Why did coronavirus kill SC activist? He was never told he had disease

Tribune Content Agency

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tim Liszewski awoke last Saturday and padded down the steps at his Columbia home, hoping the headaches and fever that had bothered him would finally go away.

It had been a rough and confounding week for Liszewski, a 60-year-old activist who didn’t get sick very often. After returning from a conference in the Midwest, he’d been unable to shake the illness that was keeping him away from his work at a grassroots political organization.

Then, sometime after descending the stairs the morning of March 28 to check his computer, he collapsed. A few hours later, his fiancee found Liszewski dead, his body slumped on a couch in the downstairs of their house.

Now, Liszewski’s death from coronavirus is sparking questions about how a robust man could succumb to the disease, whether a trip to Wisconsin contributed to his death, and why he died without knowing he had the ailment.

His fiancee, Maris Burton, said she didn’t know for sure that coronavirus had infected Liszewski until four days after he died, when the Richland County Coroner’s office found out and told her Wednesday morning.

She’s asking why a local hospital or the state Department of Health and Environmental Control never informed the couple that he had COVID-19. Liszewski took a coronavirus test at Prisma Health the morning of March 21, one week before he passed away, she said.

““I’m angered we didn’t get the test results,” said Burton, who suspected he had the disease but had no confirmation.

It will never be known if getting the coronavirus test results would have saved Liszewski, but that knowledge might have given him a fighting chance, she said. Unlike most coronavirus victims, Liszewski died at home, rather than the hospital.

At the very least, the couple could have used the information to tell people they had come in contact with, so they could take precautions, she said.

“With a confirmed positive, now in hindsight, maybe I would have pushed him to call his doctors again,” she said. “I can’t say for sure that having the test results would have saved him, but it certainly would have sent a message to all the people we were in contact with to say that this is dangerous.”

One of the biggest concerns health officials have expressed about the spread of coronavirus is close contact between people. Those who have the virus can spread it easily to those nearby, either through physical contact or by sneezing and coughing.

Asked about Liszewski, state health department spokeswoman Laura Renwick said she could not comment on a specific case because patient privacy laws prohibit that.

Still, the lag in test results that frustrated Burton has been an issue at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

At one point last week, DHEC had 1,600 samples that were waiting to be processed at its laboratory, causing delays of three days or more in getting the results back, an agency spokeswoman acknowledged.

Since then, the state has gotten the chemicals needed to process samples and is now turning coronavirus tests around in 24 to 48 hours, said DHEC’s Renwick. But private labs are in some cases taking up to 10 days to provide test results, she said. She was unsure why.

“I can’t speak to that, I don’t know their process,” she said of lag times at private laboratories.

Burton, who has been under the weather and is awaiting coronavirus test results for herself, said she doesn’t know whether her fiance’s samples were analyzed by DHEC or a private laboratory. But she said she expected Prisma Health, where Liszewski’s tests were taken, to call when the hospital system received his lab test results.

Prisma acknowledged delays in testing.

During a conference call with legislators Wednesday, top Prisma officials said the hospital system is opening its own labs to replace private testing, meaning it could turn around tests in a day instead of seven days.

Before launching inhouse laboratory services, Prisma used both DHEC’s lab and private labs to run samples it had taken for coronavirus, hospital system spokeswoman Tammie Epps said in an email.

All told, DHEC says about 30 private labs are doing testing nationally.. Prisma says notifying patients is up to their health care providers.

A representative of Labcorp, a major private lab that is running tests for South Carolina patients, was not immediately available. Quest Diagnostics, another private lab, said in a statement Wednesday that it has made progress on a national backlog. Tests are taking from 2 to 5 days, the statement said.

As questions continue about why Liszewski died without getting his test results, what made him sick is on the minds of people who knew him.

Liszewski, an organizer with the group Indivisible, was generally considered to be in good shape.

He had hiked substantial parts of the Appalachian Trail multiple times in recent years, and last summer, hiked extensively in Utah with Burton. He seemed to have boundless energy for the political causes he supported, Burton and his friends say.

He and Burton also are among the most active volunteers at The Nickelodean, a non-profit movie house on Main Street.

Liszewski did have to deal with a pulmonary embolism less than five years ago. Such underlying conditions can contribute to a person’s death from the coronavirus. But he had recovered well, Burton said.

“He doesn’t often get sick,” she said.

That changed after he returned from a work retreat, she said. The retreat, which involved members of the Indivisible organization that he worked with, was held March 9-12 at a conference center in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.

Liszewski flew home from the retreat through an airport in Chicago, and within a few days, began to feel poorly, Burton said. The illness worsened in the seven days after he arrived back in Columbia.

“He was feeling miserable,” she said. “He said this headache was awful.”

Burton, 61, said she doesn’t know how Liszewski got the coronavirus, but she suspects it was during that trip, when he was around multitudes of people. At least one other Indivisible supporter, a woman from North Carolina, tested positive for coronavirus, Burton said.

An official with Indivisible was not available to discuss the retreat or whether anyone had gotten sick at the Wisconsin session Burton described. But in an email, Indivisble spokeswoman Emily Phelps said some of the organization’s staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

Virginia Sanders, a national Sierra Club representative in Richland County, said Liszewski’s death was shocking because he appeared to be in good shape.

“I’ve been so shaken about Tim, I can’t even sleep at night,” said Sanders, who worked closely with Liszewski.

Experts say anyone can get the coronavirus.

In fact, early national statistics indicated that people from ages 20-54 were most likely to get the disease and be hospitalized, The New York Times reported last month. But people over age 85 were more likely to die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is serious,” Burton said. “It is a virus that kills people, and it kills without warning.”

Many people who knew Liszewski say one thing is for sure: They have lost an energetic community organizer who had the country’s best interests at heart, they said.

An Army veteran who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, Liszewski had become active in the peace movement, opposing war and criticizing those who supported armed conflict. He moved to South Carolina about 15 years ago, after he was recruited to become director of the Carolina Peace Resource Center, a public interest group that advocates non-violence.

“He was a real person, down to earth, and able to communicate with people,” said Michael Berg, the center’s former director. “He came down here for this job. But he stayed for Maris.”

Some people might recognize Liszewski from a protest he held in 2017 with environmental activists against two nuclear reactors that were under construction in Fairfield County.

He played the role of a utility tycoon in a skit acted out to criticize the project. The multi-billion dollar project ultimately was abandoned by SCE&G and Santee Cooper as costs skyrocketed, validating complaints by the environmental activists.

Liszewski moved on from the Carolina Peace Resource Center job, eventually becoming an organizer with Indivisible. The national group, which has local branches, focuses on electing progressives and trying to “defeat the Trump agenda.”

In 2011, he and a small band of protesters camped out on the State House grounds before he was arrested and the group dispersed.

His interests, however, also involved baseball — he was a Cleveland Indians fan — and local theater.

He felt strongly about supporting The Nickolodeon and Indie Grits, an annual festival of films in Columbia. He had become involved with The Nickelodeon soon after he moved to Columbia.

Seth Gadsden, who heads the Indie Grits festival, said Liszewski was among the most hard-working supporters he knew.

“His drive and his passion for all things in life is something that we could all look up to.”,” Gadsden said.

For Burton, his fiancee, life without Liszewski will take adjustment. They met 15 years ago, soon after he arrived in Columbia to run the Carolina Peace Resource Center. They dated for much of that time, and finally, planned to get married.

Their wedding was scheduled for next month. Burton now must plan a memorial service.

“We’ll be having a celebration of Tim’s life, instead of celebrating our marriage,” she said. “I think it will be a mixture of sadness and tears, and I’m hoping a whole lot of laughter.”


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