Catching Covid with Caleb


OPINION — Caleb Wallace, 30, died of Covid-19 Saturday and it seems the rest of the country decided he deserved it after seeing the deluge of hateful comments on social media, especially on Twitter. Caleb was, after all, a conservative constitutionalist who voiced his concerns that government overreach was a dangerous thing during the tumultuous summer of 2020. This made him a perfect target for the woke crowds on social media to use as a prop to express their moral superiority.

For those not in the woke mob, a little context about Caleb’s plight is in order.

Tom Green County officials had shut everything down starting March 20, 2020 in accordance with an executive order from the governor. It was to be just for two weeks. In an interview on March 20 when the shutdown began, San Angelo Mayor Brenda Gunter said she didn’t see the shutdown lasting for more than the “15 days to stop the spread,” a campaign promoted by the Trump White House task force that was headed by Vice President Mike Pence. Task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci was seemingly in agreement.

Yet, the shutdown dragged on because the goal posts were moved. Two weeks turned into eternity as the shutdown was extended. The shutdown’s purpose first expressed as needed only to allow time for the finest healthcare system in the world to stock up on N95 masks then became an effort to stop anyone anywhere from getting sick at all.

As a county, we awaited each passing day for the avalanche of Covid positive case reports but in the news, reports of new cases remained at a trickle. Watching news in far flung places like New York City where Governor Andrew Cuomo left a military hospital ship parked practically empty in New York Harbor while he populated nursing homes with Covid-19 positive patients sent the Covid-19 deaths to new highs there, but we wondered aloud here, why isn’t it that bad?

The first spike of significant Covid infections didn’t start until July 4, 2020, but considering the population of the county at 117,000 people, the general perception was even that spike didn’t require the draconian shutdowns we were experiencing. Indeed, Covid-19 deaths countywide had only reached 40 cumulatively by the end of August 2020. Many of the deaths were reported as people aged greater that 70 years old or with comorbidities or both. Caleb, at 29 years old at the time, did not fit the profile of a Covid victim.

Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars, restaurants, gyms, salons, and public schools closed March 20.… He started to re-open businesses April 27,… but then re-closed bars shortly thereafter because bars near universities around the state had too many gatherings of large crowds, according to photos in social media posts. Still, the closings, reduced capacities, and constant drumming of Covid-19 fear didn’t align with what Tom Green County was experiencing on the ground and everyone knew it, even if reluctant to admit so in public.

Live music shows transferred outside the city limits to a place called Cooper’s Barbecue in Christoval, south of San Angelo. With weekend concerts, it became the speakeasy of the 2020 lockdowns where even city and county officials were seen enjoying life without masks or social distancing. In town, the May 2020 Black Lives Matter protests heightened tensions and by allowing them, authorities hinted that mass gatherings are okay, too. That is, if the mass gatherings were for leftist social justice causes.

Into this environment, a small group of citizens started to organize with the idea that if some can gather and protest non-existent brutality by the San Angelo Police Department, why not protest about an issue that really matters? That is, why have we shut down family businesses while Walmart thrives because of special exceptions to the rules? The volume of grumbling was rising across the city. Bar owners met to organize a protest of the governor’s orders by opening up en masse, overwhelming their Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission overlords who enforced their continuous closure (the bar owners were initially reluctant and then the governor reopened bars before the protest could be launched). Privately, Mayor Gunter was telling supporters she wasn’t sure she could get re-elected if the endless shutdowns continued. She was the front spokesperson for the unified local government response to Covid-19 that left no one happy.

Enter Caleb Wallace. After an impromptu protest July 4, 2020, he organized a larger event on July 17 and promoted it. His message was we need to get back to work because the reasons for the shutdown are suspect. What is more, the power of government to choose winners (like Walmart) and losers (like locally-owned bars or restaurants) was not in accordance with the U.S. Constitution. Caleb also doubted the testing results reported, suspecting the daily case reports were inflated to justify future “tyranny” by the government.

Blood was boiling by mid-summer 2020 and if Caleb hadn’t initiated the protests, someone else would have. The protests happened, but interest wained as lockdown policies coming out of Austin loosened.

By the end of August 2020 schools got back to in-person learning. Governor Abbott was leading Texas out of the lockdown mode, but Caleb was still watching — and suspicious. The last time I saw him in person was at a November 2020 briefing of the County’s informal coronavirus task force, just as the case counts were rising again during the winter surge of the Alpha variant of the coronavirus. Suspecting another government-mandated shutdown, he asked questions of the chief medical officer at Shannon Medical Center and told the doctor he didn’t trust the way the medical center was conducting PCR testing. The case counts were inflated, he alleged.

The vaccines appeared in San Angelo in late December 2020 and by April 2021, the case counts reported daily were in the single digits. Few deaths were reported. The vaccines seemed to be working, even as we heard reports of a new Delta variant of the coronavirus ravishing India. Caleb penned a letter to the editor on April 10, 2021, asking the San Angelo ISD to stop requiring masks for its students.

For whatever it’s worth, Governor Abbott agreed with Caleb. He issued an executive order forbidding local governing bodies in Texas like school boards from mandating masks in time for the fall semester of 2021. Our local health authority attempted to order masks just last week but that effort was struck down by the Texas Supreme Court.

By the first part of July, a year after the protests, it looked like Covid-19 was over in Tom Green County. Everything was opened back up and no one was wearing a mask. Then, suddenly at the end of July, case counts again rose quickly, as high as 150-160 per day by mid-August. Daily death announcements followed. Authorities told us those getting infected were younger than during the December 2020 spike, as most of the elderly citizens by this time were vaccinated.

According to Caleb’s father Russ, in mid-July he took Caleb and his boys to Port Aransas for a deep sea fishing trip.

“On the way back, none of us were feeling good,” he said. He suspected they caught it at a crowded truck stop on the trip.

“A couple days back home, and all of us were hacking (coughing). Caleb and I had it the worst,” he said.

Russ said without taking the Covid test they both contacted a doctor and both started on ivermectin. “We were on it for a week and doing pretty good,” Russ said.

In San Angelo, the protocol for Covid-19 requires one to take a test to see if there is an infection. If positive, and no bad symptoms, the patient is told to isolate at home. At the time Russ and Caleb caught Covid-19, there were no highly publicized recommended therapies to partake unless breathing became difficult. At which time, an emergency room visit is recommended.

At first, Russ said both he and Caleb felt better, but a few days later, both took a turn for the worst. Caleb had asthma, Russ said. He convinced his son to visit the ER. There, Caleb’s test for Covid-19 came back positive and Caleb was admitted to the hospital. This was on July 30.

Dr. James Vretis, the local health authority for Tom Green County, works at the Shannon ER and has treated thousands of Covid-19 patients. He said the decision to admit a patient into the hospital depends primarily on the patient’s oxygen saturation level. A normal lung will produce 96-98 percent oxygen saturation. If the saturation falls towards 90 or 91, the infection is serious.

Vretis doesn’t believe in hydroxychloroquine. “The data on hydroxychloroquine is very clear,” he said. “It’s useless.”

He is less against ivermectin, but warns, “Although there is not as strong evidence against it (as hydroxychloroquine), for a lot of reasons it looks like it doesn’t work. Some docs want to use it and we don’t interfere. But if you’re taking ivermectin, it should be an ‘and’ and not an ‘or’ to monoclonal antibodies,” he said. “If you have Covid, please get monoclonal antibodies.”

Neither Caleb nor Russ were vaccinated and recent data shows that the vaccination may not stop a Covid-19 infection, but in most cases, it lessens the severity of the infection giving doctors a chance to arrest it.

Caleb Wallace in happier times, one riding a horse and the right when asking questions at a city-county Covid-19 briefing in November 2020.

Caleb Wallace in happier times, one riding a horse and the right when asking questions at a city-county Covid-19 briefing in November 2020.

The challenge is, when does a patient who just tested positive for Covid-19 (or suspects he or she has it) know when to go in and get treatment? This wasn’t clear in July 2021.

After Caleb was admitted to the hospital, Russ said he himself wasn’t getting better either. “I wasn’t making progress,” he said. He went to the ER, took the test and it came back positive, and they admitted him, too.

“I was in the hospital for 13 days,” said Russ. “And for several of those days, I didn’t think I was going to come out alive. I was looking down the barrel of a gun.”

“I was scared as hell while struggling to breathe and get the oxygen you need. Your mind messes with you. It’s scary as hell,” Russ said.

As for Caleb, “It was all downhill for him. He was struggling,” his father said. Caleb died after many days on a ventilator on August 29, about a month after he was admitted into the hospital.

Vretis said Covid is a horrible disease. The X-rays of a Covid-19 patient’s chest, where infection isn’t localized to just one area, but with splotches all over the lungs, doesn’t tell the whole story, he said. Tending to a Covid patient is like watching your patient drown over a period of four to six weeks, he said.

Russ said he was lucky to get out of the hospital alive. At 57 and in good health, he said Covid is still impacting him. At home, he is still on oxygen.

Vretis explained that escaping death is only part of the challenge with Covid. “Many people who have had a bad case of Covid are permanently disabled, primarily because it is rare that lung capacity is completely restored,” Vretis said.

Russ said he believed he had Covid in December 2020, although he wasn’t tested until later after he recovered when he took an antibody test. “My doc told me I was swimming in antibodies,” he said.

All of us in Tom Green County have experienced the rollercoaster of events over the past year-and-a-half. People here, particularly men, are fierce independent thinkers and doers. For someone like Caleb, traveling to a job site in an oil field from here takes longer than a commute from Washington, DC to Philadelphia. Wide open spaces define us and offer a sense of invincibility. For many of us, we enjoy our freedom and understand that freedom doesn’t come without risk.

As an anecdotal touchstone, Sunday I went to Walmart on the southwest side, in a middle- to upper-middle-class part of the city. At the front door, a greeter asked everyone entering without wearing a mask if each would wear one if the greeter gave them one. Not many were taking the greeter up on the free mask offer. I asked he greeter how many accepted a free mask.

“Not many,” he said “About one in 200 do.”

The debate over the effectiveness of masks points towards a skepticism of government and politics that runs rampant here. We don’t trust our local elected officials and certainly hold in disdain anyone in Washington, especially with what has become the most politically charged question this year, ‘Should I take the vaccine?'

Russ said he will probably get vaccinated after he has recovered. He said he hopes Caleb’s story convinces many to get protection from Covid-19 now and to seek treatment sooner (like getting monoclonal antibodies) to save their life. That is, take actions to reduce your risk. But for now, he is preparing for a memorial service for his son Caleb.

“No father should lose a son, but I lost mine,” Russ said, holding back tears.


Update August 30 at 1 p.m.

We asked Doug Schultz, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Shannon Clinic for the latest medical advice for people who catch Covid-19. His recommendations mirror what Dr. Vretis told us.

"Our first recommendation is the monoclonol antibody treatment. There is a 10 day window from the onset of symptoms where the treatment is most effective. Last week we also started giving this treatment via injection instead of IV infusion. Patients like this form much better as it just takes a few minutes instead of a one hour infusion. A physician does have to order this treatment, but any of our physicians can order this including those at Urgent Care. There are some requirements in that the patient has to have at least one of several high risk conditions such as diabetes or asthma. However, a BMI over 25 also qualifies which includes a higher percentage of most patients," said Dr. Schultz.

"The other recommendations are to treat fever with over-the-counter products. Stay home to rest and minimize spread to others. You should seek medical evaluation if becoming short of breath or not improving. Other medications have not shown to be effective such as Ivermectin, Hydorchloroquine, or steroids (unless for asthma)," said Schultz.

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