‘When COVID broke’ | News
“We were down in Marco Island (Florida), and we saw all these private jets flying in and out, trying to get away from this thing. Everyone was just evacuating.
“It was Friday, March 13, 2020 — that’s when COVID broke,” said Dr. Alan Stewart, who has helped guide local residents through the pandemic for three years now.
Stewart, who took the position as Knox County Health Officer in 2019, imagined his time in public health would be spent focusing on things like educating area youngsters, conducting outreach programs to help teens and adults stop smoking, or perhaps working to address homelessness.
When he took on the job, he says COVID wasn’t even on the radar. Yet, a few short months later, the new virus was all-consuming.
Stewart, in a whirlwind of memories from those earliest days of the coronavirus, recalls his cellphone buzzing constantly, as everyone from local elected leaders to school administrators looked to him for answers and advice about this new, fast-moving virus that nobody yet understood.
By March 14, grocery store shelves were all but empty, with residents across the nation hoarding loaves of bread, canned goods, and toilet paper.
“We cancelled our flight out of Florida and rented a car to get back home as quickly as we could,” Stewart recalls. “The poor guy at the rental car desk said we were the 400th car that day, and we realized this thing was big.”
On March 16, Indiana recorded its first COVID-19 death — a 70-year-old woman named Birdie.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, on March 22, announced an impending stay-at-home order — originally slated to last two weeks, but which dragged on until May, leaving businesses and schools shuttered and people isolated and lonely.
“Everything was closing, and nobody knew what to do, but we realized it was spreading fast.
“It was scary and dangerous, and we needed to take quick action to try to protect our community; state-by-state, we all shut down,” Stewart said.
By April 3, the 100th Hoosier died as a result of the virus. By the end of that month, 1,000 more would be lost.
“It’s all a blur now,” said COVID-19 nurse and clinic coordinator Betty Lankford of the early days of the pandemic. “I guess because I didn’t know what to expect — none of us did. There was no recipe, no routine, no organization. We had to fly by the seat of our pants.”
Stewart tapped Lankford to help lead the vaccination efforts just after her retirement from Good Samaritan in December 2020.
Her initial contract was meant to be for six months, working eight hours per day, five days each week.
“What a joke,” she says now with a laugh.
Instead, Lankford worked at least 12 hours each day, six or seven days every week for more than a year, doing what she could to mitigate the spread of the virus: researching, Zooming in on state-level meetings, mobilizing a small army of volunteers to staff the COVID vaccine clinic, and diligently working to ensure Knox County never ran out of vaccines.
Within a short time of working together, Stewart and Lankford functioned as a well-oiled machine, practically reading one another’s thoughts.
“Just as I’m thinking of something, or have an idea, he’ll say it out loud,” Lankford says, grateful for such a solid collegial partnership during an unfathomable crisis.
Lankford, who spent years as a registered nurse at Good Samaritan, said working in the vaccine clinic helped her cope with some flickers of lingering guilt about leaving her fellow nurses behind amid the ongoing pandemic.
“I feel the guilt of not being there — feeling like I left them. It still bothers me, when I have the time to feel it,” she said in an August 2021 interview.
But working to distribute vaccines to residents helped Lankford and scores of other retired nurses ease the weight of that guilt, giving them a vital role to fulfill.
“It gave a lot of people in the community a feeling of self worth because they contributed to managing the pandemic. It probably also helped a lot of people keep their sanity,” she said, noting that perhaps one positive outcome of the pandemic is that it made people more acutely aware of just how much they needed human connection.
In total, at the height of vaccination efforts in 2021, the local COVID-19 clinic had 160 men and women volunteering their time, assisting with everything from paperwork to administering the vaccines.
Student nurses from Vincennes University, too, answered the call in January 2021 when residents — beginning with our eldest citizens first — were eligible for their first dose of Pfizer or Moderna.
“We had an older patient who really wanted this shot, and a VU student nurse was the one to give it to her. The patient was crying because she was so relieved to have it,” Lankford recalls. “It was a good day for the patient, but what an awesome thing for that student nurse to experience.”
Stewart, too, fondly remembers the early vaccination efforts, and the hope and joy that came with those small, frozen vials.
“Those were the days when people would come into the clinic in tears, thanking us,” he said.
But the longer the pandemic lingered on, health officials found much of the tide of public favor had turned against them.
“In 2020 I was everyone’s best friend, and it was like what I said was practically the gospel, but by the resurgence of COVID in fall 2021, a lot of people didn’t want to listen anymore — as if this was all just made up,” Stewart said.
He says the political rhetoric diminishing the real threat of the virus, attacks on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and missteps at the federal level made everything much more challenging across the U.S.
“We have had almost double the death rate of almost any other developed nation because we didn’t do it right,” Stewart said.
In the three years since the onset of COVID-19, more than 26,000 Hoosiers and 1,133,461 Americans have died as a result of the virus — including 168 residents of Knox County.
At the height of the pandemic, locally, Good Samaritan saw more than 40 inpatient cases at one time, overwhelming an already overburdened healthcare system.
“People think it’s over, but it’s not,” said Lankford, noting the county saw another COVID-related death just last week.
Particularly vulnerable, still, are those who are immunocompromised or face chronic illness — particularly if they are unvaccinated.
Though the threat of the virus isn’t gone, Stewart says he believes the virus is now in an endemic stage, with it evolving to become more contagious but less virulent — and therefore less likely to lead to serious illness and death.
Lankford and Stewart, both of retirement age, are grateful to have come out the other side of the worst of COVID-19, and they continue to press forward for the betterment of public health, which now includes turning their attention to other matters.
“If there is a silver lining that has come with all of this, it’s that Governor Holcomb — who did a yeoman’s job during the pandemic, by the way — recognized the need for public health, and he really wants to raise Indiana up,” said Stewart.
The governor is committed to improving funding for public health across the state, particularly to departments who have clear plans for improved programming.
The Knox County Health Department, say Stewart and Lankford, is already well underway with improvements, plans, and programs.
“Our state officials want to be sure we’re not just going to throw money at things that won’t be well utilized, and I agree 100%,” said Stewart, noting that the local health department in recent weeks has already started five new programs, including CPR classes, testing for sexually transmitted infections, and smoking cessation efforts — the kinds of programming Stewart hoped to implement when he took on the position of health officer years ago.
“It’s exciting; this was Dr. Stewart’s dream,” said Lankford, happy to see her own role at the health department move beyond managing the COVID crisis.
Looking back, the pair of healthcare workers say they simply performed and served the best they could with the what they had.
“We never knew on any given day what we were going to face,” said Lankford. “Fortunately, we had a lot of people willing to help us figure it out.”