#teensexting | #sexting | The Race to Investigate a Coronavirus Outbreak at a Georgia Prep School

A local TV station aired a segment on the reluctance of Lovett families to coöperate with the health department, noting that the three Buckhead-area Zip Codes around the school had recently reported the three highest-percentage increases in new cases in all of Fulton County. On June 2nd, Sasha Smith, the on-call epidemiologist working with the Board of Health, e-mailed Fazle Khan, asking for “an update on the number of COVID-19 positives that are associated with The Lovett School.” More than two weeks—the time a typical tracing investigation takes to complete, Paxton told me—had now passed. Khan replied to Smith, “There is no straight forward answer to this.”

That same day, Thornton Kennedy, whose son had graduated from Lovett a few weeks before, published a column in the Northside Neighbor, a small paper that serves upscale communities in north Atlanta. Kennedy, who’s in his mid-forties, is a seventh-generation Atlantan, and a Lovett alum. Like many Lovett families, the Kennedys have been well off for a long time: Kennedy’s great-great-great grandfather, George Adair, has been credited with starting the first real-estate firm in the United States, at the end of the Civil War. Adair was also a slaveholder and a friend of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. When I first spoke to Kennedy, he had just been texting with city-council members in Sandy Springs, just north of Atlanta, about the possible renaming of a street called Lake Forrest Drive. The origin of the street’s name was not entirely clear, but Kennedy, who called himself “as middle-of-the-road as you can get,” politically, figured it needed to be changed. “We get to fight the good fight,” he told me, referring to old Atlantans hoping to move the city forward from past sins. (My family has also been in Atlanta for seven generations.) Kennedy was the only parent of a graduating senior whom I could find who was willing to talk on the record about the outbreak without remaining anonymous.

In his column, Kennedy took issue with the public narrative of the Lovett cluster. He was mainly bothered, he told me, by the “stigmatization” of the Lovett kids. “There was a negative connotation aimed towards these kids and this school, in particular,” he said. He went on, “The stereotype of these spoiled kids is that the rules don’t apply to them. To me, that’s every teen-ager that’s ever walked the face of the earth.” He offered a personal story to make this point. “When I was in high school, someone told me that if you did a hundred miles per hour through the toll at Georgia 400, they couldn’t read your license plate,” he said. “So every time I went through that toll in my Honda Accord, I was doing a hundred. The car was literally shaking. I could have killed countless people. But every time, as soon as I saw it, I jammed the accelerator and held on for dear life.” He added, “And I never got a ticket.”

If Lovetteers had thrown a few parties to celebrate an important milestone, Kennedy wrote in his column, then big deal. “I imagine it happened at a few schools,” he wrote. “Everything is opening back up, and these teenagers have been sheltering in place along with the rest of us since mid-March.” Although the press had not named any students, Kennedy felt that “the damage” was done. “Summer opportunities have been withdrawn,” he wrote in his column. “Everyone seems to be pointing fingers along predictively political lines. The lives of these graduates, already upended, were in complete chaos.”

Kwonjune Justin Seung, from Partners in Health, told me that, speaking generally, he felt sympathy for the “unfairly demonized” people who make headlines for not coöperating with contact-tracing investigations. In some cases, he said, the same people who hang up on epidemiologists will pick up the phone to call everyone they know who they might have infected, doing some unofficial contact tracing themselves, and showing a concern for their communities. (One father I spoke to described such behavior among Lovett families.) “I mean, why do we know about their outbreaks?” Seung went on. “Often, it’s because they tested themselves. In a place like Georgia, that means spending hours in line and encouraging their friends to get tested.” He continued, “So, on one hand, you get frustrated with them: ‘How come you just don’t give me the list of names?’ But, at the same time, there’s a lot of other gatherings out there where people don’t get themselves tested, so you never know that there was a mini-outbreak.”

I asked Kennedy if he had specifics about the cluster. “I’ve mostly just heard rumors,” he said. “Innuendo, things like that.” His son had attended a graduation party, but he wasn’t clear on the details. The heart of the matter, he remained convinced, was innocent and well-intentioned fun. When we first spoke, in June, he told me that his daughter, who transferred out of Lovett last year, had recently contracted COVID after going to the beach with some friends, which he and his wife had advised that she do “very carefully.” (His daughter has since recovered.)

Paxton told me that a private physician had been working for some of the Lovett parents and not coördinating with the health department, but she couldn’t tell me more about this doctor, and neither would anybody else. “None of the same rules apply to these people,” a friend who lives in the area surrounding Lovett told me, a week or so after I talked to Kennedy. By then, new cases of the coronavirus had begun to really climb in the state—roughly two thousand were being confirmed each day. “We’re talking about kids who drive Range Rovers and Mercedes to school, spreading the virus with abandon and living their best life, having to face zero consequences, not participating in the tracing effort,” the friend added.

Khan sent an update to Meredyth Cole on June 5th. “We are already almost three weeks away from the time of potential exposure in mid-May and might have passed the critical period of transmission of infection,” he wrote. “Yet the possibility of carriage and transmission of infection remains.” The letter noted that there were still seventy-five cases and contacts associated with the Lovett cluster that Khan’s team had been unable to reach. “We would advise that all those that we were not able to reach get tested,” Khan wrote. He shared a draft of a letter that recommended testing and listed nearby testing sites. Cole did not reply. Khan e-mailed again five days later. “We need your assistance in finishing up the work,” he wrote.

I asked Paxton whether she thought that people who are well off are less likely to coöperate, perhaps believing that they can handle everything privately. She replied that there are many reasons that someone might resist coöperating. I also spoke with Michael Reid, a professor of medicine who runs the contact-tracing effort in San Francisco. He mentioned “a kind of graduation party” in that area, after which a kid tested positive—the kid’s father, when contacted, “was very reluctant to give the names of other kids in the graduation party,” he said. Reid, too, was reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions, though he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that there was “more diffidence to engaging with contact tracing” among wealthier people, who, as he put it, “have more agency, compared to communities that are just overwhelmed by this disease and want to do everything they can to stop its spread.”


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