This March marks a year since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our country and changed life as we know it. While the virus remains deadly and serious, falling case numbers and new vaccines have provided a long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel.
By Billy Liggett and Gordon Anderson
Our stores are closed. Our schools are all online. We can’t dine in anymore. Toilet paper and meat are in high demand and short supply. We’re working from home (or not working at all). Oh … and there’s this deadly virus that continues to spread.
These were the opening lines of The Rant Monthly’s April 2020 cover story, “Life Changer,” the first of several lengthy reports on the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching effects on Lee County and on North Carolina.
This March will mark a year since the virus became that “life changer.” A year of quarantine. A year of mask-wearing. A year of avoiding gatherings. A year of political division and defending science.
A year of mass sickness. A year of tragedy.
Through Feb. 27 of this year, more than 5,300 people in Lee County — roughly 8 percent of the population — have contracted COVID-19. Seventy-three men and women have died. In the United States, more than 28 million people have tested positive for the virus, and the death toll surpassed the 500,000 mark in February.
But a year into the pandemic, it feels like things are moving in a more positive direction. New cases (both locally and globally) are dropping. Hospitalization and death rates are also dropping.
What’s growing is the supply of available vaccines — with three companies now approved to distribute. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that total cases and vaccinations will lead to “herd immunity” — the point at which enough people are protected against a disease so that it cannot spread through the population — in the United States by June of this year.
For the first time, there is hope.
At this one-year mark, The Rant Monthly will look at how COVID-19 has affected our health care system, our education system and our economy; and how vaccinations will affect each of these systems moving forward.
WHERE WE STAND
February saw a decline in new and active cases in both Lee County and the country.
But the hope and optimism that comes with these numbers comes with trepidation and very real reminders that COVID-19 remains a serious threat.
On Feb. 26, Lee County reported six new deaths related to the virus in one day. This jolt of reality came just a few days after the county health department reported a significant drop in infections with 107 during the third week of November. This came after consecutive weeks with numbers in the 160s and cases reaching as high as 317 in the winter.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported similar trends, though on Feb. 26 warned of an “uptick” as highly infectious new variants are becoming more prominent.
“Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters at a recent White House briefing. “Although we have been experiencing large declines in cases and hospital admissions over the past six weeks, these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic.”
In other words, now is not the time to relax. This was a sentiment echoed by Lee County Health Director Heath Cain, who has been overseeing mass vaccination efforts locally in the last month.
“The hospitalizations are going down, and the percent positive of COVID cases seems to be trending in the right direction,” Cain says. “While all of this is good news, we must continue to be aware and follow the ‘Three W’s’ to continue to improve the health of our community.”
Statewide, Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Feb. 24 that the state will “carefully” ease some of its restrictions under Executive Order 195, which began on Feb. 26. The modified Stay at Home order was lifted and some businesses — including bars and taverns, indoor amusement parks, movie theaters and indoor sports arenas — were allowed to open at 30 percent capacity, with a cap of 250 people.
Cain says he feels like Lee County and North Carolina are heading in the right direction. To date, his office has given more than 13,000 vaccinations in Lee County since its first mass vaccination drive-through clinic on Dec. 29.
“We are seeing more and more of our Group 1 [health care workers and long-term care staff and residents] and Group 2 [adults over the age of 65], and we are one week into Group 3a [frontline essential workers and child care providers] being vaccinated,” Cain said on Feb. 26. “We had a very successful first day of vaccinating our Lee County educators and support staff, and next week, we will be vaccinating our child care employees and private and charter school employees.
“We have learned how to improve weekly, and the tweaks we have made have greatly improved our vaccinations per week. We have many partners who have helped to make this happen as well, including the Lee County school nurses, Central Carolina Hospital, Emergency Management, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, the Sanford Police Department, local volunteers and volunteers from the state. With their support, we are now vaccinating more than 2,000 people weekly.”
Cain reminds the community, however, that currently, the vaccine supply remains “extremely limited” in Lee County.
“While we are increasing our capacity to administer the vaccine, we can only administer what is made available to us,” he says.
Adding to the local optimism is Central Carolina Hospital CEO Spencer Thomas’ announcement that since January, CCH has seen a steady decline in patients, which has alleviated wait times and increased capacity, allowing the hospital to ease its zero-visitor policy.
“We have gone from having 15 to 20 coronavirus inpatients per day to fewer than five,” Thomas says. “The tremendous advances we have seen in treatment over the past year gives us hope for the rest of 2021.”
CCH has also administered more than 1,000 COVID-19 vaccines and launched its own public vaccine clinic in late February. Thomas says the hospital is aiming to vaccinate around 300 people per week.
Cain says when the pandemic has passed and life returns to pre-COVID levels or normalcy, his office and health providers around the world will have learned valuable lessons from the experience.
“What have I learned most? My ability to adapt has improved throughout all of this,” Cain says. “Information from the state and the CDC has changed quickly, and we had to modify plans and consider options outside of our normal day-to-day responses. I’ve learned about the strong relationships we have with our local partners, as many have stepped up and asked, ‘What can we do?’ I’ve learned the state was ready and willing to offer resources if needed, and those resources are not easily available during a pandemic.
“I’ve also learned I have a talented and special group of people working for me and for Lee County. Whatever I have asked — which has definitely been outside the norm of everyday activities — they have worked hard to make that happen. Without a strong staff and great Board of Health and commissioners, we would have had far more challenges to face.”
Cain says Lee County comes out of this pandemic better by being a healthier community, both physically and psychologically.
“This pandemic has affected us all in so many ways, and being vaccinated begins to put us all on the path to begin seeing some type of normalcy again,” he says. “While guidelines may continue to be shared by the governor, some of the angst from our residents once vaccinated should be quelled.”
Feb. 24 was an emotional day for B.T. Bullock Elementary School Principal Stefanie Clarke. She, her teachers and her staff were among the hundreds of Lee County School personnel lining up in their cars at the civic center in Sanford to roll up their sleeves and receive the first dosage of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
After a full year of teaching remotely, making sure students weren’t falling behind and eventually welcoming students back into the classroom under strict guidelines — all while putting their own health at risk — that Wednesday was a much-needed shot in the arm (both in the literal and figurative sense) for a group of educators who have been called on the work miracles.
“I was absolutely emotional,” says Clarke, who has been with the school going on eight years this summer. “It was a true celebration of educators who have been willing to sacrifice so much to educate our children. It was like a finish line — pretty extraordinary and pretty emotional to see everyone come together. And the way it was organized, I could tell our county was prioritizing its people. It made us feel essential.”
Teachers are among the Group 3 of North Carolina residents now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Considered “essential” from the very beginning, it was teachers who were called on in those first days of the pandemic to completely alter their way of life — teaching from their homes and altering their curriculums to fit Google Classrooms, Khan Academy and FlipGrid education programs.
“Back in March 2020, our educators were in crisis mode,” says Clarke. “We implemented new learning tools on the spot and worked to get computers distributed to every child who needed one. A vital piece in all of this has been technology. I was shocked in the spring with the number of computers our district was able to provide. And it had to be that way — we couldn’t have any students wiggle through the cracks. Everybody needed to be on the same playing field.”
Public school in North Carolina — at all levels and at the university level — remained remote through the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. By August, Lee County Schools was ready to begin hosting in-person classes again at limited capacity at the elementary and middle school levels. In the fall, students attended classes two days a week (Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday, depending on alphabetical order) and spent the other three days learning from home. Wednesday was a “stay home” day for students and teachers, as schools were sanitized mid-week to prepare for the next batch.
Those first few months in the spring were learn-on-the-go for everybody, and it was difficult to keep track of students who weren’t attending all of their classes or performing all of their assignments on time. By August, attendance became a priority, says Clarke.
“Whether in the building or at home, expectations were high for attendance,” she says. “And we worked hard with social workers, counselors and everyone on our staff to make sure every child had access to education and every child was being reached.”
The Lee County Board of Education on Feb. 9 approved high school students returning to campus twice a week and voted to allow third-grade students to join their kindergarten, first and second-grade counterparts to attend school four days a week.
Clarke says she understands the initial decision to go remote, and she understands the slow matriculation since then. But she’s eyeing the day when her school is full again, because she believes in the effectiveness of in-person instruction and the lives a teacher can touch with personal interaction that’s simply missing in Google Classrooms.
“In the classroom, the environment is controlled,” she says. “There are no TVs, no loud noises to distract you. And there’s something about walking into your place of work or your school that sets the tone of behavior. I’m in school now. I’m not here to play around. There are fewer tech issues, and it’s easier for a child to ask questions and easier for a teacher to physically see if a child is struggling. Being in a classroom with your students saves a teacher so much time, and when the children are engaged, busy and, of course, learning, it’s all just so much more effective. Being at home has put a lot of families in some very tough situations, as they’re also navigating work and their family through this pandemic.”
She says her students have been the “superstars” since returning to school, staying six feet apart, wearing their masks and washing their hands more frequently than a lot of adults. While staff members and a small number of students in Lee County Schools have tested positive for COVID-19, Clarke says there has been no community spread in her school.
“I can say with certainty, it was the right choice to return to class,” she says. As for more students returning in the coming weeks — “It’s a numbers game,” Clarke adds. “It depends on what the state mandates and how many students we’re allowed to have in our facilities.”
When those numbers will change is unknown. While the state has eased restrictions on bars and taverns and other indoor businesses, Gov. Roy Cooper in late February vetoed a bill aimed at requiring an in-person option for all students in the state. Senate Bill 37 would have required schools to provide access to in-person learning for students with exceptional needs and in-person learning options for all K-12 students.
The governor’s reasons for the veto — the return of students in middle and high schools would be a violation of CDC health guidelines, and the bill would hinder health officials from protecting students and teachers during an emergency.
“As I have informed the Legislature, I would sign the bill if these two problems are fixed,” Cooper says. “As written, the bill threatens public health just as North Carolina strives to emerge from the pandemic.”
The medical and educational havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on communities across the nation is bad enough, but it’s impossible to ignore what the pandemic has done to businesses as well.
For large and small alike, from manufacturing operations employing dozens or hundreds to mom and pop startups with a handful of employees, restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the virus have meant adapting in order to keep operations up and running and to keep the public safe — and in some cases, making the tough decision to close altogether.
“Certainly, early on we saw a lot of supply chain disruption,” says Bob Joyce, the senior director of business retention and growth for the Sanford Area Growth Alliance. “A lot of people couldn’t get parts, so there were severe disruptions in a lot of different industries, particularly automotive.”
But two companies — one a multinational auto parts manufacturer making a $170 million investment in the county’s tax base, the other a family buffet — didn’t just stay afloat amidst the pandemic. They actually set up shop as it raged around them.
Construction at Bharat Forge’s new facility off Colon Road is 95 percent complete, according to Courtney Holcomb, the company’s local human resources manager. Holcomb said a separate administration building is also under construction and will be complete in October, but the first parts will be forged this month.
Holcomb said there were challenges of the type Joyce referenced, but the India-based company was able to find ways to meet them.
“Much of our equipment came from Germany, therefore the vendors and technical experts that were needed to install the equipment had to travel from Germany to the US. The COVID travel restrictions placed seemed to be a great hurdle to overcome,” she says. “Given Bharat Forge’s industry, project size, location of investment and potential of 450-plus jobs created in the next few years, we felt there was substantial evidence to request a National Interest Exception to the travel ban. Thus, having the ability to transfer a limited number of individuals through US visa programs was essential for Bharat Forge to continue to build our roots in Sanford and contribute towards the local economy.”
Joyce said Lee County has some unique workplace demographics given its historical reliance on manufacturing that actually allowed for a quicker economic adaptation, if not recovery, from the damage caused by COVID.
“We’ve never had a big hospitality industry here,” he said. “That sector here has never had the same number of workers as the beach or the mountains, or even the big cities. That of course is not to say there haven’t been families and people in that industry who are affected. There are absolutely people who have had to deal with some great challenges.”
One of those is Kimberly Minor, who opened Blaisson’s Buffet on North Horner Boulevard back in November. Minor signed her lease on the building right before the pandemic struck in early 2020 with plans to open in the summer, but she was delayed by the death of her father and a non-COVID medical situation her grandson experienced after that. Further, she was asked by many if she was sure she wanted to open a buffet during a pandemic.
“I just kept saying ‘I can’t give up,’” Minor said, explaining that she was more than willing to put protocols of her own in place to make visitors feel comfortable and safe.
In addition to mask mandates required by the state, she runs only two of her three buffet bars to maintain social distancing, has her servers bring plates and silverware to customers to help limit movement, asks guests to wear disposable gloves while getting their food, and switches food trays out with increased frequency.
“I chose to do those things,” she said. “There are a lot of people, especially older people who are afraid to go out, so I wanted to do everything I could to make them feel comfortable.”
And it’s worked. Blaisson’s has kept the doors open long enough to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and Minor credits something bigger than herself.
“We had a pastor in here and we all prayed together,” she said. “If it’s God’s will for us to make it, we’re gonna make it. The only explanation is the Lord.”