A LONG, TOUGH ROAD: Hancock County reflects on the two-year anniversary of when COVID came to town

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Andrea Mallory, left, executive director of the Hancock Hope House, treats her staff and volunteers to cake Friday to recognize how hard they worked sustaining the homeless shelter and thrift shop throughout the COVID pandemic, which was first reported in Hancock County on March 12, 2020, two years ago today. Joining her, from left, are Cindy Miller, Dick Howrey, Nancy Howrey and Kathi Vinson.

Shelley Swift | Daily Reporter

HANCOCK COUNTY — The past two years have been rough, to put it oh so mildly.

Today marks the two-year anniversary of the day COVID-19 came to Hancock County, when it was reported on March 12, 2020, that a jailer at the county jail had tested positive for the virus.

Officials at the local jail, hospital, schools, churches, libraries and businesses scrambled to learn what to do next as the news of a deadly global virus rapidly rolled in.

On Friday, March 13, Hancock County essentially went into lockdown — schools closed, storefronts shuttered and healthcare workers stocked up on protective gear to prepare for the storm that was to come.

As of Friday, 246 Hancock County residents had died from COVID-19 over the past 24 months, but thankfully — finally — the numbers seem to be turning in a more positive direction.

On this bittersweet anniversary, the world reflects on what a wild ride the past two years have been. While many no doubt mourn the loss of those who died, and the loss of life as we once knew it, the world also celebrates the fact that the pandemic seems to be drawing to a close, transitioning to a much more manageable disease.

Hancock County is no different.

At the Hope House in Greenfield, staff members spent the past two years glued to the latest COVID guidelines pouring out from federal, state and local health officials, as they managed the county’s only homeless shelter.

The stress was nearly unbearable at times.

On Friday, however, they celebrated the two-year anniversary with cake.

“Rather than focusing on the negative, we wanted to celebrate the positive. We just want to thank our team for showing up and all their hard work during the crazy time of COVID-19,” said the Hope House’s executive director, Andrea Mallory.

Staff and volunteers at Hancock Hope House commemorated the two-year anniversary of the COVID pandemic with cake on Friday, March 11. Executive director Andrea Mallory said she wanted to focus on the positive after a challenging two years, celebrating her team which came together to sustain the nonprofit’s mission in the face of adversity. Shelley Swift | Daily Reporter

Mallory remembers the panic that set in that day, as the county scrambled to know what to do.

“I will never forget that day here in the shelter,” she said. “Once I got the news, I pulled my executive staff together, and we immediately took action and put safety plans in place for our staff, residents and customers. We immediately closed the Hope House Thrift Store the next day while the Hope House continued to operate for all our residents.”

After that initial meeting, the team continued to meet daily to navigate the best way to continue serving those in need, she said, despite the fear of catching a potentially deadly virus that had taken the world by storm.

“I can’t remember a day when a staff member did not show up. As time went by, we kept adapting and changing to this new world that we were living in,” Mallory recalled. “This week, we are celebrating our collaboration to show up and be ready to change our safety plan when needed to keep everyone safe. We are a team that has gotten closer as a result.”

Mallory said that when COVID hit, “it took my anxiety to an all new level. I will never forget the sleepless nights or waiting for a phone call about anyone in our building sick and not doing well,” she recalled.

“As executive director, I wanted to comfort my staff and residents, but there were many days when it was challenging to be positive when the world was getting brainwashed with all the negative. The first thing I changed in my routine was to just focus on the Hope House and stop watching the news,” she said.

In the end, “our team got closer, adapted to change, and really focused on helping our residents and each other,” said Mallory. “Overall, our outlook now is positive. We have grown together, we have adapted together and we have become a stronger team together.”

Suzanne Derengowski has witnessed the same growth and perseverance in her staff at the Hancock County Senior Services, where she came on board as executive director in October 2020.

“I think our staff did a great job of pivoting, to use a word that sort of came into frequent use during COVID,” Derengowski reflected this week. “I think if it weren’t for a group of people who were willing to do whatever they needed to do to get the job done, I’m not sure it would have been as nearly as successful.”

While the agency’s transportation and housecleaning services were temporarily suspended at the onset of the pandemic, Derengowski said the staff worked to resume services safely as soon as possible.

“They did a really great job of making sure everything was well sanitized and safe. As soon as we could safely get back, we did. We kept social distancing and using masks, everything we could to be able to keep helping people,” she said.

If anyone can understand the stressful demands of keeping people safe in a pandemic, it’s educators.

Administrators throughout the county have spent the past two years on a roller coaster ride of changes, shifting gears along the way as COVID numbers would rise and fall, shifting between in-person, virtual and eLearning, or a combination of all the above.

“Balancing the arduous task of interpreting new and continually changing requirements while developing new processes to keep students learning at high levels have permeated all of our conversations,” said Dr. Jack Parker, superintendent of Mt. Vernon community schools.

Conducting close contact investigations and communicating quarantines during spikes have been overwhelming for our staff, he said, while teachers were challenged to teach in brand new ways.

“This has been difficult for our students as well,” said Parker. “I am particularly proud of what our teachers and students have accomplished during a protracted period of adversity.”

As educators struggled to know whether to bring students into the schools, business owners struggled with knowing whether to bring much-needed customers into their stores.

Small businesses took the brunt of the challenge, with many calling it quits over the past two years.

Randy Kinsey, owner of Kinsey’s Italian Cafe in McCordsville, counts himself among the lucky ones.

When COVID forced him to close his dining room for five months starting in March 2020, loyal customers stepped up and kept his business afloat through carry-out orders.

“We had great community support. We were able to maintain the numbers we did the year before with all the support we had,” said Kinsey. “We just want to say ‘Thank you’ to everybody for helping us out through a hard time. It was scary because we didn’t know what was going to happen” when COVID shut businesses down, he recalled. “We’re back to normal now, and we’re actually growing again.”

Debra Smith, director of Greenfield Main Street, has watched as local business owners pulled together and adapted to the changing times to keep their shops, salons and restaurants afloat.

“COVID has forced small businesses to take a look at their processes and offerings, and those who have survived have been successful at pivoting and adapting to the changing environment,” said Smith, who is optimistic about the future.

“One of the positive outcomes of COVID is the renewed focus on shopping local and supporting small businesses,” she said this week. “The outlook of the future is bright as we turn the corner and emerge from the pandemic.”

Local churches — a bedrock for many throughout life’s biggest challenges — are also looking forward with optimism after drastically altering how the faithful gathered over the past two years.

“March 2020 and the weeks following was certainly a season of creativity and agility for us as we worked to care for our people and continue to provide ways to worship and connect,” said Rob McCord, senior minister at Outlook Christian Church in McCordsville.

The church canceled in-person gatherings and moved all worship services online when the county shutdown began in mid-March 2020, resuming on-campus services on May 31 that year.

“Virtual services were well-attended and continue to be so, even as our in-person services continue to grow,” said McCord.

“Our guiding principle in all our COVID decisions and responses has been love of neighbor and compassion and care for those most vulnerable,” said the pastor.

 

While the past two years have drastically altered life for every person around the globe, few can relate to just how much as healthcare workers.

“It is hard to believe we have been on the COVID journey for two years now,” said Steve Long, president and CEO of Hancock Health.

Long said the pandemic challenged the local hospital and healthcare providers like never before.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hancock Health tested more than 55,000 individuals for COVID, of which nearly 10,000 were positive,” he said.

Long said that since March 2020:

—8,500 patients with COVID visited Hancock Health’s physician practices

—1,700 came to the emergency room

—900 were admitted to the hospital

—90 died in-house from the disease

Hospital staff endured days when more than half of emergency room patients were seeking treatment for COVID, and more than 75 percent of inpatients were there because of the disease, many of them on ventilators struggling to breathe.

“The impact on the physical, emotional and mental health of our front line caregivers cannot be overstated,” said Long, who heaps praise upon those who risked their own lives while dutifully caring for patients over the past two years. “For some, the memories of our shared nightmare will never diminish.”