CORONAVIRUS ONE YEAR LATER

At the beginning it was "two weeks to slow the spread" but here we are, a year later still grappling the consequences of this pandemic.

"Nobody ever dreamed that this would be a pandemic similar to the 1918-1919 Spanish flu," Dr. Craig Rhyne, chief medical officer of Covenant Health, said.

"We didn't expect it to spread so fast, and become such a part of our everyday lives," health department director Katherine Wells explained.

On March 17th, 2020 it was Wells who confirmed what the city was already bracing for.

"This is something we've been anticipating" she said during the very first COVID press conference.

On that day, two travel-related cases were announced.

The first, a Texas Tech student evacuated from a European study abroad trip. The other, a hospitalized patient from Hockley county.

"It's here, and we're a little bit nervous about it, but let me reassure you our hospital system is ready for this," Lubbock health authority Dr. Ron Cook said. 

Then came the mobilization for a war against an invisible enemy.

"There were times when it was a little unnerving to go to the grocery store and see all the shelves empty, and no toilet paper and no paper towels," Dr. Cook recalled.

Less than a week later, Lubbock issues a "Stay-At-Home" order mandating non-essential businesses close until late April.

"When it started, of course, we started the week at 100% occupancy. And then, each day it went down, to 75, 50, 25 and by Saturday we were at 0," Loyd Turner 

That meant restaurants, hair salons, gyms, and churches had to close. None were spared in the name of public health.

The experts begin using a new term "social distancing" and urge hand washing. Then later, the face masks.

"Virus ain't got legs. It only uses your legs to get to somebody else," Dr. Cook would say during the city ZOOM press conferences.

In that first month, only 400 cases are identified and Lubbock county is spared surges seen in larger cities.

But the first COVID-19 related death is recorded on March 28th.

Most of the early deaths are a result of nursing homes outbreaks.

"The biggest [challenge] was really the unknown. Not having answers for the community, was really hard," Wells said.

Venturing into that unknown, meant working from home for many of us and countless zoom calls.

After nearly two months shut down, there was some hope of a cautious re-opening.

But in June, the virus surged with a vengeance.

"That message is as simple as can be, wear your damn mask. We need people to take personal responsibility," Mayor Dan Pope said on June 26th, as tension mounted during the city's first surge.

Dozens of bars are named exposure sites as an outbreak spreads among 20-somethings.

The positivity rate shoots to nearly 10%. Cases more than triple and continue to climb in an uncontrolled spread.

Then came the fall, and Lubbock became a new hot spot in the country and hospitals are overwhelmed.

"We didn't ever think that we would be at the point of potentially rationing care," pulmonologist Dr. Brian Williams said. 

"There was a lot of anxiety, and there was a lot of stress. Not only taking care of the patient but also taking care of our caregivers and taking care of myself and my family," infectious disease expert Dr. Prakash Shrestha.

On the worst day, November 24th, there are 670 reported cases and 18 deaths.

"We saw death everyday. Even if there wasn't a person dying, there was still death there. It was imminent," UMC ICU nurse Kelley Hunter said.

The health care community, pleading with residents, to look out for their neighbors as the hospitals filled up.

"It was extremely frustrating. For health care providers to see in the community that we weren't doing everything that we could to really stop the disease," chief executive nurse of Covenant Health Karen Baggerly said.

Hunter says it was her calling to be there in the end for her patients when families couldn't visit their loved ones.

"Not very many people in this entire world were chosen to hold the hand of a person until Jesus took the other one," she said. "There was no family, anywhere. And we got to do that."

"It was truly, truly an honor," Hunter added.

Along the way, we lost friends, neighbors, community leaders and front line workers, including ER doctor, Juan Fitz.

"He was my best friend and I miss him everyday. I know my kids miss him, and there's times that I want to call him and I can't. But I get those little signs that he's out there," his daughter, Tasha, said.

Businesses shuttered and traditional events postponed.

But after nearly a year of hardship, the vaccines arrive in mid-December with healthcare workers first in line.

"It makes me think that we are probably seeing the end of the beginning," Dr. Rhyne said.

"People do have hope. they're starting to regain hope, it's a beautiful thing to see," Baggerly said.

Now, each week, thousands get their shot in the arm at the civic center and active cases have dropped to less than 200.

Wells says it is now her happy place.

"This is the most positive place I think in Lubbock right now," she said.

"It's been a lot of sadness and a lot of death. But there's been so much goodness in it. The human factor has been incredible," Hunter said.

In the spring, citizens hand made thousands of masks. Some families could spend more time together.

A "twindemic" never came with flu cases all but disappearing with new health protocols.

A neighborhood Samaritan Facebook group, now 27,000 strong, has stood the test of time and continues to connect neighbors to resources.

"We realized we were more resilient, we were more flexible, we could adapt to the challenges that we needed to meet," Baggerly said.

As we inch closer to the end of this crisis, we emerge perhaps more cautious but stronger than before.

Though the virus may never truly go away, what we have learned as a community will keep us moving forward.