Georgia Today: How The 'Lovett Cluster' Stymied Contact Tracers
In May, local headlines told of an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among students at the prestigious Lovett School in Atlanta. Charles Bethea, a staff writer for The New Yorker, talks about what his reporting revealed about the tensions between privacy and the efforts by public health officials to contain the virus’ spread.
Steve Fennessy: This is “Georgia Today,” a Production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, August 21st, 2020.
Lynn Paxton: We don't believe that — that these exposures occurred in relation to the school activities. From what was described by everyone, it sounds like their graduation ceremony was kind of done in a way that we would have recommended. It’s what happened afterwards.
Steve Fennessy: One of Georgia's first school-related coronavirus clusters occurred back in May in the days after a number of graduates of the Lovett School, an exclusive prep school in Buckhead, started testing positive for COVID-19. This week, Charles Bethea, a staff writer at The New Yorker discusses the challenges that contact tracers found in getting Lovett parents simply to talk to them, and what lessons we’re learning — or not learning — as schools across the state begin to reopen. Charles wrote about the Lovett school in this week's New Yorker.
Steve Fennessy: So, Charles, for those not familiar with it. What exactly is the Lovett school?
Charles Bethea: Lovett is an expensive private K-12 school in Buckhead with around 160 kids per class. If we're gonna generalize, I would say it caters to this city's “Country Club class” and I say that, not as a graduate of the school, but as somebody who grew up very much in that same social milieu.
Steve Fennessy: So you yourself didn't go to — to Lovett?
Charles Bethea: No, I went to Paideia. My father went to Westminster. His siblings went to Lovett. Yeah. It — it's a — it's sort of a demographic I'm familiar with. I think Lovett in particular is known for being especially white, especially conservative, and fairly slow to embrace social change. Kind of famously, Martin Luther King III was rejected by the school on the basis of race in 1963. Lovett was also the first school in Georgia where there was a COVID outbreak.
Newscaster: Tonight, a local private school says some of its graduates have come down with COVID-19.
Charles Bethea: One Saturday night last May, 11Alive TV in Atlanta reported the existence of what would soon be called “The Lovett Cluster.”
Newscaster: The graduates tested positive for the coronavirus. The spokesperson said, in part, “unfortunately, the infectious nature of the COVID-19 virus means that most communities will be touched at some point. And we recognize how hard separation and missed milestones have been on the emotional lives of our students.” The school switched to virtual learning back on March 15th.
Steve Fennessy: So they resorted, as most schools did, to remote learning. But then they had the graduation. Tell us about the graduation.
Charles Bethea: Back in May, they had a vehicular parade or procession where families drove their vehicles with their kids who attended Lovett — around the campus. It lasted something like 45 minutes. None of the public health officials I spoke to were terribly concerned about how that actually happened.
Lynn Paxton: We don't believe that these exposures occurred in relation to the school activities. From what was described by everyone, it sounds like their graduation ceremony was kind of done with a way that we would have recommended.
Steve Fennessy: I talked to Fulton County Health Director Lynn Paxton.
Lynn Paxton: It’s what happened afterward. You know, when kids are released and they go out and go, you know, go to party and all that.
Charles Bethea: There were parties I came to learn as large as 50 people held both inside homes and in backyards. There were also smaller parties. We don't actually know the — like — like many aspects of the story — we don't actually know exactly how many parties there were because very few folks have been willing to participate with inquiries from public health officials and journalists like myself. But it's important to note that these parties occurred a few weeks after Governor Kemp had lifted his shelter-in-place order.
Brian Kemp, Governor of Georgia: Nothing really changed other than lifting the shelter-in-place for most Georgians. But as they go out, they still must adhere to social distancing and large gathering bans.
Charles Bethea: At this point, the state was open for business again. And as one Lovett father put it to me (attempting to rationalize why these parents would allow their kids to have parties), he said, we don't live in New York. Our state was open. So if he felt like that was sort of the — uh— the green light.
Steve Fennessy: News came out about this cluster in late May. It was in the AJC, it was in 11Alive. That is how Fulton public health officials found out about the cluster?
Charles Bethea: Yeah.
Steven Fennessy: So do we know how many students and relatives, parents actually came down with COVID in those days and weeks following the graduation and the parties after?
Charles Bethea: So it's at least somewhere between two and three dozen. In an email, the guy just below Lynn Paxton at Fulton County Health Department was asked by a member of his team: Do we have a hard number? This was three weeks into the investigation. Do we have a hard number of how many people at Lovett have COVID, or something like that. And he said there's no simple answer to that question. And it's important to note, you know, the parties weren't just happening at Lovett. And that's what a lot of the Lovett parents wanted to tell me, and rightfully so. They were happening all over the place. Westminster, probably Paideia, where I went. But, you know, they seemed to be the most flagrant, at least the ones we know about, among Lovett students and families. And those hit the news first. And so it did become a bit of a Lovett story.
Newscaster: Welcome back to CBS This Morning. How about some news on getting back to work? As more states work to reopen, knowing who has the coronavirus is going to be key, and one way to do that is something called contact tracing. That's about tracking down...
Steve Fennessy: Help us understand a little bit about the concept of contact tracing.
Charles Bethea: Yeah. So contact tracing as an idea is fairly simple. Investigators with county or state public health departments communicate with people known to have an infectious disease and they learn who have been in close contact with the infected. And then they ask those in this wider group to isolate themselves until the risk of infecting others has passed. And you have to move quickly.
Steve Fennessy: So Crystal Watson is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. And in April, she told NPR that privacy is a critical part of contact tracing.
Crystal Watson: I think people need to understand also that this is going to be important for your health. So imagine that you were in the grocery store, you were near somebody who is actively sick with COVID-19, and then you receive a text message a couple of weeks later, possibly to say, oh, you might have been exposed. I would want to receive that text message so I know what to do and what to look out for. And I think we are going to have to accept some tradeoffs in privacy to try and get this pandemic under control. But privacy is obviously very important. We should minimize any invasion of privacy to the extent we can.
Steve Fennessy: So, Charles, a fundamental part of contact tracing is you have to offer up information. Private information. So is there or was there some sort of objection on the part of parents to doing that?
Charles Bethea: Yeah, I think I think parents at Lovett were very concerned about questions being asked of them, whether from contact tracers or journalists or even the school itself. They weren't sure where and how this information was going to be used. Contact information, phone numbers, names, addresses, these things are critical for public health officials to have as they try to trace an outbreak. And in this case, Lovett did offer up and quickly names and phone numbers, but the phone numbers proved to be pretty ineffective.
Steve Fennessy: When the contact tracers at Fulton County started dialing these numbers, what did they hear?
Charles Bethea: In some cases or many cases, they heard nothing but dial tones or answering machines. In some cases, they were politely declined. And I can read, if you like, the text message —
Steve Fennessy: Yeah
Charles Bethea: — that's sort of the most, I guess, emphatic denial of a request for information.
Steve Fennessy: So this is from a Lovett parent to a contact tracer.
Charles Bethea: Correct, yeah. A contact tracer reaches out to a parent and says “hi” and then uses the name of the parent. “I would like to find a way to contact the owners of the two homes where there were gatherings that students attended.” And I think he was referring to the two biggest parties. “Is there any way,” he continued the text, “you can help me contact them? Thanks, Carson.” The parent responds: “No. I will not help you. You are a fraud. Leave me and all the Lovett families and kids alone. Get the Lord on board and go volunteer if you have this much time to stalk social media. The entire Lovett family is onto you and your dishonesty. You did not get our names from the nurse. That would be a violation and they would never provide that private info. Please leave us alone." This investigation was more or less wrapped up or perhaps abandoned in early July. I think I faced a lot of the same things that public health faced. For many of the same reasons. There's a great deal of skepticism, to put it mildly, about the news media writ large right now, and I dealt with that in this situation. But they were already primed, I think, to hang up or to sort of scoff or get upset because of the number of calls they'd already received, both from media and from public health officials. And so I reached out, you know, roughly a month after the graduation parties and began a conversation with a guy, the one — the one guy who went on record with me with his name, Thornton Kennedy at Lovett. Father of a few Lovett kids who himself attended Lovett for some amount of time, an old Atlanta guy.
Thornton Kennedy: Good afternoon this is Thornton.
Charles Bethea: Hey Thornton, it’s Charles Bethea.
Thornton Kennedy: Hey, Charles!
Charles Bethea: You doing all right?
Thornton Kennedy: I'm fine, man. How are you?
Charles Bethea: Good. Well, good, I'm doing OK. I haven't had anybody close to me get a diagnosis like your daughter? Is that what you said?
Thornton Kennedy: Yeah.
Charles Bethea: When I talked to Thornton Kennedy he told me that his daughter had contracted COVID and she just had another COVID test.
Thornton Kennedy: She tested negative today. She's got to go one more time in 24 hours. She gets back to back negatives then we are clear.
Charles Bethea: Good.
Steve Fennessy: Charles, your reporting showed that Thornton Kennedy took some issue with the public narrative of the Lovett cluster.
Thornton Kennedy: I don't feel like this is a specifically Lovett issue.
Charles Bethea: No.
Thornton Kennedy: I feel like with the state opening back up again and states opening back up again, teenagers are gonna get together.
Charles Bethea: Yeah.
Thornton Kennedy: And so as parents, we need a little ammunition here. It's really hard to get your — like — my wife always preaches this: Make good decisions, right? Everything you do, make good decisions ‘cause they’re not always under your nose, you want them to have a bit of freedom. And with COVID-19, that statement takes on such an amplified message because like making those good decisions, wearing masks, adhering to social distancing. All that stuff is really, really important.
Charles Bethea: Yeah, right.
Thornton Kennedy: But your kids don't always — they don't always make good decisions.
Charles Bethea: He was one of just a few parents who actually spoke to me. The majority of them just didn't return calls, didn't return texts, didn't return messages through other mediums. There was one woman I was really hoping to get through to who I had heard had taken part in a Nextdoor dialogue in one of these neighborhoods that a lot of Lovett parents — this is something I didn't include in the story — but a lot of Lovett parents had been debating, I guess, the wisdom of having parties around graduation.
Steve Fennessy: In retrospect? Or —
Charles Bethea: No, no, before.
Steve Fennessy: In advance?
Charles Bethea: In advance, in advance.
Steve Fennessy: Okay.
Charles Bethea: And this — this mother of a Lovett student who had basically spoken up and said, this sounds pretty dumb to me. I called her. I got through to her on the phone and she said — she just sounded very hesitant to talk to me, even on background. It was sort of like, yeah, I think I was just confused and sort of is like, I'll talk to you later maybe. And then I never got through to her again. So, you know, people — it's a hard thing, I guess, to be a voice of dissent in a community like this. And I wasn't able to find many of those.
Steve Fennessy: When we come back, what emails between and among Fulton health officials and Lovett administration revealed about the pressures being brought to bear on Fulton County contact tracers. That's ahead. This is “Georgia Today.”
Steve Fennessy: This is “Georgia Today.” I'm talking with Charles Bethea, an Atlanta-based staff writer for The New Yorker. This week, the New Yorker published a story by Charles about the Lovett outbreak. Charles, what prompted you to — to look into it deeper? Because this was the — this may have been a very prominent cluster early on, but as we've all known, there have been many, many clusters since then.
Charles Bethea: Yeah. So, I mean, it was clear from the get-go that an outbreak at a school would be a story worth following. Particularly a school with so many powerful families connected to it. It became clear this was an excellent way to examine how the pandemic intersects with class, with race, with wealth and so on. And specifically how those factors can inhibit or even completely derail a contact tracing investigation, which is more or less what happened here. I'd written about, as a contrast, I'd written about an outbreak before this among a much different community, a predominantly black, lower middle class or middle class community in Albany, Georgia, where there was an outbreak following funerals at the very beginning of all this. And it seemed like that one — very quickly a lot of the details were understood and made public about that outbreak. And it seemed important to grapple with why this one seemed to be moving much more slowly or, at least publicly, seemed to be moving much more slowly.
Steve Fennessy: Not long after the outbreak, you filed an Open Records request with Fulton County to sort of look at what was happening behind the scenes in the days and weeks after the outbreak. What did it reveal to you?
Charles Bethea: A great deal of frustration that built slowly from tracers who are trained to deal with obstacles, with difficulties, with people hanging up on them. Even for them, given that sort of reality that they face in other investigations, this one was an order of magnitude more difficult for them. But they nonetheless, you know, they tried to work their way through it. This is a contact tracing script that's used, in I think, calls to any school, but this is the one that they originally were using with Lovett. And it's basically like: “Hi, my name is Blank. I work with Fulton County Board of Health. We were notified of several students and families reporting COVID illness after attending the drive-in graduation.” So that's obviously specific to Lovett. Blah, blah, blah. “We've created a short survey that will help us gather more information about the situation and determine what factors may have led to your child's illness. All of the information you provide will be kept private. You do not have to answer any question you do not feel comfortable answering.” So then it goes on. But this script is — it's fairly — fairly gentle approach to my eyes at least to — to initiating a conversation with students and parents about what may have happened. And yet this was still problematic, evidently, to a number of families because the principal, Meredyth Cole, still reached out to the tracers and said, hey, can you please dial back the mentioning of Lovett, among other things, if you want them to be more responsive.
Steve Fennessy: So, Charles, you also spoke to Bill Henagan, who up until a year or two ago was on the Board of Trustees at Lovett and has had a couple of children who've gone through the school. One of the things he told you that you quote in the story is that that kind of shutting down and not helping to contact tracers was, quote, “more of a Buckhead issue.” And I'm curious what you took him to mean by that.
Charles Bethea: Yeah, he seemed — he seemed to mean that — that this was something happening more — more often in wealthy parts of the city. So he was — he was both trying, I think, to say: Look, this isn't just a Lovett thing, but it's also a Westminster thing, a Holy Innocence thing, a Pace thing, etc. And all of those schools, I think, are generally thought of as belonging to the wealthy, white-ish, conservative leaning part of Atlanta known as Buckhead. There is some evidence that, and this is from Lynn Paxton, that private physicians were were brought in to consult with some families who didn't trust the school or didn't trust the Board of Health and wanted just to deal with a physician that they probably have known for a long time and that they could trust with their diagnosis and with, you know, sort of a plan for how to move forward in terms of quarantining, etc.
Meredyth Cole: Seniors, I want to give you a warm Lovett embrace and our most sincere congratulations on finishing what could be the most challenging school year in our school’s long and rich history.
Charles Bethea: Meredyth Cole is the head of Lovett School. She had this to say to graduating seniors in a message released by the school in May.
Meredyth Cole: The class of 2020, you did it with style and grace, patience, grit and compassion.
Charles Bethea: Cole believed that the contact tracers scripts shouldn't mention Lovett specifically. I asked Fulton County Health Director Lynn Paxton why.
Lynn Paxton: I think that they felt that somehow being associated with a cluster was bad for the brand. I think that is the word they used — that it’s not good for their branding.
Charles Bethea: When I asked Cole about that, she sort of pushed back a bit on that — the branding explanation, and said that not leading with, quote, “are you a Lovett student” might provide a better response. And then Lovett's Director of Communications chimed in and said the issue was to make sure that, quote, “those who were contacted did not feel like they were in trouble or being ridiculed in any type of way.”
Steve Fennessy: So don't necessarily link the school to the cluster?
Charles Bethea: Yes. I mean, at least don't — at least don't lead with that.
Steve Fennessy: I see.
Charles Bethea: Don't lead with the school. And the tracers basically rewrote their scripts to oblige this request, which seemed like something that probably was out of the norm for them, outside of the norm in terms of how they approach these things. But they tried to adapt in real time to a very difficult community of folks and went so far as to to even do something like not mentioning Lovett at the outset of a contact tracing call.
Steve Fennessy: Has this experience that the contact tracers have had with Lovett, has it prompted any change in the way that contact tracers, at least in Fulton County or maybe beyond, are — are making initial overtures to those who may have been exposed? No matter where they are?
Charles Bethea: My sense is that with communities like the Lovett community and hopefully there won’t be, you know, similar outbreaks at Westminster, Pace, or whatever, but there very well may be. And I think they're going to be proceeding with a great deal more sensitivity and caution towards a number of these communities that are easily triggered. They're also — they're going to try to really move as quickly as possible, especially with investigations in these communities, knowing that they can really drag on.
Steve Fennessy: We're hearing more and more reports of outbreaks that are, you know, at least temporarily closing down a lot of schools. What sort of the — the lesson that the Lovett example should have been teaching us?
Charles Bethea: I mean, there’s a lot of them, I think. And this was something that — that the parents wanted to point out a lot as did some of the public health officials. But, you know, this sort of idea that kids are going to be kids and —
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Charles Bethea: — it's going to be really hard to corral them, really hard to keep them masked, really hard to keep them socially distanced. And then you have, you know, school leaders who are trying to respond to sometimes contradictory directives from local and state and national officials trying to juggle all these different mandates or suggestions or recommendations. And it's really unclear, I think, how to — how to juggle all these things in real time in an unprecedented situation. There's no real playbook for how to deal with this.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Charles Bethea, an Atlanta-based staff writer for The New Yorker. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is “Georgia Today,” a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show at GPB.org/GeorgiaToday or anywhere you get podcasts. Our producer is Sean Powers. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg