News 13: The pandemic year from behind the scenes

Florida Coronavirus News

BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — 2020 was the year of many things: civil unrest, a relentless hurricane season and a historic election. But perhaps nothing could compare to COVID-19, the invisible enemy that has impacted the planet.

The first case in the U.S. was reported in November 2019.

“I probably didn’t pay an awful lot of attention to it until January, when we started hearing the stories about it about China,” Tom Lewis, news director, said. “And then the cruise ships coming in and them quarantining people on the cruise ships and I was like, ‘this is weird.’”

“And then it became a reality,” he said.

But it wasn’t until March 2020 that Bay County had its first confirmed case.

READ MORE: Bay Co. Health Dept. discusses their first positive COVID-19 case

“It was like everyone was on pins and needles. We were all waiting to see who was going to be first, which county is going to be first. But, then it was like, I wonder who’s going to be first in the building,” Tom said. “It was me!”

Since then, it’s dominated the news cycle, with our staff bringing you coverage from the front lines.

But as it began to spread, uncertainty about the disease led to widespread panic, supply shortages and statewide shutdowns.

“I had my own little part of the house that I lived in and then the wife had the rest  of the house and I wasn’t allowed in the kitchen or anywhere for I think it was about eight days is when I finally was allowed in the other parts of the house,” Chris Marchand, morning anchor, said. 

Information about the pandemic developed slowly with some saying that the disease was probably not as dangerous as some think.

“I was probably really sick for about three or four days and then things started to get better from there,” Madalyn Bierster, reporter, said.

“I thought well what if I’m in that category that’s at risk, badly? And I was in the category,” Tom said. “What if it happens to me? What if I start having respiratory issues? What if I have to go to the hospital? What if I don’t come out of this?”

And while honest reporting remains New 13’s key objective, it doesn’t come without its personal challenges.

“I’m the one telling the story with the emotions of somebody who lost a loved one, and it takes a toll on you mentally,” Anna Hoffman, reporter, said. “Hearing about somebody who lost their mother or father or brother, sister, grandma, grandpa, anyone — it hurts to have to, like, write about it all and have to stay impartial.”

Anna moved to Panama City in May to join News 13. While many small businesses were struggling due to the pandemic, she said she felt fortunate to be able to find a job post-graduation. 

But she added that it was a tricky time to enter the job market.

“It’s kind of important in this job to get to know places and get to know the people,” Anna said. “But having a pandemic, you can’t really do that.”

“It’s definitely changed everything about working in news,” Madalyn said.

“We learned all about Zoom technology, we were doing Zoom meetings with everybody every morning saying, ‘what are you covering? What are you covering?” Tom said.

READ MORE: Panama City Beach City Council votes to reopen beaches

Like many 2020 college graduates, some of our reporters had their senior years stolen from them.

“You work so hard, you pay all this money, go into debt, and then you don’t get to walk in graduation,” Anna said. “It’s kind of upsetting and it’s probably going to upset me for the rest of my life.”

“All my family lives all over the place so they were going to come in from Canada, Florida, all over, just to be at LSU for my graduation,” Alexia Tsiropolous, reporter, said. “That was hard not to have them there cause that’s really why I wanted to walk across the stage; was for them. To show that I was able to do this for my family, not just for me.”

But it wasn’t just college students that suffered. High schools, middle schools, and elementary schools also shut down in March.

READ MORE: Class of 2020

The school systems worked hard to come up with comprehensive plans to safely continue educating our children.

“My son is in first grade. He literally started his journey in school the year that Hurricane Michael hit.” Jessica Ayers, reporter, said. “And then last year he was in kindergarten and he got sent home and he had to finish up his kindergarten year — he wasn’t even able to have a kindergarten graduation. So, his entire journey through school has not been normal.”

But despite the districts’ best efforts, the pandemic eventually led to outbreaks in schools and lower grades.

READ MORE: Bay Link no longer available to students beginning in Spring Semester

It seemed the virus was everywhere, blanketing many of the year’s other milestones like the holidays, hurricane season and election. Even our President Trump contracted it.

As testing increased, positivity rates fluctuated and “COVID fatigue” set in.

“It was hard, I’ve gotta say, it all felt like a dream, like when can we wake up from this? It doesn’t even seem real, like, what pandemic, I’m living in a pandemic?” Alexia said.

Then, the vaccine arrived.

“I think that we’re all excited about the vaccine because we all want this to go away but I think there’s also a lot of fears about the vaccine,” Jessica said.

“I think the vaccine’s already changed our situation. Or, it changed our attitudes,” Tom said. “I think everyone’s like, ‘oh, the vaccine’s here, now we can relax,’ and that’s not the case.”

As we continue bringing you coverage on its progress, we can only wait to see what happens and remain Panhandle Strong.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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