COVID marks three years out

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Mar. 18—HIGH POINT — The initial shock remains vivid in the mind of the Rev. Frank Thomas three years after COVID-19 emerged as a public health threat that would fundamentally alter his community and the world.

In mid-March 2020, health care professionals began issuing more dire warnings about the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thomas, the pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in east High Point, said what stands out to him is how quickly the crisis disrupted life. By the first of April, the church's worship shifted to all-digital remote services.

Three years later, Thomas said, some parishioners have remained remote worshippers while others have come back to the sanctuary. He said worship will never be the same.

"It threw us all for a loop when it happened," Thomas told The High Point Enterprise. "That fear of the unknown, I think, sticks out to me."

This week marks the third anniversary of a key moment for the pandemic locally. On March 17, 2020, health officials confirmed Guilford County's first case of COVID-19.

As of this week, Guilford County has recorded nearly 161,000 COVID-19 cases and 1,466 deaths attributed to the virus. In the greater High Point area there have been nearly 40,500 cases resulting in 463 deaths, according to figures from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The onset of the pandemic became a scary time as people were told to limit their interactions even within families, said Jordan Smith, assistant professor of clinical sciences at High Point University.

"We didn't know how contagious it was, how contagious it ultimately would be," Smith said.

The pandemic has compelled medical professionals to take new approaches to health care, such as the proliferation of digital telemedicine that wouldn't have made the same strides if not for COVID-19, Smith said.

When the pandemic started, many medical professionals thought the COVID-19 threat, while serious, wouldn't last for an extended period, said Dr. James Hoekstra, president of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist High Point Medical Center.

"When we first went into lockdown, people were talking about being in lockdown for a couple of months at the most," Hoekstra said. "Obviously we have now been through multiple surges over the last three years. There's a lot of surprises in all that."

The pandemic confronted health care providers with an unprecedented challenge and prompted rapid changes in approaches to patients.

"We did an amazing mobilization in response to this at the health system level," Hoekstra said.

Hospitals such as High Point Medical Center had to care for a spike of COVID-19 patients on top of their regular responsibilities. When variant COVID-19 surges happened, the hospital had up to 100 admitted patients at a time.

"That's a little less than half of our volume," he said. "It was an amazing feat by a lot of dedicated health care professionals to be able to pull that off."

High Point Medical Center reached a more welcome COVID-19 mark this past Tuesday. The hospital had no COVID-19 patients in-house for one of the few days that has happened since the onset of the pandemic, Hoekstra said.

"It makes you realize, looking back, how disruptive it was across the board," he said.

Guilford County Schools Superintendent Whitney Oakley shares a similar outlook about expectations at the onset of the pandemic.

"When the first COVID case came, I thought schools would be closed for a couple of weeks," Oakley said. "And then it just lasted and lasted. I had no idea three years ago the impact we would still be dealing with."

When Oakley discusses the impact of the pandemic on students, she speaks in terms not just of years but decades. The learning loss experienced by students at all levels could affect their academic performance into young adulthood, as well as complicate their abilities to launch careers.

Guilford County Schools has received national acclaim for its response to the pandemic and learning loss through its countywide tutoring programs and after-school instruction at high school learning hubs.

"We have to focus on the academic recovery efforts that are working," Oakley said. "We are lucky our community rallied behind us when the pandemic started and continues to do so."

As the third anniversary of the pandemic arrives, Smith said he expects that by this time next year COVID-19 will have morphed into a form similar to the flu.

"I don't want to discount what we still don't know about COVID, but in terms of it being more of a flu-like illness, I think that's likely to happen," Smith said.

People still will get booster shots for COVID-19, but the pace may not be as rapid as during the early stages of the vaccine when virulent variants emerged, Smith said.

For Thomas and other faith leaders, the past three years have focused on making sure parishioners remain connected to their faith, whether worshiping remotely or in-person. Thomas has encouraged people not to lose hope while being tested by the pervasive threats and disruptions of the pandemic.

Earlier this month, Thomas saw a Facebook post about achieving the goals of faith that also could apply to everyone trying to get past the fallout of COVID-19.

"I may not be there yet," the post proclaims, "but I'm closer than I was yesterday." — 336-888-3528 — @HPEpaul