A Grieving Reporter Rushes to Get Vaccinated As Her Subject Resists

May 10, 2021 at 6:25 am
Journalist Denise Hollinshed, left, has been writing about Beverly Jones for the 63106 Project.
Journalist Denise Hollinshed, left, has been writing about Beverly Jones for the 63106 Project. PIERRE GUERIN

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center as part of Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson’s 63106 Project, a St. Louis-based nonprofit racial equity storytelling project.

When it comes to COVID-19 everyone is vulnerable.

Including Beverly Jones, the person whose life I am chronicling as part of Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson's 63106 Project.

Including me.

Jones has been a longtime resident and worker in the Preservation Square housing complex in ZIP code 63106.

According to a recent study, 67 years is the average life expectancy for a child born in 2010 in that ZIP code. That compares to an 85-year life expectancy in 63105, the region's most prosperous ZIP code, also known as Clayton. And this was before the pandemic.

Jones would appear to be Exhibit A when it comes to being vulnerable. At age 58, she suffers from lupus, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and, perhaps most significantly, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung ailment that makes it hard for Jones to breathe through a mask. Last October, she contracted the coronavirus. It made her feel ill for a few weeks. Still, Jones survived it without hospitalization and kept on keeping on, working full time as a resident advisor supervisor for the Job Corps program. She is the matriarch for a large family, a mother to four daughters, grandma to seventeen, plus she has two great-grandchildren. Two of those grandchildren have been living with her, because until recently their mother had been in jail.

"I don't have time to be sick," Jones said when we visited last September, "because I am helping everybody else."

Including me. On February 4, I lost my brother, Darnell "Dino" Walker, 76, to COVID after a struggle lasting four weeks. On that day, I had texted Jones to postpone an upcoming interview. She called me right away to see how I was doing.

It both surprised and touched me as I knew she had her own burdens to bear and didn't need to listen to mine. I held back tears and asked her about how she was holding up after overcoming the virus herself.

She told me that her struggles were continuing. She is a caregiver to her 87-year-old father, who suffers from dementia. She continues to parent her seventeen-year-old granddaughter who is living with her. And she is deeply concerned about her twelve-year-old grandson who is dealing with behavioral issues.

Meanwhile, another grandson, Michael, is incarcerated at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific for vehicle theft and assault. And another daughter, Danielle, is serving time on a murder charge at the state prison in Vandalia.

click to enlarge Beverly with her daughter, Danielle. - COURTESY BEVERLY JONES
Beverly with her daughter, Danielle.

If there was any good news, it concerned her grandchildren's mother, Linda, who had been held at the St. Louis City Justice Center on a gun violation. She was released on March 22 and given two years probation. Jones helped her find a job as a cleaner at a Metro Transit station.

Linda was quarantined after exposure to COVID at the Justice Center but did not contract the illness. Danielle contracted COVID at the Vandalia facility, but with mild effects. Knowing this and that my brother died from COVID, I asked Jones last month whether she was thinking about the vaccine.

"I ain't in no big hurry to get it," she responded.

Those words shook me to the core. I had to struggle to listen to her explain.

"I still haven't read anything that said that we should take it," Jones said softly. "My doctor basically said that she was going to leave it up to me. There's nothing out there that said what effects it will have on the person with lupus anyway."

She asked me if I had gotten the vaccine. The answer was yes, of course. My husband and I took the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on February 24 and the second on March 17.

Jones' vaccine hesitancy had me revisiting the dark place I was in beginning January 11 when my brother, Darnell, was hospitalized with COVID.

"I can't breathe," he would say with his voice straining on the voicemails he left me. "I can't breathe, Denise."

Those were the last words my brother said before he was placed on a ventilator in late January and died a week later. I wasn't able to be with him, hug him or hold his hand as he battled the virus. I shed tears from afar on a smartphone.