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10 pivotal pandemic moments in Calhoun County

When we tell our grandkids the story of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ll think of the moments that stand as milestones. Here’s a look back at the pivotal events that captured the spirit of Calhoun County in the age of coronavirus:

1. The CDP fiasco

In February, when COVID-19 wasn’t quite a household word, the Trump administration announced that it would send some passengers from the Diamond Princess — an American cruise ship that suffered a coronavirus outbreak — to Anniston’s Center for Domestic Preparedness.

Local officials had little or no notice before the announcement, and no one checked to see if the former Noble Army Hospital, now converted as a CDP training facility for doctors dealing with disasters, could still function as a medical facility. (It couldn’t: faucets in simulated hospital rooms weren’t hooked up to plumbing and many life-support machines didn’t work.)

The Trump administration withdrew the proposal after local governments objected, but the event gave the community its first taste of pandemic-related misinformation as social media users pushed false theories about the CDP.

2. The view from Wuhan

As Americans braced for the possibility of a lockdown, Ohatchee High School graduate Alex Ballard was already stuck in his 34th-floor apartment — in Wuhan, the Chinese city that was the epicenter of the virus. Some of his descriptions of life in isolation, unable to leave home but still teaching English, would give local residents a glimpse of the work-from-home life that, for some, was soon to come.

3. Jobless and waiting

Remember calling the unemployment office only to find the phone lines were clogged with thousands of other jobless people? That’s what local people were reporting to The Star in April. Also: people borrowing money to buy groceries or living on Ramen noodles and worrying about how they would put together the recommended two weeks’ worth of supplies. Things may be rough now, but at least some things are better than they were in April.

4. The lone moviegoer

Months into the pandemic, staff at the Oxford Public Library went ahead with their plan to hold a Harry Potter film festival. Grace Blount showed up, and she had the theater to herself. Knitting in front of the screen for hours, in front of films she’s seen many times before, Blount became an emblem of how we all spent this strange year.

5. Out of the hospital

When the virus was still new and relatively rare, every discharge of a cured COVID patient was a victory local doctors could savor. McKenzee Webster was one of those patients, wheeled out of Regional Medical Center in May as cheering doctors and nurses lined the hallways. Webster offered Anniston residents a close-up glimpse of how bad the disease can get: just 25 when she caught COVID, she spent 31 days on a ventilator and left the hospital on a gurney, not yet able to walk.

6. Easter in the parking lot

It’s hard to believe now, but on Easter Sunday 2020, “social distancing” was a new term for most people. It was our first holiday with the virus, and local residents’ workarounds showed us the shape of things to come. At a public housing complex in Jacksonville, residents organized their own outdoor Easter service.Easter egg hunts became a drive-through phenomenon: kids could look for eggs, but no touching. By Mother’s Day, drive-in church had become a commonplace event.

7. Eli Henderson dies

Many of the most compelling stories of the pandemic took place out of the public’s view. Patients died in hospital beds, isolated even from their own families. Patient privacy laws kept the names of the deceased hidden, unless their families wanted to talk. But the death of Eli Henderson, a Calhoun County Commissioner and longtime figure in local politics, brought the pandemic home to many who didn’t know — or didn’t think they knew — a coronavirus victim. 

8. Feeding kids after schools closed

Even before the pandemic, it was common for local teachers to send some kids home over holiday breaks with backpacks full of food — a heartbreaking acknowledgement of the hardship that faces some families when school breakfast and lunch aren’t there. In local cities such as Anniston and Jacksonville, school officials worked out ways to get out free school meals when schools were ordered closed — and they wound up serving families, unemployed after the economic crash, who were sometimes surprised to find themselves in line.

9. A doctor pushes back

The rise of COVID-19 during an election year put doctors and public health officials in a difficult spot. Political leaders didn’t line up in the same kind of across-the-aisle unity seen in many past disasters. Some, President Donald Trump chief among them, seemed to take both sides on public health policy, appearing alongside doctors in press conferences while pandering to virus-deniers on social media. When Trump opined on Twitter that doctors profit when their patients die from COVID — which is not true — Regional Medical Center’s Dr. Raul Magadia felt a need to respond

10. The end in sight

Magadia also had the distinction of being the first person to receive a shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Calhoun County. Magadia and other doctors were quick to point out that vaccination of the general public may still be several months away — and he warned people to keep their distance over the Christmas holiday. Still, it was a glimmer of hope. “Hopefully this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.