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A scientist who came out of retirement to help fight covid loses his own battle

In a double tragedy, his family grappled with two deaths on the same day: Thomas Hodge III and a granddaughter

Thomas Hodge III and granddaughter Izabella Bondell share a laugh earlier this year. (Family photo)

Thomas Hodge III logged on from his hospital bed for what would be his last weekly Zoom meeting with some 200 scientific collaborators. Gaunt and unshaven, he conferred with the group on how to defeat this country’s latest surge of covid-19 — the virus Hodge’s body was battling a second time.

The prominent immunologist died two days later of complications from the disease. One state away, mere hours later, a beloved granddaughter succumbed to kidney cancer.

He was 69. She was 6.

“Dad hadn’t been well, but he didn't want anyone focusing on him,” said Leslie Turner, one of Hodge’s daughters and one of Izabella Bondell’s aunts. “His spirit broke when he couldn't fix Izzy.”

Hodge, former director of immunogenetics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spent decades fighting diseases such as AIDS and Ebola. He opted out of retirement in early 2020 to focus on the latest global public health threat and co-founded the CrisiScience Collaborative, a who’s who of research and medicine that has since met virtually almost every week to share insights and developments on the pandemic.

He was an ardent proponent of the country’s mass vaccination effort, yet he cautioned against relying too heavily on the vaccines. He also warned against abandoning precautions such as masking and social distancing.

“He wanted people to wake up, to observe how serious this pandemic is,” recounted his CrisiScience co-founder, Steve Winston, former chief scientist of the Idaho National Laboratory.

At his home on St. Simons Island, Ga., Hodge beat the virus last year. He hoped that bout would stave off a future infection, especially because a medical condition meant he could not get vaccinated.

Where he was again exposed to the virus is something his family will never know for certain. Despite his vulnerability, he was part of the vigil at Izzy’s hospital bedside in Charleston, S.C., as her condition deteriorated. The little girl, who loved unicorns and butterflies, had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer 13 months earlier.

“Like many men of medicine and academia,” Hodge’s obituary noted, “he confronted sobering truths about the limitations of the human body.”

By many accounts, he was a Southern gentleman with an edge. His passions were science, his four daughters and six grandchildren. According to the obituary, written by daughter Raegan Hodge, he was “witty, clever and sardonic.”

Friends and colleagues say he always pushed the comedic envelope. “Tom had a quiet, almost razor-edge humor that could disarm you,” said Richard P. Cochran, a cardiothoracic surgeon who knew him since childhood.

But when it came to covid, Hodge took nothing lightly. He spoke out against Georgia’s loosening of state restrictions in May 2020, calling the move premature.

“It is too soon in the midst of this pandemic,” he told the Brunswick News. (In the article, he described how contagious the novel coronavirus is. “It spreads faster than kudzu,” he said.)

And he kept up his public education efforts, holding lengthy conversations with his pastor that their church, St. Simons Presbyterian, videotaped and posted for members and the local community.

“First thing is, get a vaccine,” Hodge urged in January, sitting in front of a whiteboard he used to explain what was available and how it works.

He sought to tackle the virus from all angles, stressing the need for new ways both to prevent infection and to treat the illness it can cause. He was a proponent of an air treatment that aims to reduce viral particles from covid, as well as an experimental blood purification device.

That reflected the scope of his career. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, Hodge served as section chief of molecular immunology at the CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases. He also held positions at the University of Alabama, University of Georgia and Emory University. His name appears on more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters.

“There are some people who, when they pass on, make us feel the overall intelligence and kindness in the world is remarkably less without them,” said CrisiScience member Alexander F. More, an associate professor of environmental health at Long Island University. “Tom was one of those people. The world and we are less without him, and I’m terribly saddened by the loss. Still, I’m grateful for whatever little time I was allowed to learn from him.”

His curiosity was never quite satisfied, his wife of 40 years recounted this week. When their third daughter was born, he kept the placenta for research.

Cathy Hodge also remembered her husband’s kindness. One Christmas Eve before they had children, he had driven back to his lab to retrieve something and passed an inebriated man stumbling down the street. He took him home to ensure his safety.

“He had a big personality and made a lot of friends,” she said.

In the past month, Georgia has seen a spike in covid cases. As in other parts of the country, hospitals are again overwhelmed. Hodge again fell ill in mid-July and spent his birthday as a patient. He died July 31 at a facility that’s part of Southeast Georgia Health System, where the number of covid patients increased sharply.

Since his loss and that of Izzy, their extended family is trying to make sense of the double tragedies. All are holding fast to something that Winston, the CrisiScience co-founder, shared in a tribute:

“His daughter observed that perhaps Izzy no longer had to be scared because ‘Granddaddy,’ as she knew him, was waiting on the other side of the great divide to provide the solace that he no longer could from this side.”

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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