Kyra Johnson

Kyra Johnson, 52, celebrating her birthday and Mardi Gras earlier this year.

Kyra Johnson's relatives can't plan her funeral services or even grieve together during this time of social isolation.

Instead they're asking for prayers and kindness from afar, asking people to heed the warnings of state and national leaders advising residents to stay home whenever possible and mitigate the impacts of the spreading coronavirus, which threatens to overwhelm Louisiana hospitals in the coming days. 

Johnson, 52, is one of four East Baton Rouge residents who have died from the virus this week, according to records released Wednesday by the parish coroner's office. The coroner is currently investigating three additional recent deaths with a possible coronavirus connection. 

"This came in like a hurricane and we weren't really prepared for it," said Phaedra Johnson, Kyra Johnson's younger sister. "People need to take this seriously because there's so much we don't know — who's infected, how it spreads, how many more lives will be lost — because it's killing people, young and old."

The virus is sweeping across Louisiana, where the number of confirmed cases has increased at one of the highest rates per capita in the nation and the death toll has quickly surpassed those in other states, reaching 65 as of Wednesday afternoon.

New Orleans remains the epicenter of the state's outbreak, but Baton Rouge officials are warning residents there's no reason to believe the impacts here will be tempered. Cases in the region are continuing to rise, with deaths now reported in West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Ascension parishes.

Three-quarters of Louisiana's 64 parishes have now confirmed at least one case of the virus, and 19 have reported deaths. 

Kyra Johnson worked at a Burger King near LSU campus, and had been working until she was hospitalized March 15 with shortness of breath and flu symptoms. She had started experiencing minor symptoms weeks earlier, her sister said, adding that "she works in the public so there's no telling where she got it."

Johnson had been in the hospital for three full days before she was tested for coronavirus, her sister said. Phaedra Johnson said she wasn't sure why the test wasn't administered earlier.

The results came back Sunday — a full week after Kyra Johnson checked herself into the hospital — and she died on Tuesday, her sister said. 

Testing shortages and delays have been widespread in Louisiana and across the country as public health officials scramble to ramp up response efforts. The number of tests becoming available for Louisiana residents has increased dramatically within the past week with the addition of private labs. Previously all tests were being routed through the state-run lab, limiting the number that could be processed. 

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It's unclear how much of the recent surge in confirmed cases can be attributed to the increase in testing. Either way, the number and rate of patients who require hospitalization has jumped dramatically in recent days. Across the state, there are now 491 patients hospitalized who have tested positive for the coronavirus, 220 more than the day before. About 193 of those patients require ventilators, a number that doubled from Tuesday to Wednesday.

State officials expressed alarm Wednesday about a potential shortage of ventilators, with Gov. John Bel Edwards calling it "probably the most significant near-term issue related to our capacity to treat COVID-19 patients." Meanwhile hospital workers across Louisiana are reporting dire shortages of even basic protective gear like masks, gowns and gloves. 

Phaedra Johnson said she's worried those shortages contributed to her sister's rapid decline.

Kyra Johnson did have serious underlying medical conditions — she had been on dialysis treatment for the past 12 years and was diagnosed with emphysema — but was healthy enough to work full time and play with her grandchildren, her sister said. The last time the two women saw each other was on March 2 at a birthday party for Johnson's granddaughter. 

Just weeks before that, the family had been celebrating Johnson's birthday and Mardi Gras together.

It was around the beginning of March when Johnson started experiencing increased shortness of breath. She used an oxygen mask when sleeping, and thought maybe the mask was causing an infection. Then her temperature spiked and she thought she had the flu. Finally she checked herself into the hospital, believing she had caught pneumonia, her sister said.

Phaedra Johnson said this wasn't the first time Kyra had become dangerously ill and was hospitalized with similar symptoms. She had pulled through before, but "with this coronavirus sweeping through, that just was the extra push she couldn't fight off."

Now the family is left grieving their loss while watching the continued spread of the virus and its growing death toll. They're hoping to hold funeral services once the pandemic subsides, but in the meantime are waiting in limbo, unable to say a proper goodbye.

Phaedra Johnson is a Walgreens store manager in New Orleans. She's wearing gloves and a mask during her shifts, but said she can't just stay home, and the store can't close. 

Kyra Johnson left behind four adult children and six grandchildren. She was originally from New Orleans but had moved to Baton Rouge about a year ago to be closer to her brother.

Little is known about the other three Baton Rouge residents who have died in recent days: two men and two women, ranging in age from 44 to 79, and all with underlying medical conditions that made them particularly vulnerable to the disease. Officials haven't specified which conditions exactly, citing medical privacy laws. 


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.