A Greenwood woman worries about how she’ll make ends meet.
A community college instructor is in awe of her students’ continued determination to learn despite unprecedented difficulties.
A funeral director prays for relief from the stress.
Hospital health care workers remain on the frontline fighting a now common disease.
A pastor deals with social rejection.
These are some of the ways lives have been affected by the novel coronavirus since the disease first made its way into Leflore County.
For the past six months, from March 13 to Sept. 13, COVID-19 has impacted everything from work to education to leisure to health.
And folks didn’t see it coming.
“The whole world wasn’t prepared for this. There’s no way you could be prepared for it,” said Fred Randle, Leflore County’s emergency management director.
The virus seeped in like a foul wind that wouldn’t be noticed until it had gathered force.
March 13 should have been like any other day, but it wasn’t.
Michael Stewart, a resident of Minter City who works for the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, said he didn’t think much about the coronavirus as it was spreading throughout the east and west coasts of the United States.
“I thought about SARS. I thought about these other viruses that we had heard about on the international level but didn’t impact the United States so much,” said the 55-year-old who also pastors Greater Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Sidon.
“I thought it would never make it to me, definitely not to me. And maybe not even to my state. I really didn’t worry about it much.”
Yet, on Friday, March 13, Stewart was informed that a female relative had tested positive for the coronavirus.
This was the first positive case in Leflore County.
Stewart, who had spent a considerable amount of time with that relative, got himself tested for COVID-19 at Greenwood Leflore Hospital that same day.
On Sunday, two days later, he alerted his congregation of about 30 that he was waiting on the test results and advised that those who had been around him should get tested if they began to feel any symptoms. He used Facebook to make the announcement and give his sermon.
The next day, Stewart’s test result came back positive. For the next two weeks, he quarantined himself inside his home.
“Because my symptoms were relatively mild, I was still thinking, ‘What is this going to lead to?’” Stewart recalled.
He and his wife called their daughter, who lives with the couple along with her five children. The six of them were spending spring break in Atlanta. They were told to not come home until “after we had been cleared,” Stewart recalled.
At the time, he was receiving regular calls from state Department of Health officials inquiring about his condition. It seemed to him that they still didn’t know much about the virus.
Stewart worked from his house and kept busy with other projects. During the day, he felt OK.
“But at night, I guess the stillness of it all, and I was not into other things, I could actually feel that I was coming down with a fever and that kind of thing,” Stewart said. “I took a lot of Tylenol. I can say that.”
Stewart said that after he emerged from quarantine, he noticed that people with whom he usually conversed — such as friends he ran into at Walmart or a neighbor — began to avoid him.
He said feeling somewhat shunned helped him to understand how those suffering from leprosy were treated during biblical times.
Yet, he felt obligated to talk about his case. He often received calls from people who were trying to self-diagnose whether they had the virus.
“A lot of people, based on what they described to me, they were positive, too, but they simply chose to say, ‘I’ve got a cold. I’ve got a sinus infection,’ or this kind of thing.” He said many did not get tested because they didn’t want their situation to be known.
“The numbers that we see in Mississippi — that’s only a partial count, I can guarantee that,” Stewart said.
Since his infection, Stewart has continued to work from home. He holds church services on Facebook and in the church’s parking lot.
In the beginning, Stewart said he thought the situation would only last for about a month. But with the still high number of infections and deaths, it has “eroded my hopes of having this thing resolved fairly quickly.”
He also said he has been dismayed by conflicting information from the country’s political leaders and health authorities about how to handle the virus.
“If we look at other nations — and I know we have different liberties here in the United States than people have elsewhere — it appears that they were able to, within the context of their rules and regulations, subdue this thing far better than we have in our country.”
Making money during a pandemic has been quite a business.
Some businesses prospered while others suffered.
Beth Stevens, executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore County Chamber of Commerce, said a lot of retail businesses and restaurants that were slow to adapt to take-out sales may have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s ill effects.
Still, others thrived.
“Some of the businesses that we saw that did well are going to be your grocery stores, home improvement stores and, I hate to say it, but liquor stores,” Stevens said.
“We can’t operate under the assumption that everyone has struggled because some business have done OK, because our priorities have shifted.”
Ryan Quade, assistant manager at Greenwood Market Place, has seen waves of customers over the past half-year.
“At first, we were blown out — empty shelves. Everything was pretty hectic earlier on,” Quade said. “But these last two months, we’ve gotten everything back up. It has affected us getting stuff in here and there, but for the most part we have come up with ways to go around that.”
“With any food business, people have to eat,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it boosted our sales or hurt our sales. It has kind of been an even keel.”
And as for liquor stores, Elizabeth Burleson, owner of Jack’s Package Store Inc., agrees — business is good.
In fact, the only issue she seems to have had was “getting the merchandise we need,” she said.
Not every business has been so lucky, however.
Stevens said she is not aware of any Leflore County businesses that have closed for good because of the pandemic, but she has heard some business owners say they are teetering on bankruptcy.
“I know there are some that have struggled and have said they are waiting on some assistance from the government through the programs offered,” she said. “So I do know there are some that are on the fence out there.”
Howard Smith, owner of Smith & Co. in downtown Greenwood, said the pandemic has had a “large negative effect.” He fears another six months of it could create irreversible damage.
His store primarily sells apparel for men and women.
“If you take out the early December to January, that’s the bulk of our business,” Smith said.
“If it gets into the Christmas season, which is when we can tell if we’re going to make it or not, if we get there and it is still as slow as it is now ... we’ll have to get to some serious thinking about what we will have to do.”
He noted that the tourist trade has practically vanished.
“Our business is probably 60% out of town, so we get a lot of customers from The Alluvian (hotel) — a lot of people coming in from out of town, and they’re just not coming. They’re just not here. So it has had a pretty adverse effect on us,” he said
Smith said the company was able to take advantage of some of the government subsidies but still has had to change many business procedures, including cutting back on employees, limiting inventory and reducing the store’s hours.
“I hate to paint a negative picture, but it is really scary for us,” he said.
Also, he said, “it has taken people who normally don’t shop online and made them shop online.”
Stevens said she shares Smith’s concern. “If we see this (pandemic) continue, online shopping will continue, and these local brick-and-mortar shops will suffer.”
Still, she hopes for a silver lining. Perhaps a post-pandemic outlook could help young business minds blossom.
“Because COVID has made us rethink everything, I think you may see some businesses not survive, but I think you’re going to see some entrepreneurs come out of this,” she said. “Because people have lost their jobs, they’re going to get creative and say, ‘Fine, I’ll start my own business here.’ So I think we may see some of that.”
She already was struggling to make a living.
Christy Shaffer is a former social studies and language arts teacher with the Carroll County School District who left that position in 2018 to deal with some personal difficulties. She has been living in a house off River Road in Greenwood for the past six months.
To make ends meet, she began to clean people’s homes.
“I was cleaning houses. I was trying to get back on my feet. I was trying to do what I needed to do,” Shaffer recalled.
In the early days of the pandemic, when residents were encouraged to shelter in place, Shaffer said the number of homes she cleaned dropped because homeowners were afraid to let outsiders come inside.
She now cleans the houses of three clients once a week. “I’m very thankful that I have them. They’re helping me. They’re allowing me the opportunity to work. I’m not just sitting there expecting something for nothing,” she said.
All the same, she resorted to seeking government assistance, such as looking at public housing, because her income has declined. There was a stumbling block, however.
“All of the government offices, they were closed,” she said. Even when she called an office, no one picked up. Additionally, Shaffer said that she did not get a $1,200 federal CARES Act relief check.
It was as if the whole world had stopped right when she needed help the most, Shaffer recalled.
“I feel like there’s a breakdown in social services, I really do,” she said.
She’s worried about the future.
“Things are so uncertain. That’s what I’m afraid of, the uncertainty with everything,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to people like me who have limited income.”
At Greenwood Leflore Hospital, they’re seeing the worst part firsthand.
For the staff working daily in Greenwood Leflore Hospital’s COVID-19 unit, the pandemic has never let up.
The hospital’s special unit created to take care of patients suffering from the coronavirus was formed in late March and is staffed by doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists.
Two health care professionals working in the hospital’s COVID-19 unit, Elizabeth Blake-Poindexter, a respiratory therapist, and April Montesi, a charge nurse, have been witnessing the worst part firsthand.
Neither Blake-Poindexter nor Montesi thought the coronavirus would spread throughout Leflore County the way it has or that the virus would continue to linger six months after the first case was reported by the hospital in mid-March.
“I was just praying that we didn’t get it, but that wasn’t the case,” Blake-Poindexter said.
“I thought it would’ve died down. I thought we would’ve reached a peak by now ... . ”
“I thought we would have a little flu season type of ordeal, but I didn’t realize it was going to become what it has,” added Montesi. “I thought it was going to go away faster than it has.”
Both women, as well as others staffing the COVID-19 unit, work 12-hour shifts dealing with patients who require constant monitoring.
“These are very busy patients,” Montesi said. “They’re very busy patients because their status changes fast. You just have to continuously check on them because their oxygen needs to be changed so much.”
The county’s first case was one of her patients.
“We didn’t really know exactly the protocol yet, what we needed to do, so it was a learning process. But we have other patients on airborne isolation and different things, so we just treated it like any other patient that has those precautions,” she said.
Blake-Poindexter described the average work day as “long, tired hours.”
“You’re just constantly going in and out of rooms. You’re checking on patients, doing different procedures on them, trying to help them be as comfortable as they can because they’re just suffering,” she said.
As a respiratory therapist, Blake-Poindexter said she often places breathing tubes into the throats of COVID-19 patients so they can be connected to a ventilator.
Infected patients are secluded from friends and family, and therefore their only human interactions are with those who work in the unit, Blake-Poindexter said.
The health care workers have had to adjust their personal lives. Blake-Poindexter has to make sure to thoroughly disinfect herself before she can hug her children, ages 6 and 9, when she gets home. Montesi has had to refrain from close physical contact with her parents, both of whom are in their 70s and at an age that is particularly vulnerable to bad outcomes from the respiratory disease.
There have been some rough patches. Blake-Poindexter recalled one day when things became so overwhelming that she had a breakdown.
“You feel like you’re just not doing enough, but you know you’re doing the best that you can,” she said. “I just had to take a break and call my husband. I cried, I hollered and I just told him I need a listening ear right now.”
Montesi said she had a terrible day on April 3 when the hospital lost one of its own to COVID-19 — Dorothy Banks Boles, a nurse at the hospital for 42 years.
A good day, for both Blake-Poindexter and Montesi, was May 7, when the hospital discharged a 91-year-old woman who had recovered from the virus.
“She never had to be on the ventilator. She ended up just getting some oxygen and was able to go home,” Montesi said.
“Seeing a patient that you’ve worked with and you know they’re struggling, and you see them go home, it’s just a wonderful feeling. I think it gave everybody an extra boost of energy, like ‘We can fight this thing. This thing is not defeating us, we can fight it,’” Blake-Poindexter said.
Though many are ready for the pandemic to end, Blake-Poindexter said that she expects the situation to continue for some time.
“I just feel like it won’t go away soon. I just feel like we’ll start buying masks to match our shoes, our purses, because this is the new normal for us.”
What happens when going to school means staying at home.
Laylatoya Young, who has a kindergartner at Leflore County Elementary School and a senior at Leflore County High, said she appreciates the steps being taken to provide a safe distance-learning experience.
“Overall, I love virtual learning,” she said. “I know my children are safe. I love how they don’t have to sit constantly all day. I like the packs that are provided to help them learn, and I love the time they get out now. I love the line of communication I have with my child’s teacher as well.”
The Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District began the year with all distance learning. It had originally hoped to begin some in-person instruction on Sept. 8, but that plan was scrapped when the summer surge in cases did not abate quickly enough.
But some students do not agree with the decision.
“This is a very stressful experience for us, and I cannot express this enough,” said Zeniya White, a junior at Amanda Elzy High School. “It’s hard because the majority of the time students have trouble even getting into their classes when no one wants to send you the link or we’ve missed an email from teachers with the link.
“The schools are constantly adding more and more classes to our schedules, and all of these assignments cannot be done when they are supposed to be. We can have five assignments due in the same day, and at the end our teachers are failing us because we may have missed one assignment. Our grades are falling, and at this point I’ll rather be back face-to-face in school.”
Some parents want the same.
Keela Johnson, who has a kindergartner at Leflore County Elementary, said distance learning is difficult to navigate.
She said she gets up at 7:30 every morning to try to establish an internet connection with the Wi-Fi hotspot provided by the school district. She tries to stay close to her 5-year-old to help her with school but at the same time keep her 1-year-old quiet and out of camera range “because they say they want the kids around no noise and distractions, which by the way is impossible.”
Johnson said she would rather have her daughter in a classroom.
“If these parents allow their children to take risks every day going into public areas, without practicing social distancing, they can allow them to go to school. Everyone’s taking a risk every day.”
She’s teaching at home and living at work.
Anita Horn, an English instructor at Mississippi Delta Community College, never thought she and her students wouldn’t return to the classroom in March.
“When our students went off for spring break, we had no idea that we wouldn’t see them again,” she said.
Much like elementary and secondary learning, the pandemic completely shifted higher education. And at first, Horn did not know how she would handle the transition.
“For the first week or two, (work) was just around the clock, just checking inboxes and emails,” she said. “I would be up at 1, even 3 in the morning. I couldn’t de-stress at all. It wasn’t working at home; it was living at work.”
But it was not just the strange new hours that affected Horn. It was also not being able to see her students’ reaction when they grasped what she was teaching.
Even with these new ways of learning, though, her students have been “remarkably resilient,” Horn said.
One student submitted full essays typed on a cellphone. Another scoured parking lots to find Wi-Fi for a laptop.
She is proud of how her students have adapted to trying circumstances.
And she hasn’t lost her sense of humor.
“I never need to work that close to my refrigerator again,” she laughed.
So many people are being laid to rest.
Prior to the pandemic, Herman Perkins, manager of Century Funeral Home, said the staff there would average two or three funerals a week.
With the pandemic, the average has doubled.
“We have so many (deaths) that we have to push them over to the next week to keep them going,” Perkins said.
Leflore County has experienced 76 deaths to date from COVID-19. Of the state’s 82 counties, that ties for the fifth-most.
When handling those who have died, Perkins said he and his staff now have to wear jumpsuits that cover their entire bodies to protect themselves.
“I am getting burned out, I’m just going to tell you the truth,” Perkins said. “We’re tired. We’re just working, working, working.”
He turns to God for support. “I have to get up and pray to the good Lord to cover me and take care of me each and every day. That’s what I do,” he said.
Debra Sanders runs Sanders & Sanders Funeral Homes with her husband, Dennis. She also serves as the county coroner.
She said funeral services have moved from inside a church or funeral home to the graveside in order to comply with social distancing. The number of people allowed during visitation has also been limited to prevent large crowds of people.
Some families, Sanders said, have come to prefer graveside services since it simplifies matters. Both she and Perkins said families have been understanding of the changes.
Perkins said he doesn’t expect his workload to let up anytime soon.
“Look at the kids at the college and stuff. Everywhere you go, they’re not taking it seriously. Until we take it seriously, it’s going to keep on spreading. People are going to keep on dying.”