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Lamenting on a year of loss, fear and uncertainty on the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic
Progress-Index - 4/1/2021
PETERSBURG — Patrick Ingram was scheduled to fly to London when the U.S. announced that it was shutting down the borders in response to the growing spread of what is now COVID-19.
The Center for Disease Control just declared the novel coronavirus, at the time, a pandemic just two days prior.
The flight to London was eerie, said Ingram. The Boeing 767-400 plane can seat over 300 passengers, but only eight were in attendance. The flight back to the states, however, was something out of a nightmare.
Upon entering the flight gate, the area was packed with people Ingram said, some of whom were coughing and feverish. On top of that, Ingram had to traverse it all with no personal protection equipment.
“It really was like a repatriation flight,” Ingram said. “We have all these people who maybe had landed the night before or within the same week who were now forced to change their travel plans.”
Thankfully, many of those who were flying back cooperated with grace and respect for the flight crew, Ingram said. Still, the uncertainty of the future hovered over his mind through it all.
“Thinking back now, it was just scary,” Ingram said. “We didn’t know if we could love work or go home.”
After landing in New York, Ingram gathered his things and took the first flight back to Richmond. Fear entered his body once again after hearing the flight attendant on staff was ill.
Ingram finally arrived at him and his husband’s Petersburg home, no longer near any potential danger. He was finally safe. Then both men got sick two days later.
Ingram had contracted conjunctivitis, an uncommon symptom of COVID-19, while in London. Ingram’s husband suffered the sickness the worst, he said. His husband endured 22-hour long fevers and could barely use the bathroom. And if that wasn’t enough, Ingram was informed that he was exposed to COVID-19 while on a previous working flight.
“I saw how terrible it was in other countries and I was like, am I about to lose my husband?” Ingram said. “It was just scary.”
Getting tested, however, was another battle. After coming home on March 14, the two couldn’t get a test until the 24th. And since it had been almost two weeks since he came home, the two were already feeling better. Unsurprisingly, both men tested negative.
Despite being safe, Ingram was out of a job. He voluntarily furloughed himself for the next six months and had to find new income for himself and his family. The obstacles Ingram faced brought on a zealous drive to help those in need around him.
While searching for jobs, he came across a position as a disease intervention specialist for VDH. He worked a similar position years ago for multiple non-profits focused on HIV prevention after testing positive himself in 2011.
He left Delta in June, and by July, he already started his new role at VDH.
The need to help marginalized folks in a community like Petersburg, combined with the efforts he did in his roles before becoming a flight attendant, threw him into his position at the state department.
“COVID really was just a moment that I had to rewrite the inner scripts within myself and be able to look at you know, the picture is larger than just you,” Ingram said.
Battling a pandemic
This week marked the first year anniversary of the first COVID-19 case in Petersburg. The state had seen its first case over three weeks prior, causing health professionals within the Crater Health District to prepare for impending doom.
The Crater Health District at first was deemed a “testing desert” as the locality rushed to provide tests for the few pharmacies and health clinics it had. Most health districts have plans in place for viral outbreaks, but battling a monster like COVID-19 engendered gaps in efforts to contain it.
The number of positive cases at the beginning of the pandemic began to quickly outnumber the amount of staff available on the district’s COVID-19 teams, says Katrina Saphrey, senior epidemiologist for Crater Health District. In what she calls “the surge,” the district, and the state overall, scrambled to hire more contact tracers and had to lean on other health districts to assist their own patients.
“We are expanding our partnerships to continue all our efforts catered towards containment because we have to keep up with case investigations,” Saphrey said. “... Without those partnerships, it really would not be possible.”
Handling the pandemic got easier after hiring more help, but staffing issues continued to persist as the vaccine began to roll out during the winter, said Dr. Alton Hart, health director for the Crater Health District.
The slow rollout of the vaccine can also be attributed to the size of the district, says Dr. Hart. The Crater Health District serves around 155,000 people or two percent of the population within the commonwealth. Having to allocate such a small amount of vaccines, Dr. Hart says, to eight localities posed many challenges in the beginning.
As of today, the state has given almost 4 million vaccines, with about 1.4 million residents being fully vaccinated, according to state data. In Petersburg, however, 8,030 people have received at least one dose, and about 3,300, roughly 10 percent of the city’s population, have been fully vaccinated.
Now, the Crater Health District is continuing to partner with counties, schools and cities to host mass vaccination clinics that can supply thousands of vaccines at a time.
Saphrey notes how the health district recruited outside help—such as school nurses and Medical Reserve Corps volunteers—to administer shots and additional aid for the vaccination efforts.
“Our teams have been working night and day it feels to make sure that we continue to ramp up our vaccination efforts,” Saphrey said.
Taking on the pandemic from the public health side has been daunting, to say the least. To be thrown in a situation in which a mass amount of people are in need of aid, and not being able to administer it in a timely manner, has been incredibly stressful, says Dr. Hart.
He remembers losing a few members within the health district and feeling at a loss for what he could do. No matter what he did, there was nothing he could have done to stop it. Even as he continues his work for the rest of the district, those deaths continue to be a heavyweight, he says.
“It’s a huge responsibility, I remember the early days of the pandemic and the initial deaths in our district,” Dr. Hart said. “It was very difficult.”
Yet, the two health professionals find some solemn in knowing that they are a part of the tiresome relief efforts.
“We wake up every day and we take everything that comes at us and we make the best out of it,” Saphrey said.
Coming back home
Nicole Harris carefully rolled a strand of hair over the two ceramic plates of a straightener. Harris was giving a teenage girl a silk press, or the straightening of naturally curly or coily hair without the use of a chemical relaxer. The girl flinched at the brief contact of the straightener hitting her scalp.
A CNN report could be heard over the cacophony of conversations, gospel music and blow dryers. 528,000 lives lost to COVID-19 and counting.
A year ago, Harris was stationed in Waikiki, HI as a cytotechnologist—a lab technologist that studies cells and cellular anomalies—for a six-month assignment. She had just completed her second month right before the CDC declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.
Once she heard the news, she knew she had to come home. She bought her $140 one-way ticket back to Virginia and boarded the plane that same day.
Harris had no idea when, or if, she was going to return to Hawaii or the medical field overall. Becoming a stylist at her mother’s salon in Petersburg wasn’t what she envisioned, but is what happened once she got home in Chesterfield.
“I had been wanting to go home for a long time,” Harris said. “I think that the year without having my career take up so much of my time gave me a lot of free space to pursue the things I wanted to pursue.”
Harris has been doing hair at her mother’s salon, Karen’s House of Beauty, for almost a year now. Hairstyling doesn’t bring in the same amount of money as cytotechnology would, but Harris said she feels a lot safer working there rather than in a hospital, where she previously was.
She is the third generation of women in her family to own and operate a salon; her grandmother owned a salon on Washington Street for 23 years before closing it in 2006 to work at her daughter’s salon on Sycamore Street. Now, Harris is in the process of opening her beauty spa right next door to her mother’s. She won’t be doing hair at the salon, she says.
Opening a business has been difficult for the 31-year-old. She’s had to postpone the grand opening but is slated to open the shop later this month. Even with the ongoing stress of the pandemic, Harris is still looking forward to servicing her new clients.
“I’m just hoping that this summer we’ll have some sense of normalcy,” Harris said.
Tamica Jean-Charles covers all things social justice for the Progress-Index. You can find her on Twitter @thisistamica. You can also reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Progress-Index: Lamenting on a year of loss, fear and uncertainty on the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic
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