COVID 2020: History in the making

The year started like any other, with all the headlines of the local newspaper focused on the daily lives and activities of a community. But by mid-March, everyone's attention was on a deadly new virus.

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December 29, 2020 - 9:58 AM

This is the first in a three-part recap of the coronavirus pandemic and 2020.

The Register’s coverage of COVID-19 began, appropriately enough, with China.

Moran native Molly McEwan and her fiance, Tyson Carpenter, are living and teaching in China.Register file photo

Moran native Molly McEwan lives in China as a teacher, along with her fiance, Tyson Carpenter. When news broke in January of the new virus discovered in Wuhan, China, they were out of the country on vacation.

Like many, McEwan initially dismissed the threat when I interviewed her for a Feb. 4 article titled “Keeping virus in perspective: MV grad preaches calm amid coronavirus scare.”

A Moran woman, who will be returning to China next week for her job as a teacher, said she isn’t worried about a new virus that has restricted travel to and from the country.

Only two weeks later, in a Feb. 17 article, McEwan described returning to a much different China. 

“It was spooky and strange. Even if we wanted to go out, there’s nowhere to go because every business is closed except supermarkets, and most of the stores are pretty much cleaned out. They’re taking really big precautions to try and nip this in the bud.” 

She and her fiance were quarantined in their apartment because they had been traveling internationally. The next semester had been postponed, and she was preparing to teach online lessons.

She even speculated what might happen if something similar occurred in the United States, recounting stores stripped of basic supplies, people entering supermarkets with suitcases, hoarding food and a scarcity of personal protective equipment such as masks. 

“People turn so selfish in situations like this.” 

My article failed to capture the sadness, despair and disappointment in her voice. 

“Imagine if a large part of Allen County shut down. What would we do? It’s scary to think about.”

But that reality came to pass here as well.

I interviewed McEwan via Skype, something I’d only done once or twice before. Within months, virtual “Zoom interviews” would become the norm, whether a source was halfway around the world or down the street. 

We kept in touch through emails. McEwan proved to be a reliable crystal ball for what lay ahead. 

Meanwhile, the coronavirus unfolded in print throughout the year. 

The Register did what newspapers do, telling the stories of the day to inform and support a community during a time of crisis, and serving as the public record for generations to come. 

This week, we’ll recap those stories. 

Here’s history in the making.

Iolans Leslie and Roland Weir stand in front of the Roman Coliseum during their trip to Italy in February. The Weirs were in the country at the same time the rate of coronavirus infections began to spike.Courtesy photo

January

The year started with the typical headlines of a small town newspaper.

A fertilizer plant caught fire on New Year’s Day, with chemical runoff leaching into the Neosho River and causing Humboldt and Chanute to temporarily shut down their water supplies.

Mid-West Fertilizer’s office lies in ruins following a New Year’s Day fire. REGISTER/ERIC SPRUILL,

Russell Stover Candies expected to add more jobs at Iola as part of a reshuffling of facilities. 

Local leadership changes were noted, as Iola High School principal Scott Crenshaw announced he would leave at the end of the year and assistant principal Scott Carson would take his place. In the Marmaton Valley school district, principal Kim Ensminger would be promoted to superintendent. At Iola, city administrator Sid Fleming planned to leave in March.

Local legislators talked of issues they expected to be the biggest news of 2020, things like the labeling of food products like meat and milk, property taxes and the legalization of medical marijuana. Rep. Kent Thompson said he thought the state was still a long way from Medicaid expansion, despite claims of bipartisan support.

Local veterans discussed the potential for military action in Iran, after a U.S. missile strike killed an Iranian commander.

On the national level, the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began.

The Register’s first mention of the novel coronavirus came Jan. 21, in a small “wire story” on page A6: “Anxiety builds as virus spreads across China.” 

At that point, six had died and 291 were infected, all in China.

Concerned about a global outbreak similar to SARS, another coronavirus that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003, numerous nations have adopted screening measures for travelers from China, especially those arriving from Wuhan, the central city where the virus appears to have originated.

Double-decker buses carrying members of the Kansas City Chiefs roll down toward Union Station during the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl victory parade on Wednesday.Photo by Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/TNS

February

The Chiefs won the Super Bowl. 

Internet memes jokingly point to that long-denied event as a catalyst for what followed, as if it unwittingly opened a portal to the impossible. 

Officially, though, the first patient diagnosed with COVID-19 in the U.S. was on Jan. 20.

As the virus slowly spread to other countries, a smattering of COVID-19 stories began to appear in the Register. 

Front-page news remained focused on local issues such as a growing debate over a recreation center at Allen Community College and a “Forever Fillies” alumni reunion game to honor the soon-to-be-retired mascot name. Humanity House wanted Iola council members to amend its utility policy to better help struggling families. Saint Luke’s Health System prepared to take over Allen County Regional Hospital and interviewed finalists to serve as the new administrator. LaHarpe organized a housing fair in hopes of enticing new residents to build homes.

On Feb. 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged communities to take precautions in case the coronavirus spread. Health officials called it “inevitable.”

The next day, President Donald Trump contradicted his top health authorities and tried to minimize fears as he insisted the U.S. was “very, very ready.” He put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating a task force on the matter.

On Feb. 29, the head of the World Health Organization said the risk of the virus spreading worldwide was “very high.” Economists predicted a worldwide financial crisis, with the U.S. and other economies falling into recession if COVID-19 became a global pandemic.

March

By the middle of March, COVID-19 stories had taken over the front pages of the Register.

Iola High School’s Logan Brown raises his arm after winning a state wrestling title Saturday.Photo by Erick Mitchell / Iola Register

But first, more local news. IHS junior Logan Brown became the school’s first state wrestling champ. A major highway improvement project would soon begin between Welda and Garnett, impacting local travelers. The Humboldt school district wanted to start planning for improvements to its school facilities.

The March 7 edition offered a primer on COVID-19, interviewing local health officials about precautions to avoid infection. Except for the McEwan interviews, it was our first big local story on the virus.

Wash your hands and stay home if you are sick. It’s simple advice that will be repeated again and again as the local community, the nation and the world adjust to a deadly new coronavirus, COVID-19.

A local team of healthcare and emergency preparedness officials have been meeting on a regular basis to ensure the community is prepared, officials said. 

Fred Rinne, readiness response coordinator with SEK Healthcare Coalition, talks about the response to a new coronavirus threat at a meeting with local healthcare officials, law enforcement, nursing home staff and school administrators Thursday at Allen County Regional Hospital. From left are Rebecca Johnson, director of SEK Multi-County Health Department, and Angela Slocum, ACRH’s risk management and emergency department director.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

On March 12, I attended a meeting of the local task force and came to a frightening realization: All the talk about a potential pandemic was no longer hypothetical. It was inevitable. This was going to be A Big Deal.

That moment of clarity came via a quote from Josh Smith, regional coordinator with the Kansas Division of Emergency Management in Neosho County. He was trying to be reassuring.

“We’re already seeing some of the anxiety and the panic. I thought it would take a little longer to get to a rural community. It’s here. It’s OK. We’re all professionals. We’re getting guidance. We can handle this.”

On that day, there were 405 COVID-19 cases and six deaths in the U.S.

Worldwide, the virus had infected more than 125,000 with 4,600 deaths.

Four cases had been confirmed in the Kansas City area and one man was dead from COVID-19.

The first sign of visitor restrictions at Allen County Regional Hospital.

Already, the local hospital and nursing homes were starting to screen and restrict visitors.

Shelves at local stores were stripped of toilet paper, bleach, hand sanitizer and more. 

Major sporting events like the March Madness basketball tournament were canceled.

Universities including those in Kansas announced they’d switch to online only after spring break.

It’s here.

Immediately after leaving that meeting, I came back to the office and said, “We need a plan.” We needed to prepare for the possibility that we’d soon be working from home. We needed to be ready.

Coverage of that meeting was printed March 14.

The key to dealing with a deadly new virus is to break the “chain of transmission,” a regional health director told a group of local health officials, emergency preparedness managers and school administrators at an informational meeting Thursday.

That could mean social distancing, avoiding crowds and large groups of people. It could mean canceling events, perhaps even prom and holiday parades. And it definitely means staying home if you have a cough or fever.

Thursday’s meeting with 33 concerned local leaders proved just how difficult it will be to develop a response plan and reassure the masses as a new coronavirus spreads illness as well as anxiety.

The day after that local meeting, President Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency.

The shelves at Iola’s Walmart were stripped of all toilet paper Thursday afternoon, even with requests to limit purchases.

Monday’s paper, March 16, was filled with local reactions. Iola and LaHarpe closed their buildings to the public. The hospital and health clinics issued new guidance for visits. A restaurant owner told how business plummeted within a week. A grocery store manager talked of panic buying similar to Black Friday sales.

Those early stories put “social distancing” in quote marks, as it was then a new and unfamiliar phrase used almost exclusively by health professionals. 

The March 17 paper published an order for the closing of all non-essential businesses, issued by public health officer Rebecca Johnson of the Southeast Kansas Multi-County Health Departments. 

More and more businesses and organizations began to close or cancel events.

Students were on spring break, and schools increased efforts to disinfect surfaces in preparation for their return. 

Gov. Laura Kelly announces plans to shutter schools.

Later that afternoon, Gov. Laura Kelly declared schools would remain shuttered for the rest of the semester. Education would continue in some fashion, but it would be up to each district to determine how. Kansas was the first state to close schools in such a manner.

Meanwhile, the courthouse began restricting visitors. 

Grocery stores developed or expanded delivery service. 

Local health professionals explored options to start drive-thru testing protocols, which wouldn’t actually develop for several months.

Iola Middle School organizes material for remote learning in the spring.Register file photo

Many consider Gov. Kelly’s March 17 order on schools to be the start of the pandemic restrictions in Kansas, even though an official stay-at-home order wouldn’t be issued for another two weeks.

The Register’s March 18 edition interviewed business owners and parents for their reactions to the latest events. 

A mental health professional offered advice on how to cope with the anxiety and stress caused by a lockdown: “This too shall pass: Staying sane in a crazy time.”

“When we’re stressed, we tend to catastrophize and think of the worst case scenario,” Doug Wright, clinical director at Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center, said. “People have to just take it one step at a time. What’s my next step, rather than trying to project what life may be like a week, a month or a year from now.”

High school seniors were among those most devastated by the closure of schools. Students shared their fears and disappointment upon realizing there would be no senior prom, no spring sports and, potentially, no graduation ceremony. Eventually, schools would organize some sort of graduation event.

“It happened so fast. When I left school for spring break, I just didn’t think it would be the last time I saw some of my friends,” said IHS grad Ella Taylor.

Like almost everyone in the restaurant business, Carri Sailor of Rookies Sports Bar and Grill has had to adapt to these trying circumstances. Sailor is now offering family-style meals for takeout and curbside pickup.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

Restaurant owners removed seating to give more space between patrons, and discontinued things like buffets and salad bars. They started offering curbside pickup and delivery options, hoping to keep their businesses going through the difficult months to come. 

“It’s hard to be a sports bar without the sports,” Carri Sailor, owner of Rookies Sports Bar and Grill, said.

B&B Sterling Six Cinema in Iola closed, and has yet to reopen.

Meals on Wheels stopped rolling, and had trouble getting restarted.

Rachel Stone, biology instructor at Allen Community College, answered a series of questions about the virus.

One of my biggest concerns is the downplaying of COVID-19 as “just another flu.” This is patently false and has the potential to hurt our community!

The worst fact of the COVID-19 outbreak is that the future is unknown. I cannot speak to whether or not the current measures of prevention are adequate, but I suspect that as things unfold, more steps will need to be taken to slow infection rates. The balance as we proceed is in ameliorating the public health crisis while not exacerbating the economic one.

On March 23, the Register published a third update from McEwan. Life in China was slowly adjusting to normal six weeks after she returned, though school was still online. People were no longer hoarding food and supplies. 

Only restaurants are still closed. Last week we started seeing luxury service shops such as salons, seamstresses and massage places opening.

But it’s hard to say what will happen or how quickly this will clear up in the rest of the world. Just because it happened like this in China is not necessarily a good indicator of how it will be in other countries.

The rest of the month would see the Register interview just about every group of people we could think of who might be affected: Educators, home-school families, daycare providers, farmers, nursing home staff and families, senior citizens, oil producers, restaurant owners. 

It wasn’t all scary, though.

Children always remind us of life’s many wonders. Emery Sigg, 4, and younger sister, Ellie, pose for a photo while wearing bear makeup during their “bear hunt” Wednesday, a local campaign encouraging parents to take their children on walks during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.Register file photo

A “bear hunt” became a fun distraction for children, as readers learned March 26. Parents were encouraged to take children for a walk around town to spot teddy bears prominently displayed in windows.

Articles that didn’t contain the word “coronavirus” were rare. They included vandalism of a mausoleum at a Mildred cemetery, a police standoff and house fire in Neosho Falls, and a few columns about historical sites in the area. 

G&W Goods store manager Daniel Gile, left, sorts through groceries he delivered to Leon Butler Tuesday in Iola. The store’s delivery service for residents has seen an uptick amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

On March 30, Gov. Kelly ordered Kansas residents to stay at home except for essential business such as trips to the grocery store or to get medical care.

On March 31, world virus infections topped 800,000. Spain and Italy were hit hardest by the virus. In the U.S., cases grew to 24,506 with 936 deaths.

A Burlington nursing home reported 18 staffers and residents tested positive, the first such cluster at a Kansas nursing home.

At the time, Kansas had 368 cases and nine deaths.

Everything had changed so quickly.

And it was just beginning. 

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