RALEIGH, N.C. — Recalling his grandmother, the Rev. Mycal Brickhouse sorts through the treasure box in his memory: how she never let him miss Sunday school, how she cheered his becoming a pastor, how she made him fetch her a sweet tea when he got home from school.

At 67, Patricia Brickhouse, better known as "Mama," had survived cancer. So when the coronavirus pandemic arrived, she stayed at home in Fayetteville, keeping clear of grocery stores and crowds. Coronavirus struck her anyway, taking her in July after almost month in the hospital.

"This pandemic does not discriminate," said Mycal Brickhouse, who leads Cary First Christian Church. "We have to be careful not to create a facade of invincibility. Because we don't control the outcome. It's a hard reality to grasp."

North Carolina has passed another in a bleak series of pandemic mileposts: 5,000 deaths.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Saturday reported 5,005 fatalities since COVID-19 first hit the state and 332,261 cases.

That's five times the number of combined fatalities from every hurricane in the state's history.

That's almost 1,000 people in one month. North Carolina recorded 4,032 deaths on Oct. 21, The News & Observer reported.

And the pandemic is far from over.

On Wednesday, the U.S. surpassed 250,000 coronavirus deaths, and on Saturday, it was 254,451. With winter coming, experts are predicting even more. Health leaders are cautioning that hospitals both large and small, urban and rural, could be overwhelmed with the volume of patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strongly advised people not to travel for the holiday to help the country avoid a massive spike in cases.

'HOW SERIOUS IT IS'

For the surviving families, the virus took on a deadly scope long before its death toll reached this new crest. Jennifer Cramer's 64-year-old father, Eli Klausner, died in April at Duke Raleigh Hospital, just two weeks after he contracted COVID-19.

"It shouldn't take losing someone for this to be important to people," she said, "and for people to understand how serious it is."

Unlike most disasters, North Carolina's chapter of the pandemic started small and inspired little panic. The first reported case came on March 3: a man who had traveled to Washington State and visited a nursing home — venturing into territory already known to be virus-prone.

The pandemic's face changed two weeks later, when Gov. Roy Cooper announced the first case of community spread in Wilson County, meaning COVID-19 had struck a victim with no known exposure to anyone with a positive test.

Since then, the coronavirus has touched North Carolinians of all ages, races and genders.

Of North Carolina's deaths, more than half the victims were 75 or older. By contrast, just 4% of people aged 25 to 49 have died.

About 51% were male while 49% were female.

Not all demographic data is complete for the state's cases and victims.

But some 29% of North Carolinians who died of the virus were African-American, though just 21% of the state's population is Black. Nine percent were Hispanic; the state's population is 10%.

By contrast, 62% of those dying of their infections were white.

ALL CORNERS OF THE STATE

After the first death on March 24 — a person from Cabarrus County — they hit all corners of the state and people of all ages and backgrounds.

These are just a few of the people whose loss left communities reeling.

— Irving McPhail, the new president of St. Augustine's University, who made an impression after just a few months of landing his dream job. He was 71.

— Sypraseuth Phouangphrachanh, better known as "Officer Bud," a 43-year-old school resource officer in Troy, whom students considered a superhero.

— Teicher Patterson, a 50-year-old principal from Halifax County, who dedicated his life to improving education in the state's poorer schools.

— Aurea Yolotzin Soto Morales, an 8-year-old who was born and raised in Durham. Known as Yoshi, she was the first pediatric COVID-19 death in the state on June 1 — and remains the only child under the age of 18 to die. The second-grader at Durham's Creekside Elementary School was playful and celebrated all of her birthdays at Disney World.

— And Chad Dorrill, a 19-year-old student at Appalachian State University, who was described as "super healthy."

With just 10,000 people, Jones County boasts the highest death rate statewide: 6% of those infected. Just north of Jacksonville, the county has one of the state's smallest populations, and interim health director Ann Pike knows some of the 15 who have lost their lives to COVID-19.

"I honestly think the ones that have been affected by the deaths and COVID itself are taking it a lot more seriously than the ones that haven't," said Pike, who contracted the virus herself. "People need to know it is real. It can be devastating to a person and to a family."

Most of the county's victims were longtime residents with underlying health conditions, Pike said.

"It makes it a lot more personal when you know somebody," Pike said.

Beth Booth, Graham County's health director, didn't personally know any of the 12 people who have died in her county. But her staff did.

"We've seen some that were family friends, close family, coworkers, things like that," Booth said. "That hit the staff pretty hard, and hit the community even harder, and I really think that's slowly converted some of the folks that weren't wearing the masks and doing the social distancing."

"It really has been a struggle," Booth said. "Just the sheer nature of this population, we'll probably have a little more trouble through the holidays."

LOOKING AHEAD

Hitting 5,000 coronavirus deaths is an arbitrary benchmark, Booth said. What's more important to her, she said, is the state's death rate, or% of positive cases.

The latter has continued to climb in recent days, reaching 8.3%. That's well above the 5% rate that health officials have set as a target because, at that rate, the spread of the virus would be manageable.

It's better to look at where you're heading than at the 5,000 number, Booth said.

"Is it getting worse, is it getting better?" Booth said. "I think people get so lost in that number, or so focused on that number, that they lose sight of why it's that high."

For Brickhouse, losing his grandmother still feels unreal. With no big family funeral, no hugs, no laughs over shared memories, the grief refuses to move along.

"We didn't have the chance to say goodbye," he said, thinking of her time alone in the hospital. "What was that moment like for her, being isolated? We knew she was a woman of faith. God was with her. But still, not being with family?"

As a pastor, he tells his congregation that following DHHS guidelines — wearing masks, practicing social distancing, holding church services virtually — is not knuckling under to state authority.

Rather, he said, it represents the best act of kindness available in a diminished era.

"This is an expression of love, and we should see it as such," he said. "This is how I best love my neighbor."

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(c)2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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