BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — 2020 began with hope. But lurking in the darkness was an enemy that many didn’t see coming.
Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said law enforcement was just as surprised as any Bay County resident when COVID-19 began to take over.
“We were paying very close attention to the press conferences that the president and the governor were having,” Ford said. “As a law enforcement agency, we began to try to prepare for what may be coming.”
Ford said he immediately jumped into protective mode, doing everything he could to ensure the safety of his staff.
“At that time, we had basic PPE. Most of the stuff that we deal with is really related to what we call blood-borne pathogens or, you know, gloves and things like that,” Ford said. “And we had some masks but I was not comfortable with our supply of masks so we really began trying to get our hands on the proper PPE for our people.”
As always, law enforcement has a big job to do and plenty of tough decisions to make.
But unlike the sheriff, Bill Husfelt, Bay County superintendent, doesn’t wear a gun or uphold the law. He is, however, the glue that holds together one of the most important systems in our county — the school system.
Husfelt said he thought Hurricane Michael was a challenge until the pandemic showed up.
“After Hurricane Michael, we could come out and see what we needed to do and come up with a plan because we knew okay we can fix the building so kids can come back, we can adjust their schedules,” Husfelt said. “But with the pandemic, it’s every day we are dealing with something new or something different with the pandemic.”
Prior to March, many Bay County residents weren’t too familiar with a virus called “coronavirus” as it was unfolding on another continent.
Kristi Claunch, mom of two, said COVID first had an impact on her life when her friend texted, canceling their travel plans.
“We were going to go on a trip for Spring Break so I would say March is when it really started to sink in how bad it was,” Claunch said. “When you cancel your spring break plans and decide to stay at home.”
At the time Claunch didn’t realize that canceling her plans was a precursor for what was to come. A few days later, stay-at-home orders were put into place.
“That certainly was when I think I realized the enormity of the situation,” Ford said. “This was not going to be a situation that was going to be two weeks and then we’re out of it.”
Bay County reported its first COVID case on March 21. It was then that COVID-19 went from being a myth to reality.
Natasha Woodham, Family Nurse Practitioner said a lot of her patients were sick in February but tested negative for the flu.
“Upper respiratory stuff February and March and then in March we started to hear more about COVID-19 virus that had come out,” Woodham said. “It was new to us, we didn’t know what we were dealing with, we didn’t know how we were going to be able to treat that.”
Woodham said medicine is tricky and not necessarily a one-way street.
“Evidence-based medicine is how we practice,” Woodham said. “And when you don’t have evidence to support how you are going to treat something, that’s extremely scary as a provider.”
COVID-19 was unfamiliar, unpredictable, and changing the world. But just like Woodham, the medical field had to push forward and do what they could to save lives.
Woodham said their practice remains open to anyone who needs to see a provider, even COVID patients. But they treat COVID patients from the comfort of their own home.
“We’re seeing those patients over the phone still,” Woodham said. “And we’re starting to know a little bit more about treatment and how to effectively do that.”
What’s most confusing is how differently COVID affects everyone. Ford said it definitely impacted the Bay County Sheriff’s Office in more ways than one.
“We lost Miss Peggy McDonald, a beloved member of our staff here for 25 years,” Ford said.
Bay County has not escaped the wrath of its anger. In nine short months, our numbers grew from one case to 10,719 cases.
When it came time to reopen the schools, Husfelt said the community was split.
“There was a big division on whether or not we should start school back or not,” Husfelt said. “And as we learn more and more, we realized it was safe for students and safe for people if they follow certain protocols.”
Claunch sent both of her children went back to brick and mortar but it didn’t come without some reservations. Her 7-year-old son was impacted the most.
“He had an upset stomach on his first day of school and just was so worried about the virus,” Claunch said.
It goes without saying that Bay County and those surrounding it have had a challenging three years. Only time will tell what 2021 will bring.
“We’ve been talking about normalcy for three years now,” Husfelt said. “I’m not sure we’ll recognize normal when we get to it.”
“2021 come please, as soon as you can,” Claunch said.
After 28 years in the field, Ford said 2020 has been the hardest.
“From the COVID standpoint as well, the civil unrest and attitudes and perceptions towards police officers has been, probably the most difficult year in my career,” Ford said.”
Looking into the new year, many eyes are focused on one thing — the vaccine. On Dec. 21, President-Elect Joe Biden went under the needle on national television to receive it for himself.
But theories are swirling and many are still on the fence about putting an unfamiliar substance in their body.
Claunch said her family has already made up their minds.
“We’re gonna be pro-vaccine. I feel by the time it’s our turn, that it will have been used by many others and if there are any warning signs that come up or any side effects, we’ll be taking it, having an educated perspective of it,” Claunch said. “I’d rather have the vaccination and have my kids have the vaccination than my kids have COVID.”
“I’m probably going to wait a little while on the vaccine just to kind of see what we are dealing with,” Woodham said. “We will be offering it to the community. I think it’s going to be one of those things that we are going to see how people do, what side effects it has and absolutely if it’s going well then we are going to recommend it to our patients.”
“I feel that a lot of great scientific minds have been working on the vaccine so personally, I feel comfortable,” Ford said. “Not without some hesitation and reservations, just like anybody else. But I also respect people’s right to choose for themselves.”