Caution couldn’t save St. Bernard’s first COVID-19 victim
By Jason Browne
Kelly Alfonso took the warnings about the novel coronavirus seriously. As a cancer patient and kidney transplant recipient, he couldn’t afford not to. But the warnings themselves may have come too late to save him.
Alfonso, 59, of Delacroix, became St. Bernard Parish’s first COVID-19-related death on March 24 when he passed away at St. Bernard Parish Hospital. He is survived by his wife of 15 years, Mandy Bruno-Alfonso, and his 16-year-old son Sebastian.
Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December, Alfonso had been advised by doctors that the cancer had spread to his stomach and liver and estimated he had another six months to live. From that point on, Alfonso devoted himself to spending time with Mandy, his partner of 25 years, and Sebastian. On March 13 the family bought a boat so they could fish together.
“He was preparing himself to die from cancer, not from this,” said Mandy. “Kelly thought he had time to show Sebastian everything. He wanted to make sure he was here longer. That was his thing. He ate right and did right, whatever he could do to keep him here longer.”
As recently as March 10, the St. Bernard School Board was still planning to keep schools open amid the growing pandemic, although the district had stepped up its cleaning schedule. The national Centers for Disease Control had put out multiple warnings that the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems were at the greatest risk of complications if they caught the virus, but Louisiana, like most of the country, was slow to offer a robust response.
It wasn’t until March 13 when Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered schools to close for a month and March 16 when he banned any gathering larger than 50 people that the rapid spread of COVID-19 started to come into focus.
Meanwhile the Alfonsos had walked amongst hundreds of people March 7-8 at the Los Isleños Festival in lower St. Bernard. And Kelly, an Isleño who traced his heritage back to Spain’s Canary Islands, was well-loved in the community. The mechanic and former commercial fisherman lived his whole life in St. Bernard and was known for his big personality—Mandy lovingly calls him a “goofball”—and a willingness to help anyone fix anything “from lawnmowers to racecars.”
“He was around all kinda people,” Mandy said of their trip to the fiesta.
That Sunday, March 8, Mandy said her husband was tired, but that was hardly a red flag. On Tuesday, March 10, Kelly was admitted to Touro Hospital with a 100.3-degree fever; still not panic-inducing, but Mandy wasn’t allowed in the hospital ward.
A member of the cleaning staff confided to Kelly that a COVID-19 patient was in the next room.
Kelly came home on March 12, Mandy’s birthday, still feeling tired but willing to go out to eat. The family bought their new boat March 13 and Kelly and Sebastian went out on the water both days that weekend. On the second trip, Sunday, March 15, Kelly was so weak that Sebastian had to call 911 for help getting his father out of the boat.
Alfonso was again admitted to Touro until Tuesday, March 17. During that stay he was tested for coronavirus before being sent home.
On Thursday, March 19, the doctor called Mandy with the test results. Kelly had tested positive for COVID-19.
“He wasn’t showing symptoms so he was quarantined to our bedroom. They said we should all stay away, the hospital is the last place you want to be,” said Mandy. “At home it was just me going in and out of the room.”
Even while quarantined at home, Mandy said Kelly was still goofing around. When orderlies would bring him his food at the hospital, they would announce their entrance into his room by saying “dietary.” So Kelly would call Mandy’s cell phone when he was hungry to exclaim “dietary!”
On Friday, March 20, Kelly was allowed out of his room but had to wear a protective mask. While he sat in the living room, still worn out, Mandy was able to wash their sheets and disinfect everything in their bedroom.
“I wiped everything down. I’m thinking it’s everywhere,” she said of the virus.
On Saturday, March 21, Kelly was too tired to get out of bed and exhibited no appetite, but spent the whole day talking to friends on his phone. That night, Mandy checked in on him every hour until around 3 a.m. and found him snoring as loud as always.
On Sunday, March 22, Mandy checked on Kelly shortly before 9 a.m. and found his breathing had taken on a chilling gurgling sound.
“It was like his lungs were filled with fluid,” she recalled. “He went to St. Bernard Hospital because he wasn’t going to make it to Touro. He went from being fine on Saturday to being on a ventilator on Sunday.”
For most of that day, Mandy wasn’t allowed to see her husband. It wasn’t until doctors predicted that Kelly’s death was imminent—the ventilator was doing 100 percent of his breathing—that Mandy and Sebastian were allowed to suit up in masks, gloves and gowns and go in to see him.
“I didn’t want to leave him by himself. I sat with him all day long,” said Mandy.
That Monday, March 23, the hospital admitted patient after patient with COVID-19 symptoms. Eventually Mandy was forced to leave with little more than a nurse’s assurance that “we’re going to take good care of him.”
“Tuesday, I called to check on him and talked to a nurse. She was a saint and sat with him. She said he went peacefully,” said Mandy.
Mandy grew up in Arabi and Kelly had been a friend of her father’s. She recalled how Kelly used to tease her father, saying “I’m going to marry that girl.”
“My dad would say ‘Leave my daughter alone!’ But my dad loved him,” she said.
For a time, Kelly worked himself even deeper into the fabric of St. Bernard Parish by working as a mobile karaoke DJ prior to Hurricane Katrina. Mandy recalled how “he would sing and dance and laugh.”
She had known all along that Kelly had health problems. He received a kidney from his cousin and took medication every day to prevent his body from rejecting the organ. He had suffered a stroke in his 30s. He struggled to control his blood pressure.
“Anything that could go wrong, did. But nothing ever kept him down. He would just go with the flow,” said Mandy.
Now she finds herself alone, quarantined with her son and one of his friends who was around the family during Kelly’s ordeal. The two boys go fishing but are careful to keep their distance from others in case they’re carrying the virus. Mandy remains isolated indoors, planning Kelly’s funeral, which will also be a low-attendance affair.
“We’re going to have to do something after (quarantine is lifted) for him. He loved the Isleños Hall. Maybe we’ll do something there,” she said. “He was such a good-hearted person and had so many friends that were like family.”
Memories and condolences have poured in on Facebook. Hundreds of friends and neighbors have reached out to pay their respects. Mandy hopes that if any lessons can be learned from her husband’s death, it’s that carrying the coronavirus can be a death sentence for some, even if the initial carrier never exhibits symptoms.
“I really believe people are not taking this serious. Every time you touch something, you don’t know if you’re carrying it. The next person could have an immune system like Kelly’s, and you don’t know,” she said.