A year ago this week, urologist Dr. Michael Kline donned a hazmat suit and stood beside a busy Anniston street, wearing a sign that read “THE VIRUS HAS ARRIVED.”
COVID-19 hadn’t arrived, not quite yet. But Kline was one of the many Anniston residents who opposed a hastily announced plan to bring coronavirus-exposed passengers from the cruise ship Diamond Princess to Anniston to recover.
A year later, Kline insists he wasn’t being an alarmist. In fact, he said he never imagined the death toll would be this high.
“I never thought it would be this widespread,” Kline said. “Everybody knows someone who has had it.”
In Calhoun County, 12,860 people — about one in every nine residents — have had COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. The virus has killed 277 people in the county and more than 9,500 statewide.
For most Alabamians, the horror began in mid-March, when the state reported its first cases of the disease. But for Anniston, pandemic life began weeks earlier, with a press release sent out just before noon on an otherwise uneventful Saturday morning.
That release, from the Department of Health and Human Services, said the federal government would bring COVID-positive passengers from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship stranded in Japan, to the Center for Domestic Preparedness, a Homeland Security training facility in Anniston.
The plan fell apart in a single weekend. Local officials said they were given little or no warning about the coming patients. The CDP’s facilities included the former Noble Army Hospital, where doctors train to deal with pandemics just like this one. But that former hospital is now just a giant simulator, with stickers on the wall in the place of electrical outlets and sinks that aren’t hooked up to running water.
City councils and county commissions announced emergency meetings to discuss the proposal. Local residents packed in, shoulder to shoulder.
“This is not fair,” Anniston resident Yvonne Gomez said at one of those meetings. “This is our lives versus their lives.”
By the end of that weekend, the plan to house patients at CDP was canceled — due in no small part to pressure from Alabama’s congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, called the plan “boneheaded.”
Nearly a month would pass before a case of coronavirus was actually identified in Calhoun County, but the Diamond Princess incident brought all the themes of the pandemic era to Anniston.
Rumors swirled of coronavirus patients brought secretly to a CDP dorm, although a reporter visited that dorm and found only empty rooms with loud bedsheets. Facebook users created a fake screenshot that made it appear that Regional Medical Center had COVID-positive patients, long before actual patients showed up.
The online rumor mill hasn’t changed all that much in a year, said Myles Chamblee, acting director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.
“As far as misinformation, that’s always going to be there,” he said.
Things are a little easier, he said, now that more is known about the virus. How the virus is transmitted, the basic symptoms and whether people can be infected twice — all those things were still being debated by scientists even as the virus arrived.
Local officials have long claimed the Diamond Princess case actually gave them a leg up on the pandemic, forcing the community to think about COVID-19 before most Alabama cities did.
“The Unified Command was born out of that,” said Anniston Mayor Jack Draper. Unified Command is the local term for the task force of mayors, doctors and emergency officials that formed the week after the Diamond Princess incident, with an eye toward directing the COVID-19 response. The group is still at work, organizing the vaccination effort.
Draper said the incident also got mayors on board early with plans to help with the economic effect of the virus. It’s one reason local cities were able to set up a relief fund for small businesses, he said.
Asked if local officials were essentially on their own in the early days of the pandemic, Draper said he wouldn’t go quite that far. Chamblee agrees, though he said local officials have learned they need to act independently.
“I’d say we took it on ourselves not to rely on someone else to do things for us,” he said.
Kline, the Anniston urologist, is already in the pandemic home stretch. He said his son had the virus in January. He said one of his patients lost a 30-year-old son to the illness. But Kline has already had his second shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.
He said he wanted to get the shot as soon as he could, precisely because he was the guy in the hazmat suit on the street corner a year ago.
“If I caught it, I’d feel like I was letting people down,” he said.