April 6 marks the one-year anniversary since the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Whitley County. Members of the community have all been impacted differently with some feeling the effects of the virus more than others. Despite the differences, every person has been impacted in some way by the virus.
Here are just a few of their perspectives.
Health official battles misinformation and public stigma
“I had a bad feeling about it,” said Marcy Rein, the director of public health at the Whitley County Health Department. “It felt a little bit like a train coming, but you can’t quite tell how far away it is, but you know that it is coming.”
That is how Rein described her initial reaction to COVID.
Rein said that her first email about the virus was received Jan. 17. At that point, the health department started planning for the virus’s arrival in Whitley County. She said that using outbreak guidelines made for the flu, they started to prepare an action plan.
She said when the first case arrived in Whitley County, fortunately, it was a milder case compared to others. She said that it gave the health department the chance to work through their process.
Rein said when the pandemic started, she was still a relatively new director. At the time, she had only been in the position for approximately eight months, thus the department had not faced something of this severity before. She said initially there was a period of time when they were still just trying to figure out how to be in sync with each other.
Unlike anything else she had experienced, COVID turned public health into a political issue, said Rein. Figuring out how to combat misinformation and the mistrust of public health agencies was just one of the challenges the health department has faced.
She said that because public health has been treated as an almost political issue, health officials have been lumped in with politicians whom they do not trust.
“It is difficult to find ways to build that trust back up,” said Rein.
Despite the struggles, she said that the way public organizations have come together to problem solve and work to serve the community has been one of the successes of the pandemic.
Rein said that the emotions of the pandemic were felt in full force the day the health department gave its first vaccine because there was a sense of happiness and relief, but also feeling the presence of everyone who had died. It was an emotional day because getting vaccines to people is part of what public health is.
Williamsburg mayor overcomes challenges of pandemic
“Initially, I thought and hoped it would be like all the other viruses that we would hear about,” said Williamsburg Mayor Roddy Harrison. “We would hear about how bad they were going to be but we would be okay. Things we would hear about like SARS, bird flu, you know all these different things that we would hear about across the world that just never turned into anything major in the United States.”
In order to prepare for COVID’s arrival in Whitley County, Harrison said that he just started reading and watching everything he could get his hands on about the virus. He said that he immersed himself into knowledge about the virus.
“We were just trying to get prepared for whatever was coming down the highway,” said Harrison.
“I think as officials we all started working with Marcy,” said Harrison. “We started looking to her for advice and updates.”
“As mayor you should always have the people of your community as your first concern,” said Harrison. “Because of the pandemic, it became something that was on my mind constantly. I felt that it was kind of my place to model behavior that I hoped and wished everyone would do.”
The greatest challenge was making decisions on how to enforce the governor’s executive orders and especially canceling all the events that bring people joy.
On a personal note, having to meet his grandson with a mask on, was the one of the hardest times for Harrison.
Harrison said the day this past year that encapsulates the diversity of experiences he has had during the pandemic was the day that his grandson was born. While the greatest joy of the pandemic was the birth of his grandson, Harrison and his wife were unable to be at the hospital with their only daughter. They Facetimed with their daughter during the experience.
Harrison said that he would encourage everyone to get the vaccine so that the community can move past the pandemic.
“I am going to enjoy what we have and the community that we live in,” said Harrison. After the pandemic ends, he said, he is just going to have fun and take it all in. He isn’t going to take it for granted.
Local business owner cares for employees and community
“My initial reaction to COVID, was just a very human one,” said Sky Marietta, an owner of the Moonbow at Second and Main, in Corbin; Moonbow Tipple Coffee & Sweets, in Harlan; and Moonbow Mercantile, in Williamsburg.
Marietta said her family was at an increased risk for COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions. In December 2019, Marietta said her son spent a week in the ICU because of complications with pneumonia that was brought on by the flu.
“My initial reaction was one of just fear,” said Marietta.
She said as a business owner, she cares about her customers and the community but she felt a very real responsibility for her staff. Her number one concern was their well-being.
“Obviously you don’t want to lose your business,” said Marietta. “It is unconscionable to lose a person. Your team is like family.”
Marietta said that the beautiful side of COVID was seeing the community come together to support small businesses.
She said that despite the negatives of the pandemic, she has gotten to spend time with her family that she wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise.
Marietta said that she recalled one day when they knew shutdowns were coming and so she and her family had spent a good part of the morning removing seats at their Williamsburg business so that it would comply with the mandates and then their family went up to the Wrigley for dinner. Afterwards, her family went to Second and Main where they set up their own family Karaoke and hung out in the empty building with their take out from the Wrigley.
“You can take a pandemic that shuts so much down and still that strength and resilience shines through,” said Marietta.
Marietta said that throughout the pandemic the support of the community of business owners has just been really amazing.
Pastor explains how pandemic defined church
“When our Governor initially asked churches not to meet, it seemed unthinkable,” said Josh Pollitt, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Corbin. “Then it became obvious that everyone was taking precautions. Everything began to close and shut down. In a matter of about 48 hours we made the decision to transition our services to online.”
Pollitt said the church implemented changes on March 15 by transitioning to online services. He said when in-person services resumed in June the church took precautions marking off every other pew, taking temperatures at the door, sanitizing the pews and asking everyone to wear masks.
“We were already in a time of transition as a church,” said Pollitt. “We called Steve Rice as our Interim Pastor the Sunday before we streamed our services online only. I was not currently serving as the Senior Pastor. There was so much fear at the very beginning that we needed to address.”
“Overall, the pandemic has struck at the heart of what church really is: the gathering of God’s people,” said Pollitt. “Church is far more than a sermon and worship songs. The pandemic has taught me that more than anything. If church is merely the songs we sing and the sermons we hear, then we can all do that at home. But church is far more than that.”
Through the course of the pandemic, Pollitt said that he has come to appreciate what truly matters.
“I’ve come to trust God even more. He truly knows all and was not surprised by the pandemic. Equally so, God is all powerful and loving. He promises that for his children, for the Christian, he works all things together for good. I’ve repeatedly reminded myself that God is wise, powerful and loving and he knows how to provide for His people,” said Pollitt.
Teacher adapts to online learning
In a matter of days, teachers were asked to transition curriculum and learning into online formats for students.
Whitley County Drama Teacher David Sweet said, “Initially, I think I was like everyone else: ‘this will be a few weeks, and we will be back to school before the school year (2019-20) is over.’ We were definitely wrong.”
Sweet said his initial reaction to classes being moved online was shock.
“It was a shock to the system because the first round we had one weekend to prepare for the next week, then we started moving everything online,” said Sweet. “This is particularly difficult for the arts because most of our instruction involves some type of performance. It definitely was a process. I spent most of the summer preparing for the fall, and really preparing out for the whole year.”
Sweet said as a teacher not seeing his students face-to-face has been the greatest challenge.
“Not seeing the students face-to-face. I really don’t prefer to do Zoom-oriented performances because it seems like everything is trapped in a box and there is no freedom of movement nor the opportunity for complete expression like on a stage and in-person,” said Sweet. “I also think it is hard for the virtual students to adjust their schedules to a regular school schedule.”
“I believe that education is forever changed because of COVID,” said Sweet. “Educators, administrators and lawmakers are going to have to quickly figure out how we are going to move forward and adapt the current educational system to suit the needs of a 21st Century world. These changes will most certainly impact the rest of this century.”
Sweet jokingly said that living through the pandemic has made him realize how old he is.
“I will be retiring in June 2022, and I feel that it is time to pass the torch because even though I am embracing technology and using it every day, I don’t know if the delivery of my content is the same as a younger teacher who knows how to use technology at the same level as the students,” said Sweet. “Technology is a blessing and a curse; on one hand, it offers many more possibilities, but I don’t know if I am using it to its full potential. Students also don’t embrace some of it as much as I thought they would at the same time.”
Resident fears for safety as COVID spreads
Prior to COVID-19, Brenda Woods, of Williamsburg, worked at Whitley Pharamacy. It was there that she first heard about COVID. She said when the virus first arrived in Whitley County she was faced with fear.
“I was afraid of coming in contact with it,” said Woods. “It was a very scary time.”
“There was a lot of life changes [when COVID arrived in Whitley County],” said Woods. “Trying to stay safe, knowing what to do, having to wear the mask and social distancing, with the hand sanitizing, it was all very overwhelming at that time.”
Woods said that the virus still feels overwhelming because of the fear of it coming back.
She noted that because some individuals have begun to ignore practices, such as wearing masks and social distancing, there is a fear that it will be spread once again.
“It’s just a very scary time that we are living in right now,” said Woods.
“I am looking forward to getting to be with family again,” said Woods.
She said she also looks forward to not having the fear of possibly coming into contact with the virus and not knowing it.
Woods said she is ready for the virus to be behind us, so that we can all get along with our lives.