Shelby County, Tenn. — Another March 8 is here in Shelby County but March 8, 2021, looks much different than its counterpart a year earlier, the day COVID-19 made its way to the Mid-South.
One year ago today, it was announced; a woman who went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and contracted the virus and brought it back home, changing everybody’s lives in the process.
At the time, few knew the seriousness of what was about to happen.
“We don’t believe that there’s a need to panic,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said at an impromptu press conference the day COVID-19 was discovered in Shelby County.
Even those who were best equipped to understand the virus couldn’t fully comprehend the effect it would have.
“I did not, in fairness, realize at the time just how bad of a situation that we were facing,” Infectious Disease Specialist Steven Threlkeld said. “It’s been brutal in so many ways.”
Since that fateful day, loved ones across the Mid-South have died and businesses have shut their doors, some of them for the last time. Uncertainty surrounded almost every aspect of life.
As we all plunged into that unknown chapter, doctors and health care workers continued doing the only thing they did know to do; help others.
Doctor Richard Walker, chair of emergency medicine at UTHSC, recalls how frightening it was to walk into the face of that uncertainty.
“Will I get it? How many people will I lose? Will we take it home to our families? You went to work a little bit with a gun to the back of your head every day because you knew if you made one mistake, you could catch it,” Walker said.
What Walker did know, however, was that we were extremely underequipped at the time to deal with what was coming.
“We just really knew nothing of what was going on at the time,” Walker said. “We didn’t have the test ability, certainly didn’t have a vaccine and we didn’t have hospital infrastructure.”
Before that month was over in 2020, 400 cases of COVID-19 had been discovered in Shelby County, 3 of those people dying from the virus.
By the end of April, 1,000 people in the county had tested positive but it took 3 months for Shelby County to surpass 100 deaths.
Dr. Threlkeld said that’s largely in part to the action that healthcare workers took right away.
“We immediately turned many, many rooms into negative pressure rooms that exchanged the air and protected healthcare workers,” Threlkeld said. “We built an operating room to protest the people during those surgeries.
At UTHSC, Walker said the staff was preparing for the worst.
“We were having to plan for the deaths of physicians to keep the department open, and plan for the deaths of young trainees and residents,” Walker said. “That got everyone’s attention. We got dangerously close to having a complete overwhelming of the system.”
Now, exactly a year later, at least 1,527 people in Shelby County have died as a result of the virus.
The hardest part of being on the front lines, Walker said, is seeing those people die without their loved ones nearby.
“We treated them like they were our own,” Walker said. “That’s the only thing we could do.”
Threlkeld recalled nurses and doctors calling patients’ families on their behalf so that the families could have a little time together, if only virtually.
A year later, there has been 88,788 4 positive COVID-19 cases in Shelby County.
But, there is hope as vaccinations continue to pour into the county and be shot into people’s arms.
With each shot, people in Shelby County and doctors alike see a future that could hold less death, less sickness and, perhaps, somewhat of a return to normalcy.