Looking Back – Moving Forward

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The words

In March of 2020 the World Health Organization formally declared a world-wide state of pandemic. The spread of Covid-19 had passed a point of no-return.

Everything changed. Restrictions, lock-downs, and closings were imposed on businesses, schools, and churches, concerts, weddings, and even funerals. Markets spiraled around he globe; some people panicked while others denied the sky was falling. But regardless, the world had changed.

This week, the Jamestown Gazette reviews three questions on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic declaration, the third being the most important: First, How did we get through it so far? Next, Where are we now? And finally, How is our future different from the one we might have imagined on New Years Day, 2020?
One Long Year

“How did we get through it?” Christine Schuyler, Chautauqua County’s Commissioner of Social Services and Public Health Director told the Gazette, “With a lot of teamwork, dedication, and perseverance. Our community partners collaborated wonderfully. Their willingness to get the job done took everyone’s efforts to another level.”

In other words, crisis brought out what neither panic nor denial could have achieved.

“It is not an accident that we got through the last year,” Jamestown’s Mayor Eddie Sundquist added. “We’ve learned a lot more about how to communicate across departments and services, and we took a lot of pro-active choices that effected the entire community. We found that we had to make some sacrifices, too, to protect our loved ones.”

“It’s been a pretty difficult time to be a student in this era,” Dr. Kevin Whitaker, Jamestown’s new Superintendent of Schools told a recent Zoom meeting of the Jamestown Rotary. “Completely remote teaching has not been entirely successful.”

Local businesses have been impacted, too. Many have closed forever, ending dreams and years of successfully serving their communities. Yet, others survived, though through drastic cuts and setbacks. One even opened just as the pandemic began.

Stella’s – A Kitchen and Bar, located at 60 Chautauqua Avenue in Lakewood, New York, opened their doors just at the beginning of the pandemic and tried very hard to stay open.

Owners Laurie and Bruce Stanton did have to close soon after opening, but got through it thanks to the loyalty of friends, customers, and dedicated staff who returned to reopen as restrictions began to loosen. “We appreciate our workers and our customers now more than ever,” Laurie said.

Front lines in the battle are moving fast
Front lines in the battle are moving fast

Where we are Today

The crisis is not yet over, but today, Schuyler says, the community is building on one remarkable but simple strength which has now become evident. “Willingness is the glue that holds our communities and our culture together,” she said. “We have tried hard to build good relationships among the services in our county and I believe we have been unusually successful at it.”

Schuyler cites instances of enhanced county Health Department collaborations—better defined and strengthened by the crisis—with the Office of Emergency Services and Sheriff Quattrone’s county-wide activities in aid of the community, among many other such examples.

Superintendent Whitaker sees the current situation in terms of a transition back to normalcy in the school system. “We’re trying to get more students back [into classrooms] as soon as we can do that safely, but were watching for local cases to drop as a signal that this will be more possible.”

After a year of crisis management and public education concerning Covid, Whitaker estimates that about 10% of the community don’t understand the need for social distancing and masks in school, and about 10% believe nobody should be in school at all. That, fortunately, translates as a majority of about 80% who believe we are about where we should be at this point. “They are with us in understanding the challenges and solutions were trying to apply.”

The best news about the one-year Covid milepost, according to a local minister, Lee Magneson, is that both springtime and the long-hoped-for Covid vaccinations have arrived together. “It’s just the right tonic for the year-long cabin fever, mild depression, and isolation long overdue for relief from.”
What Comes Next?

Public Health: One of the most important lessons learned and new plans for a better future based on the Covid experience, according to Schuyler, can be stated best as “Making the invisible visible.”

Public health is actually the most invisible service. It is taken for granted because when it works everyone simply stays healthy. It is crucial, just not dramatic. Over the years, Schuyler explained, that has resulted in diminishing budgets.

The future will be better because the pandemic proved that a disease that never happens will never need to be cured. There is no greater bargain for the taxpayer then public health.

“We are just hoping people will not forget,” she added, “Our small public health staff has really rallied to the challenge. Though they’ve been pushed, and pulled, and stretched they are still willing and they refuse to give up…We believe that respect and funding for public health will soon reflect reorganized priorities based on the fact that we are getting through the pandemic…The pandemic did expose some cracks in the system that had previously been overlooked—but they will not be overlooked anymore.”

Technology: “Concerning the future, technology has changed the way we interact,” Mayor Sundquist adds. “We will never supplant face-to-face interactions and conversations, but we have learned how to connect people with each other in new ways, and how to connect with key people across the world.”

“We have become comfortable with immediate, “next office” access to experts across the country and anywhere else on the planet. Though it’s been possible for some time, now we know how convenient it is to collaborate in ways we never considered to be everyday possibilities before.”

“And on a personal level, now and in the future, we will realize that excuses for not connecting with each other are actually pretty thin. The pandemic has taught us that everyone’s reach is amplified. Fewer people are out of reach than ever before.”

One million a day are starting to bring the Covid ordeal to a close.
One million a day are starting to bring the Covid ordeal to a close.

Education: Disruptions in education have caused rethinking about school, teacher, and student accountability for learning, according to Whitaker. “I don’t think nationally standardized tests will now accurately measure what is being taught and learned in the classrooms and at home. It would not be fair to the students and staff to have those assessments be part of our federal accountability process for local school funding.”

“I prefer a locally designed process,” he added. The pandemic may have created a future that includes a more self-reliant and regionally focused outlook.

Business: The focus on contagion and sanitation caused by the pandemic is also predicted to cause a permanent change in how businesses assure public safety in the future. Laurie and Bruce Stanton at Stella’s, for example, believe that although restaurants have always been at the forefront of cleanliness, in the future they will place cleanliness and sanitation even higher on their day-to-day priority list. They are aware that customers now have a new appreciation for such care.

Last Word

Concerning “herd immunity” and public safety, Schuyler added, “We are moving quickly now in the right direction. In the future we believe that people will have greater faith in the systems that we have put into place for Public Health.

Paradoxically, the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 may have helped create a safer and healthier future for all.

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Walt Pickut
Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.