
A social worker asked Jason and Priscilla to wait outside while doctors and nurses took turns hand-pumping oxygen into J.J. The hospital had no ventilator, the social worker explained. A medevac helicopter to Fort Worth, 2½ hours away by car, was summoned, but fog prevented takeoff.
Seven hours after Priscilla first called for help, J.J. arrived at the Fort Worth children's hospital by ambulance.
There, a nurse approached Jason and Priscilla. It was clear she had been crying. J.J.'s lungs and heart were in bad shape, she said. She showed them an X-ray: His lungs were full of fluid.
J.J. had tested positive for the coronavirus, the nurse explained, and he was experiencing severe inflammation. ER staffers had spent 32 minutes doing CPR on J.J. Now, his oxygen-starved brain had swollen.
That night, Jason and Priscilla took turns sleeping, and sobbing, next to J.J. In the morning, doctors told them it wouldn't be long. Later that day, J.J. died.
Jason, 38, has replayed that night over and over. How did they get there? The virus had torn through Jason's plant months earlier, and he and his older daughter had caught it. Jason's moderate case kept him in bed for several weeks. His daughter lost her senses of taste and smell but was otherwise asymptomatic. In the months that followed, everyone in the family had been well. And after J.J. died, they all tested negative.
Maybe J.J. caught the bug at school. Central Elementary had opened for in-person instruction a few weeks before he fell ill. Jason and his family wore masks, but they knew not everyone in their community did. The source of J.J.'s infection remains unknown.
Was there something President Trump, whom Jason had supported through the turmoil of the past four years, might have done differently?
"I believe he did the best he could," Jason said. "Once it started, there was no way of stopping it."
Jason still searches for a different path for J.J., a happy kid who swam and played tennis, who loved video games and Sonic the Hedgehog. What if the weather had been nicer that day and the helicopter had made it?
Priscilla, 39, a stay-at-home mom who had been preparing to get her teaching certificate, has pulled back from that effort; it's too painful to be around little kids. The Boatmans have withdrawn their daughters from school to keep them close and safe.
At the funeral home this month, Jason's mother, Rhonda, stayed by her grandson's casket for as long as she was allowed, talking to him about heaven.
"You don't have to go to bed on time there," she told him. "You can eat all the pizza and hot dogs you want. And you can look at the stars."
Elizabeth English was always the comforter. As the youngest of six siblings, she made it her business to squeeze quality time from everyone. She charmed her way into winning smiles from her admittedly tempestuous mother. She cuddled. She joked.
"Everything she was about was to make others happy," said her eldest sister, Alesha Olsen.
At school, Elizabeth — a seventh-grader in Payson, Ariz., a small town surrounded by Tonto National Forest, 90 miles northeast of Phoenix - channeled her enthusiasm into cheerleading. She practiced until the sun settled behind the ponderosa pine forest along the Mogollon Rim that hems her hometown.
Every day after school, Elizabeth would walk to the salon where her mother, Carrie, worked as a nail tech. Elizabeth loved making people feel beautiful, with custom gel tips or the latest makeup contouring technique.
Payson, settled by cowboys and miners in what was Apache country, had been spared the worst of the pandemic. It was a place where people considered masking a personal choice. But the virus soon arrived with weekend visitors from the Phoenix area, escaping to Payson's pristine streams and trails.
On Dec. 3, Elizabeth, who had been going to school in person, came home with an ominous pallor. Her mother figured she might be menstruating and kept her daughter home. But she developed a rash and a temperature of 104. No amount of fluid, cold compresses, vitamins or pain reliever eased her symptoms.
Confined to her room all weekend, Elizabeth grew lethargic, stopped eating and complained of abdominal pain. Her mother took her to an urgent-care facility, where she tested negative for the coronavirus. Could it be the flu? A 24-hour bug? The doctor didn't seem worried.
But when Elizabeth started vomiting, Carrie, alarmed, took her to the overwhelmed emergency room of their hospital. She again tested negative for the virus. The girl clutched her stuffed duck — flat and floppy from years of bedtime squeezes — as a physician stuck her three times during a failed spinal tap.
Her fever spiked, and an ambulance rushed Elizabeth an hour and a half away to Phoenix Children's Hospital. The next 24 hours was a blur of X-rays, blood draws, nurses shuffling in and out with IV bags.
In the intensive care unit, Carrie tried to suppress her panic as doctors debated what might be going on. They scribbled three possibilities onto a whiteboard: Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Toxic shock syndrome. MIS-C.
Multisystem inflammatory syndrome, she learned, is a rare condition that affects children weeks after they are exposed to the coronavirus. But no one in the English household had tested positive for the virus.
Carrie saw the doctors running out of options and time. With a relentless fever and a weakened heart, Elizabeth was covered in bags of ice, her swollen limbs bulging with eight lines of intravenous fluid protruding like tentacles.
Three days into the assault on her body, the 12-year-old said, "Mommy, I cannot do this anymore."
"Yes, you can, baby," her mother said.
Agitated, hungry and uncomfortable, Elizabeth fought on. Carrie wet her daughter's lips with a sponge and fed her ice chips. They watched movies between doctor visits and slept minutes at a time.
Elizabeth's father, Adam English, who had been working out of state and caught the first flight he could to join them in Phoenix, arrived before his daughter's breathing became sporadic, before she went into cardiac arrest, before the room flooded with doctors and nurses.
Carrie ran into an empty room next door and fell to her knees: "Take me," she said. "Take me instead, Lord."
She ran back in: "Please help us!"
Doctors told the couple there was nothing else to be done.
"I want you to try one more time," Carrie told a doctor. She escaped one more time into the next room to pray.
After more than an hour, the doctors stepped back and walked away.
More than 400 people attended Elizabeth's memorial service, watching from inside the church, in an overflow space, from outside and online. Her mother could not bring herself to speak at the service. Instead, she raised her phone and played the song "Jealous of the Angels": "It's not my place to question / Only God knows why / I'm just jealous of the angels / Around the throne tonight."
A happy baby who grew into a happy, plucky child, Tagan Drone seemed, her father said, like a kid already in the know. She bopped along in her mother's car to old songs, like Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," or to anything by the Temptations.
"She would give us that feeling she had been here before — all the older songs she would get hip to," said her father, Quincy Drone.
Tagan loved her hoverboard, playing with dolls and running as fast as she could — a trait Drone, a former track star, thinks she inherited from him. They called her "Titan."
Tagan proved to be the fairy dust that cemented the bond between Drone, 30, and Lastassija White, 27, the couple said.
"She taught me how to be a father," said Drone, who has jobs at Walmart and a convenience store. "I was a knucklehead. ... She was the person who made me settle down and take life more serious."
In the fall, 5-year-old Tagan headed off to in-person kindergarten at Coronado Elementary School in Amarillo, Texas, wearing a pink shirt, pink mask and matching pink bow on her head. She planned to be a mermaid for Halloween. A pink-and-green costume was ready and hanging on her closet door the last week of October when she suddenly fell ill.
Always "perfectly healthy," she started sleeping a lot, her mother said. Then, one night, she woke up vomiting. The next morning, her mother took her to Northwest Texas Healthcare System hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with COVID-19 and said Tagan should go home and isolate.
That night, Drone went to work his night shift. About 3 a.m. Oct. 30, White checked on Tagan and found her unresponsive. An ambulance took her to the emergency room, where she was pronounced dead a short time later.
Drone saw her in the ER, his little girl's eyes still wide open.
"I could tell she was really scared," he said. He figured "she didn't want to close her eyes not seeing her mom or dad there."
A hospital spokesman in a statement expressed sympathy for the family's "heartbreaking tragedy" and said that "a small fraction of patients who test positive for COVID-19 are hospitalized. The rest are sent home with specific discharge instructions."
Through the harrowing months that followed, the couple have felt compelled to warn others how suddenly COVID can take a child.
"Look what happened to us," Drone said. "People have to take it serious. And it's not over. We're still in the pandemic. We're still in 2021. Do you think no more kids are going to die? Tagan was the light for us. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy."
The calls from friends and relatives have quieted, and now White and Drone find themselves alone in a strange new house, to which they moved so as not to stay where Tagan had died.
"People don't check on you no more, it's regular life now," Drone said. He copes by writing poetry but worries about his partner, who suffers from nightmares and wakes up screaming.
"When you look at Staja now, she's an empty soul," he said.
When they moved, they kept few of Tagan's things, just some beloved hair bows and dolls from "PJ Masks," the Disney Junior TV show about 6-year-olds who turn into superheroes at night. Tagan loved the blue PJ Masker the best, the one whose superpowers are agility and speed.
"I just simply think if she had to be a superhero," Drone recalled, "she'd rather run fast than fly."
Kimora "Kimmie" Lynum had barely turned 9 when she started to plan her 10th birthday party. It would be big, a fairy tale like the stories she loved, and there would be unicorns everywhere.
In July, after Kimmie became Florida's youngest victim of COVID, her family honored her with a big unicorn painted on her casket, which was driven to the cemetery in a horse-drawn carriage.
"We dressed her like a princess," said Travisha Donaldson, Kimmie's godmother. "She had on a fluffy white gown and a white shawl. She had a gold crown, and bracelets and earrings and a ring that all had unicorns. And she got buried with a wand."
On Feb. 3, on what would have been her 10th birthday, Kimmie's family and friends gathered at Evergreen Cemetery in Gainesville, Fla. They brought more than two dozen balloons, many featuring unicorns, and stuffed animals, silk flowers and, to light a path to Kimmie's grave, five solar-powered lights, decorated with unicorn stickers.
"She would have had a big birthday party that day, because that's what she wanted," said 17-year-old Zikasha Young, Kimmie's cousin. "It would have been the best day for her. She couldn't wait to turn 10."
Kimmie's resting place sits beside that of her father, Theophilus Lynum, 28, who died in April when police say he was shot by a woman he was fighting with.
Kimora was Mikasha Young-Holmes's only child. Young-Holmes, 27, did not want to be interviewed for this report.
No one knew that Kimmie had COVIDuntil after she'd died. She'd been healthy right up to July 11, when she told her mother that her stomach hurt. When her temperature jumped to 103, her family took her to the hospital in Gainesville, 20 minutes from their small town of Hawthorne.
Doctors did tests, but not for COVID. Kimmie went home the same day.
Six days later, Kimmie, in great spirits, played outside with family and friends. That evening, she said she was tired and went to nap on her mother's bed. A short time later, Young-Holmes checked and found her unresponsive.
Relatives and then an ambulance crew tried CPR, but Kimmie could not be revived. A posthumous coronavirus test came back positive.
The family "wore masks and took proper precautions," said Donaldson, a manager at a Gainesville Walmart. "At one time, we were all illiterate to the subject. They were saying that kids couldn't get it. I was hearing that not too long before Kimora passed."
No one has figured out where Kimmie contracted the virus. No one else in the family got COVID, Donaldson said.
A fourth-grader at Ochwilla Elementary School, Kimmie was a good student, liked to play Mario Kart, especially with her mom, and loved to make videos, her cousin Zikasha said: "She was always asking me, 'Do you want to be in our TikToks?' She'd dance in them, or do things like the jelly fruit challenge."
Since Kimmie died, "it's very empty and quiet," Zikasha said. "Being an older cousin and having all these little cousins, sometimes it's like, oh gosh, can you guys just be quiet? But now she's gone and it's quiet. There's something missing."
Kimora's mother has left her bedroom intact. A Baby Alive doll that Kimora wanted, but that arrived too late, waits in the room.
"Sometimes, you think about it, and you're OK," Donaldson said. "But other times, the smallest thing gets you thinking about it again, and you spend the rest of the day remembering. They say time heals, but I don't believe that. I think time just teaches you how to handle the pain."
The Washington Post's Magda Jean-Louis and Julie Tate contributed to this report.