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A pandemic year: businesses, schools, health workers make adjustments to survive

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Aurora Abraham
/
WCMU News

One year ago, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency, as Michigan confirmed its first two cases of the novel coronavirus, and the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

At that time, Greg Rynearson was one of nine co-owners of a successful bakery, called Cops and Doughnuts, headquartered in Clare.

A few weeks later, Rynearson was one of the many Michigan business owners wondering if their shops would survive the pandemic.

 

“We had a real tough time when they did the first stay-at-home order there, toward the end of March and pretty much locked everything down,” he said.

 

They had to let staff go. Rynearson and another co-owner, Alan “Bubba” White, became the workers.

“Bubba and I, we worked the counter from 1:00 until 9:00 18 days straight because it was so slow, and we needed to save every dollar we could,” Rynearson said.

 

At the same time as work was drying up for the Cops and Doughnuts employees, it was flooding in at local health departments.

Health officials were finding themselves deluged with questions – “What’s quarantine?” “Can my kids hug their grandparents?” “How does the virus spread?” “Should we wear masks?”

Christine Nefcy, the chief medical officer of Traverse City-based Munson Healthcare, said the novelty of the disease made offering public health advice difficult.

“I can remember at the beginning trying to find data on mask-wearing and the efficacy of mask-wearing, and it just didn’t exist,” she said.

The scientific evidence grew as researchers caught up to the emerging disease, said Nefcy. But then health officials faced the difficulty of communicating that information to the public.

Nefcy said she and other health officials were met with distrust and disbelief from some people in their communities.

Around the country, some public health workers got death threats. By summer, people who had joined the profession to serve the public were resigning from their posts. They said it wasn’t worth the vitriol they faced.

Nefcy says the pushback led her and her colleagues to get better at explaining things to the people they serve.

“We have learned the lesson very clearly about how important it is to have that communication early, ongoing, frequently, and involve as many stakeholders as we can, whether it’s our schools, or local governments or whomever,” she said.

To slow the virus’s spread, students had to start learning from home, and teachers had to teach from home.

Slowly, they’ve been getting back into the classroom. That brings more challenges, especially applying physical distancing rules to cramped school buildings.

“We have a thousand six-foot sticks around here,” said Gaylord Community Schools superintendent Brian Pearson. “Truthfully, we do, so teachers and staff have a good idea of the placement of their desks and who sits where.”

Pearson said he’s gained some skills he hopes he’ll never need again.

“I feel like I’m going to be an expert at running a school in a pandemic when this is over, and it’ll be totally useless information, I hope,” he said. “There’ll be no market for my expertise when we’re done with this, which I’m perfectly fine with.”

Reopening schools and tracking the spread of the virus – especially among vulnerable people living in nursing homes – required a huge increase in diagnostic testing.

Jacqueline Peacock is the operations director at NxGen MDx, a laboratory that has tested hundreds of thousands of swabs from people in mid- and Northern Michigan to see if they’re positive for the virus.

She and her coworkers barely had time to eat during the peak of the pandemic, she said. And they kept running out of supplies.

“Over the last year, there have been shortages of everything from the nasopharyngeal swabs to the tubes and media that preserves those swabs, to the tiny plastic tips that go onto pipettes, which are measuring devices that we use in the lab every day,” she said.

A year into the pandemic, things have settled down a bit at testing labs. Peacock said she still oversees a 24-7 operation, but she no longer has to stay up until 2 a.m. searching for and unpacking supplies.

And at Cops and Doughnuts, Greg Rynearson said the business will make it through the pandemic. They’re busy again, but, following state orders, they’re only open at 50% capacity.

Over the phone, he described the scene on Wednesday morning: “There’s four guys from town over near the one table, a couple over at another one. Two people having a meeting over at another one with an iPad.”

Rynearson said as more people get vaccinated, he’s hoping to be able to open back up to full capacity in the next couple months.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.
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