TRI-COUNTY — It has been one year since COVID-19 hit the Tri-County with the first case being reported in Laurel County on March 24 of last year. Less than two weeks later, the virus made its way into Whitley and Knox counties with the first reported cases in those counties being on April 6.
Over two weeks before COVID-19 hit the Tri-County, the state saw its first reported case on March 6. That same day, Gov. Andy Beshear declared a State of Emergency. Five days later, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and just two days later, former president Donald Trump declared a National Emergency.
Since then, the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen to nearly 30 million over the past year with the state reporting over 400,000 over the past year. The Tri-County has reported nearly 14,000 cases of COVID-19 since the area’s first case in March 2020.
The Times-Tribune and Sentinel-Echo will be looking at the impact that COVID-19 made in our communities when it first hit the area and the impact that it is still making today, one year later.
Schools have faced a number of challenges since the start of the pandemic.
College campuses were the first to begin cancelling in-person classes but it wasn’t long after that that public schools were also forced to close their doors when Gov. Beshear made the recommendation that all schools in the state cease in-person classes on March 16, 2020 for an undetermined amount of time.
Students and teachers had to learn to quickly adapt to a new teaching environment, with many schools opting to utilize NTI (non-traditional instruction) packets for the time being. In-person learning continued to be pushed out further and further until it became clear that students would not be returning to the classroom to finish out the school year.
In addition to spring sports being cancelled, graduations, proms and other end-of-the-year celebrations all had to be cancelled, as well. Many Tri-County schools found ways to still honor their graduating seniors through drive-thru or virtual graduations.
Director of Communications and Governance for Knox County Public Schools Frank Shelton said that once it became more evident that students would not be returning to in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year, Knox County Schools began preparing their teachers and students for a new way of learning.
Knox County Schools and other schools in the Tri-County began training their teachers in virtual learning while working to provide students with their own personal laptops to do their online schoolwork and looking for ways to provide internet hotspots for students who may not have access to internet at home. Once the school year began, schools worked to provide meals to students during the school week and some schools in the Tri-County allowed students to come in small groups to meet face-to-face with teachers on specific days to work on assignments they may have been struggling with learning virtually.
“Pivot sums up much of last spring and the beginning of this school year,” Shelton said. “You think plan A is going to work, then a new executive order, or new CDC guidance, or simply a plan does not work and you must quickly turn to the next option.
“For our actual staff, it is that face to face interaction and relationships that has probably been the hardest part of the pandemic on them. Teachers thrive when they can see students, see concepts and ideas ‘click’ in their head as they get it, and there's always the personal touch of a pat on the back or a hug in the hallway. We have learned, if nothing else, as a school and as a nation the importance of relationships. I can echo similar for our students. Not being able to see their friends, not being able to have a formal graduation, a lot of meaningful and personal, non-academic per se, moments were lost.”
Teachers came up with new, creative ways to keep students engaged as virtual learning became the new normal, which is why some schools in the Tri-County have been celebrating a different teacher each month for their determination to teach their students even in the most difficult circumstances. Corbin Independent Schools and Whitley County Schools have been choosing a teacher to honor each month during their monthly board of education meetings to celebrate the resiliency these teachers have shown throughout the pandemic.
“Adapting to changes was hard for everyone, but everyone knew it was the best thing for students and for learning,” Shelton said. “Our parents provided support at home, even setting up personal learning centers for their child to work at during the day. Our teachers did live video lessons while showing how to work math problems or do experiments on camera. Each challenge was a learning opportunity, and there were no failures when lessons didn't quite go as planned, just learning. Everyone was learning something during the pandemic.”
Now, one year later, many Tri-County schools have slowly made the transition back to in-person classes at the recommendation of the governor. School officials are continuing to closely monitor new guidance from the CDC, the Kentucky Department of Education, the governor and public health officials in order to keep their students and staff safe.
“Now that our teachers are mostly vaccinated with both doses of the vaccine, that takes some of the fear and worry off of them being around students and colleagues,” Shelton said. “Still, we must use that abundance of caution that we had last March to ensure a safe and healthy end to this school year—just nine weeks away.”
Unlike last year, Tri-County school officials are hopeful that graduations, proms and other celebrations will be able to safely take place at the end of the school year.
“Every single business has experienced a financial loss in revenue in the past year, some more than others,” said Corbin Downtown Manager and Tourism Director Maggy Kriebel. “It’s been extremely difficult on our businesses.”
Businesses, whether they be small businesses or large corporations, have all felt the effects of the pandemic over the last year in some way.
“The word of 2020 was ‘pivot,’” said Kriebel. “That was the key word for every business—small businesses, big businesses, corporations.”
Businesses began feeling the impact of the pandemic soon rather quickly, as Gov. Beshear signed an executive order shutting down all public-facing businesses on March 18, 2020, including entertainment and recreational facilities, community and recreation centers, gyms and exercise facilities, hair salons, nail salons, spas, concert venues, theaters, and sporting event facilities.
Just four days later, the governor announced that all in-person retail businesses that are not life-sustaining must shut down, including restaurants and bars. His order did, however, allow restaurants to continue takeout, drive-thru and delivery.
Nine months after the governor’s ordered shut down, restaurants were finally given the go-ahead to open their doors once again for customers to enjoy dining in at half capacity, while retail businesses were allowed to open their doors at limited capacity back in May.
“Some started doing delivery service in an effort to keep their businesses alive, they all had to reduce capacity, some of the businesses had to spend an exorbitant amount of money to keep patrons away from each other with plexiglass or barriers and they really had to be creative in their offerings,” Kriebel said. “One of the things that the consumer or the people on the outside aren’t thinking about that for a long period of time, businesses could only do carryout or delivery and those to-go containers raise the cost of the overhead significantly and the businesses did not raise prices on their food, for example, so that raised the profit margin for them.”
Despite the difficulties that local businesses faced, no local businesses in Corbin had to shut down as a direct result of the pandemic, which Kriebel said shows just how much the community really supported their local businesses.
“When you look at Corbin as a whole and our economic makeup and our business makeup, I would say at least 60 percent at a minimum are small businesses,” Kriebel said. “The fact that they have been able to persevere is a testament to the fact that I think this year more than ever the Corbin community shows and has made it a priority to support small business and to patronize small business. One of the great things about being in a small town, everybody knows everybody in Corbin and it became important to support your friends during the hard times.”
Even one year later, though, many people are still afraid to get out and patronize businesses like they did before the pandemic began, making it difficult for businesses to make money.
“We are not pre-COVID return and the problem that our businesses are still seeing is that they are not able to raise their capacity to the levels that enable them to make the money that they were making pre-COVID,” Kriebel said.
Unfortunately, tourism and the travel industry has also seen a hit due to the pandemic.
“39 percent of all unemployment in the state of Kentucky is tourism and travel related, meaning our tourism-supporting industries, like restaurants, hotels, entertainment facilities like movie theaters, arenas, escape rooms, things like that,” Kriebel said. “We are down 59 percent in our transient tax revenue, so that tells you how bad the hotels have suffered.”
Though studies have shown that the travel industry will likely not see a complete rebound until 2024, Kriebel said she does believe the tourism industry in Corbin and in the state of Kentucky will see a rise this summer.
“Fortunately, Corbin is a recreational destination, as opposed to conference and convention like Louisville, for example,” she said. “So, we are the destination where people can still do things and be safe.”
Kriebel is hopeful that our local businesses and local tourism industries will begin to pick back up in the near future.
Our healthcare system has likely seen the biggest impact from COVID-19 and the pandemic, as our local healthcare providers and first responders have been at the forefront of this pandemic since before it even entered our communities.
Healthcare providers in the Tri-County spent the weeks before the first cases hit the area preparing for what was to come, getting together their PPE (personal protective equipment), training staff on new protocols to follow and educating the community.
“When COVID-19 cases started being reported in states around Kentucky, the Laurel County Health Department started making strategic preparations for a response in our community,” said Laurel County Health Department Public Health Director Mark Hensley. “Internally, we met with our staff members, created a COVID-19 Team, and assigned new roles to implement our response. On March 9, 2020 we met with community partners and local government officials to discuss a planned and coordinated response. We received our first case just 15 days after that meeting. Now the virus was in our community and it was affecting people that we knew personally. Our staff and community partners began to work together in a committed effort to serve Laurel County to help protect and serve our community.”
Our local health departments have been working nonstop to keep community members up to date on the most recent COVID-19 case numbers, safety guidelines and vaccination updates. Health officials in our communities began trying to educate citizens of the importance of social distancing and following safety protocols to keep ourselves and one another safe once COVID-19 hit our area.
Healthcare workers not only had the duty to keep the community safe and informed but also had to find ways to keep their own families safe, as many were coming into contact with the virus on a daily basis. Many hotels in the Tri-County began offering lower rates to healthcare workers and first responders to keep them from possibly bringing the virus into their own homes.
Nursing homes and long-term care facilities were hit hard during the pandemic. Not only did nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the Tri-County have a large number of cases but nursing home residents were restricted to no visitors throughout most of the pandemic. Community members found creative ways to lift the spirits of nursing home residents though, such as caroling outside of facilities during the holidays and sending Valentine’s gifts to the residents.
Over the past year, community members have also come together in an effort to thank all those healthcare workers and first responders who have put their lives on the line to keep our communities safe. Some ways that community members have shown their appreciation has been drive-thru prayer and parade events at our local hospitals and other healthcare facilities, as well as buying lunches for local healthcare workers and first responders.
With three vaccines and several different vaccination sites throughout the Tri-County, healthcare providers are still working nonstop in an effort to combat this virus one year later. Vaccinations are continuing to be administered throughout the Tri-County as our healthcare workers and first responders continue to work to combat this virus.