On March 16, 2020, Gov. JB Pritzker announced that all gatherings of 50 or more people must be canceled, closing schools and many businesses in the process.
That same day, President Donald Trump advised that everyone should avoid social gatherings of 10 or more people for 15 days.
That came five days after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, five days before Pritzker issued his first stay-at-home order and six days before the first COVID case was reported in Monroe County.
To commemorate the one-year anniversary of the pandemic truly making itself felt in Illinois, the Republic-Times asked leaders in several areas of the community to reflect on the past year.
Few industries have been more directly affected by the pandemic than health care, and that holds true for Liz Nonn.
The Waterloo nurse works in a supervisory role at a local hospital, and she said the pandemic has taken its toll on her.
“In a nutshell, I’m really tired,” she said. “The mental and physical toll that this past year has taken on me, on all of us, is intense. It has been a wavy maze of adrenaline, worry and fear. The constant fear of becoming ill or carrying illness to someone else is truly exhausting.”
Nonn has not worked directly with COVID-positive patients, though her office was the “COVID command center for much of the year,” meaning it handled relaying information to and from the hospital, distributing personal protective equipment and the like.
Her office is adjacent to the COVID unit at her hospital.
Through the windows, she has seen families stand vigil outside their loved one’s room, as visitors have not been permitted.
“Of all the hard things about his past year, this was the hardest,” Nonn said. “I could see the tears, hear the sobbing and I was helpless to intervene. I will never, ever forget those families.”
Through all that turmoil, Nonn said she has learned resilience – though she said it is finite.
“I have learned that it takes brave educators to disseminate information and then retract and redistribute that information as we learn more,” she assessed. “I spent the last year like everyone else: missing my family, fearing the public and wondering when we can go back to normal. As a nurse, though, I had a place to direct that angst. I tasked myself with keeping up-to-date on the most current research, statistics and recommendations.”
There have been some bright spots amid the anguish.
Nonn is in graduate school studying public health, so this has been a personal learning opportunity for her.
More recently, Nonn, who said she feels fortunate to be able to help fight the pandemic, has been volunteering at the vaccine clinics in Monroe County.
“Words cannot describe how I feel about giving my days off at the hospital to the Monroe County Fairgrounds vaccination clinics,” Nonn said. “I sincerely feel that this is my pandemic calling as a nurse.”
Nonn gave abundant credit for those clinics to the Monroe County Health Department.
Distributing the vaccine has been the latest undertaking that department has been tasked with in a historically busy year.
“It’s been non-stop,” Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner said. “It’s just been a hectic year from contact tracing, to restaurants closing, to getting ready for the vaccine and everything. It’s just been crazy.”
The health department has done all that while still completing its regular duties, adding to the challenge.
The struggle of getting enough vaccine and distributing it to the public, Wagner said, has been exacerbated because the state did not follow plans that have been in place for mass vaccinations since 2001.
“Twenty years of plans that every health department has written, 20 years of drills, the state just threw away,” Wagner said. “Millions of dollars in planning and preparing and doing drills, and the state just changes the plan on how to respond to the pandemic by using the National Guard and Walgreens and stuff like that.”
Wagner credited volunteers like Nonn for making this process as smooth as it has been.
“The volunteers in Monroe County have just been great, and they’re still coming in,” he said. “It’s been really good that people are willing to donate their time. There’s no way we could be doing any of this without the volunteers or that I could be fighting so hard to get vaccine without a way to get it out.”
While Wagner has been vocal about his complaints with how the state has managed the pandemic, he said other health departments have not and have therefore seen their reputation damaged.
“The state really diminished the public outlook on the local health department by bringing in the National Guard and things like that. It will take years to build that back,” Wagner said.
As previously mentioned, one of the first areas that saw operations drastically change was education.
“To say it’s been a challenge is an understatement,” Regional Superintendent of Schools Kelton Davis said. “We can be proud of the efforts and the work of our schools. But it’s been frustrating and detrimental.”
Davis said the situation has become more challenging with how contentious responding to the virus became.
“I’ve had trouble stomaching the political nature of all of this,” Davis said, noting that stakeholders’ opinions range from schools should be completely open to schools should take as many precautions as possible. “I’ve had trouble, and our schools have had trouble, keeping sanity with so much change in rhetoric and recommendations coming from different directions and changing all the time.”
The silver lining for Davis has been that, for all the difficulties associated with remote learning, he believes the pandemic has reinforced the importance of teachers and schools.
“I think it has garnered more appreciation for our teachers and what they do when we’re fully in school and the positive impact school has on social, emotional and academic success,” Davis said.
In addition, Davis said he believes parents and students will have a more favorable outlook on in-person school going forward, though the long-term impact of the pandemic will be more nuanced.
“I think what you’re going to see is an expectation of school flexibility, more organizational flexibility, because we’ve been able to do remote and in-person,” Davis reasoned. “It’s going to at least enhance the way we look at the potentials in education.”
Like schools, businesses of all varieties had to adapt to measures to slow the spread of the virus early in the pandemic.
“It’s been challenging,” Waterloo Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Candace Gardner summarized. “We’ve gone through many different stages with the pandemic, with going from closed to open with restrictions.”
No difficulty stood out in Gardner’s mind as being the most challenging to overcome, but she said businesses are all missing a key component.
“I think we’re all eager to get back in-person, especially with the bigger events,” she assessed. “We’ve had to cancel Porta Westfalica Fest two years in a row now, so that’s really sad for us.”
Through the changing restrictions, businesses have had to adapt their approach to keep customers safe and meet government guidelines, all while turning a profit.
“It’s amazing to watch a lot of these businesses learn different ways to do business,” Gardner said. “A lot of them have offered new amenities to their customers that they didn’t offer before. I’ve really watched the community support each other.”
Gardner predicted some of those changes, such as increased social media marketing and online sales, will continue after the pandemic ends.
“I think it’s a good thing for them,” she said of those innovations. “It allows people to stay at home in their own comfort but still support their local businesses.”
As challenging as running a business has been, perhaps no sector has dealt with as much heartbreak as those working in long-term care facilities because so many of Monroe County’s deaths have been in those places.
“It’s truly been unlike any other year in my 16 years of being an administrator,” Oak Hill Senior Living & Rehabilitation Center Administrator Brian Koontz said. “We have all been championing resident rights in the long-term care environment, and it seemed like the mitigation rules put in place to govern long-term care during the pandemic were the exact opposite of what we’ve been fighting for.”
That has been a tough adjustment for professionals in this field.
“The hardest thing was to understand that some of the rules put in place were to help keep the residents physically safe,” Koontz relayed. “At the same time, I don’t think we knew the cost it would be to their social and emotional wellbeing.”
Even amid those difficulties, Koontz said it has been incredible to see how people have risen to meet those challenges.
“There always seemed to be somebody who stood out from the crowd and surprised you, whether it was a housekeeper, a dietary aid who is in high school or a veteran RN nurse,” he said.
Koontz also said he thought the industry would take some hard-won lessons from the pandemic that will help senior care facilities combat normal viruses by making new infection central procedures the new normal.
“We learned a lot about that process through this pandemic,” he said. “I think there will be some good, lasting changes.”
With all the pain COVID has brought, Monroe County has helped meet the needs of people who may be newly in need of it.
“The community has been very supportive when we’ve asked for food, supplies or donations,” House of Neighborly Service Executive Director Tina Charron said. “Everybody’s been very giving.”
Nonprofits have been focused on cutting through the noise to let people know they are there if needed in the last year, Charron said, and that has not been easy.
But it has proven rewarding, as Charron said people have shown generosity through acts like donating stimulus checks.
“We’ve had a couple different clients who have gotten back to work now, and they are giving back to HNS to be able to pay it forward,” Charron shared.
Working through the pandemic may also help civic organizations moving forward, as they have been forced to innovate like for-profit companies.
“We weren’t able to have our typical fundraisers, so we learned to think outside of the box, and I think a lot of organizations are going to continue to think outside of the box in ways to raise funds and help their clients,” Charron said.