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Story of the Year: Pandemic creates historic year for Page County

Story of the Year: Pandemic creates historic year for Page County

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HJ - Story of the Year COVID 19 Pandemic

Holding the hand of her daughter, Tyler Champ, is Taylor Banks as they walk to the door at Garfield Elementary School Aug. 24 for the first day of school in Clarinda. Based on the recommendation of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, schools in Iowa were closed March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the remainder of the school years was ultimately canceled. (Herald-Journal photo by Kent Dinnebier)

Every resident of Page County has been impacted in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beyond the serious health risks that have claimed the lives of 15 people locally and more than 317,000 across the country, the virus has drastically changed the day-to-day lives of people young and old. It has changed the way students attend school; the way business is transacted; and the way people interact with each other.

For more than nine months, the pandemic has dominated the pages of the Clarinda Herald-Journal, the Valley News Today and every other newspaper. Coverage of the pandemic has also consumed the airwaves of television and radio stations far and wide.

As a result, 2020 was a historic year and the COVID-19 pandemic was unquestionably the Story of the Year. Therefore, Page County Newspapers is looking back at the progression of the pandemic in the county and how various segments of the community united to battle the challenges it created.

Page County Public Health Administrator Jess Erdman said her agency started hearing about the coronavirus in January and February. Staff members with Clarinda Regional Health Center and Shenandoah Medical Center were also alerted of the virus early in year.

“Initially we didn’t know what to think. One of our staff members had worked through H1N1, but we never expected it to become that large. We kept an eye out for the CDC to change the verbiage, but we knew it was inevitable. The fear everyone had was that it would turn into a pandemic, which meant it had gone worldwide, and when it did we knew we had a much larger problem on our hands,” Erdman said.

Erdman said the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States in early March and soon after Iowa started to feel the impact.

“By March we were seeing indications this was going to be a very serious situation like we had never seen before. There had been some previous pandemic type events, but never anything to this extent. We realized it was going to take extreme measures to help protect the safety of the public. We had to broaden our horizons as healthcare professionals because we were going to have to play a big part in coping with the situation,” Shenandoah Medical Center CEO Matt Sells said.

Those extreme measures were announced March 16 by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. She recommended all Iowa schools close for four weeks to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus by students and staff.

As a result, all spring activities of Iowa’s high school Unified Activities partners - the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, the Iowa High School Athletic Association, the Iowa High School Music Association and the Iowa High School Speech Association - were also prohibited during the closure.

“I will always remember that day. It was a Sunday and our entire administrative team had met at the Central Office to make adjustments in how we would support our students moving forward. We worked all day, but at the end of the night we received the phone call,” Clarinda Community School District Superintendent Chris Bergman said. “It caught us off guard. We did not believe the state would completely halt classes. We realized this was a much bigger problem and we needed more time to deliberate how to approach it.”

“I don’t know if any of us knew what to expect. We had been following the situation and knew it was not good. There were difficult decisions being made at the state level. When the announcement came it was something that had not occurred in the state of Iowa before. So it was shocking, but at the same time it was something that had to be done,” Shenandoah Community School District Superintendent Dr. Kerri Nelson said.

At the same time, Reynolds ordered the closing of many businesses and recreational facilities in the state. This included limiting the operation of restaurants to drive-thru, carry-out or delivery services. Meanwhile, establishments like bars, gyms and theaters were closed. Soon after, the closings were expanded to include personal care businesses like hair salons, nail salons and barbershops.

The closures also extended to retail businesses like bookstores, clothing stores, furniture stores, florists, and home furnishing stores. Elective surgeries and dental procedures were also delayed, while local churches even felt the impact of the pandemic.

“It was an odd situation. The big box stores and grocery stores did incredibly well, but the Main Street stores were shut down for an extended period of time,” Shenandoah Chamber and Industry Association Executive Vice President Gregg Connell said.

“Supporting local businesses was more important than ever as we moved forward during these times. Clarinda business owners are our families, friends and neighbors. It has been heart-warming to see how our community has come together to support each other and especially our small businesses,” Clarinda Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Elaine Farwell said.

Amy Roop, Director of Clinics at CRHC, said the hospital put safety precautions in place March 15. An alternate entrance to the clinics was created to provide an isolated corridor for patients displaying symptoms of the virus. Waiting area furniture was removed to separate the patients, an informational telephone line about the virus was created and a screening process for all people entering the facility was soon initiated.

“Initially, we thought it would not happen here in small town rural Iowa, but very quickly we realized it was definitely coming. As the shutdown came, it became more and more real every day,” Roop said. “Our CEO told us when this started it was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We were going to be in this for a while.”

Sells said SMC modified its visitor policies in an effort to limit the number of people in the facility. The hospital also placed added importance on cross-training staff members in case people would be forced to miss work due to the pandemic.

“There were a lot of people impacted by the closure of the schools and daycares, so we realized we could be short staffed at some point. We also had a number of people work from home if they could,” Sells said.

Page County Public Health, meanwhile, focused its attention on evaluating its emergency preparedness plans. Those plans called for using the Clarinda Lied Center and the Delmonico Room in Shenandoah for dispensing a vaccine when it became available.

However, it was determined the Delmonico Room was not large enough to meet social distancing requirements, so the location was changed to Nishna Valley Church. Erdman said the patient flow at the Lied Center was also adjusted.

As businesses were slowly allowed to reopen in the spring, several safety precautions were put in place. Residents of Page County were introduced to the concept of social distancing, where people were to remain six feet apart, and encouraged to wear protective face coverings like masks when entering businesses. Businesses and governmental entities turned to Zoom to hold virtual meetings.

“Business owners have definitely gone the extra mile this year to make sure customers feel comfortable shopping locally by implementing safety precautions. Our businesses have excelled in providing customer service throughout the year by offering creative ways to make special accommodations for their customers,” Farwell said.

“Our businesses have made a conscious effort to social distance and have people wear masks. People realized how important it is to maintain our small businesses in Shenandoah. But at the same time it is important they feel safe when they are in them. Our store owners were cautious and made sure they did,” Connell said.

However, the news was not as encouraging for the schools in the state. Following the initial four week closure, on April 17, Reynolds recommended schools remained closed for the remainder of the school year.

In response, spring music, speech and sporting events were cancelled. The end of the school year also forced Clarinda and Shenandoah to cancel their proms and alter their plans for graduation. Shenandoah held a virtual graduation ceremony in May, while Clarinda held a senior recognition ceremony where people could drive by and congratulate the graduates. Both schools ultimately held live graduation ceremonies in the summer that complied with social distancing guidelines.

With the remainder of the school year halted, Bergman and Nelson said they turned their attention to finding a safe way to return students and staff to the classroom for the start of the new school year in August.

“Our mindset quickly shifted to how to reopen. Our planning involved the collaboration of our staff and community partners. The state offered webinars and guidance that allowed us to put together a plan on what we would do if we had to go to remote learning as well as drafting health and safety protocols so we could reopen. That team of people did some pretty powerful work,” Nelson said.

“Finishing up early gave us an opportunity to spend more in-depth time preparing for the new school year. We looked at the individual needs of our students and what is important to them. We kept coming back to the idea we are all hardwired to have connections as humans and that school is a really important part of our students’ world,” Bergman said.

Erdman said the arrival of the summer months also provided a hint of normalcy for the residents of Page County as more businesses were opening and some summer activities were resuming. Unfortunately, that was the calm before the storm as Page County saw a drastic spike in COVID-19 cases that started in late July.

“We can contribute that to a lack of social distancing and the fact there were more get-togethers. By the time it really hit here people were already tired of dealing with COVID,” Erdman said.

In June, CRCH partnered with Test Iowa to become a clinic test site. Initially, the Test Iowa site was offered as a drive-through service in front of the hospital. However, when the weather turned colder in November, the testing was moved to the Clarinda Fire Station.

The testing was first offered three days a week, but as the demand grew in late summer Roop said the hospital shifted to offering the testing five days a week.

“Initially, we were not able to get testing supplies right away. We knew getting involved with Test Iowa was a way to provide this service. Not only have we served the people of Clarinda, but we have had people come from all over Southwest Iowa. Since early June we have collected more than 3,700 samples,” Roop said.

Shenandoah Medical Center, meanwhile, was able to offer in-house testing. Sells said daily testing increased to between 50 and 75 people per day during the summer months.

Despite the rise in cases, the schools in Page County were able to open as planned in August.

“We were overjoyed. We have really come to understand the importance of the students being here and connecting with one another,” Bergman said.

Erdman said the cooperation shown between Page County Public Health, the hospitals, the school districts and the business communities over the course of the year has proven to be the most significant silver lining of the pandemic.

“I am very pleased with how we have all come together to make our communities the safest place we could. I am thankful for all our partners. They made the process a lot easier and we are still in constant communication,” Erdman said.

“We have worked closely with Page County Public Health as well as with our local school and the city here in Shenandoah. We had a number of conversations about how to best help each other and have formed stronger relationships that will help us in the future,” Sells said.

“It has been really good to see people come together and work together. We have tried to find solutions to make the best of a very difficult situation,” Nelson said.

“Without the cooperation and collaboration we had, this would have been really hard. Any time we face challenges we see how intertwined and interdependent the entities in our community are. We could not have succeeded in this type of situation without each other,” Bergman said.

Despite that collaboration and the safety precautions that remain in place, Page County saw the number of positive cases continue to rise.

“The virus we’re seeing now has more severe symptoms. In October we started noticing a change, but we’re not sure what contributed to that. When the virus first hit here in county, it had more mild influenza type symptoms. Now, there is a lot of pneumonia and respiratory issues. People are sicker than they were in the beginning and we are seeing more deaths in our county because of that,” Erdman said.

After having one case in May and a couple of positive test results in August, the Clarinda Correctional Facility reported 62 cases in October. That number then skyrocketed to 569 in November and December.

As of Dec. 21, Page County Public Health reported 1,636 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Page County. A total of 15 deaths were also attributed to the virus.

However, one day later, Page County received its initial shipment of COVID-19 vaccine. Erdman said the county received 600 doses of the vaccine, which was evenly distributed between her agency and the two hospitals in the county.

The Iowa Department of Public Health indicated the next round of vaccines could arrive in January. IDPH hopes the vaccine will be available to the general public by mid-spring 2021.

“Our staff has been amazing. Everybody stepped up and did whatever needed to be done to take care of our patients,” Roop said. “Unfortunately, turning the calendar isn’t going to miraculously make it go away.”

Nelson agreed that just because 2020 is ending does not mean Page County has reached the end of the pandemic. Yet, she said she has high hopes for 2021 and looks forward to the vaccine being widely available to the residents of Page County.

“This is something I will remember for the rest of my career and we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. I’m an optimistic person and I think we’re on the right track. We still have a long way to go, but by April I am hopeful we have a different viewpoint,” Sells said.

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