CIRCLEVILLE — For the last year, there’s been a lot of doom and gloom surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. From the shutdowns, the discussions are on opening everything back up.
However, it’s not been all bad as many sectors of civilization have learned and grown and will have positive outcomes once things open back up.
Pickaway County has been working prior to the pandemic to put more public records and information online, something that was sped up by COVID-19 funding through the CARES Act.
“To be able to do research online to limit foot traffic at the courthouse, or at the service center, is more efficient for everyone all the time,” Jay Wippel, commissioner, said.
Gary Scherer, commissioner, said one positive outcome of the pandemic is that sales tax in Pickaway County is up.
“A large part of that is people buying more things online rather than driving to Columbus to buy things there,” he said.
Harold “Champ” Henson, commissioner, said he thinks that people realized that a lot of meetings aren’t necessary.
“You can go and get things done without meetings,” he said. “But the meetings that are necessary, I find are hard to do virtually. I’m more of a face-to-face kind of person. I think maybe younger people might grasp it more.”
Wippel agreed with Henson.
“I think in the future, it’ll even itself out,” he said. “You’ll have some in-person meetings, but there will be virtual meetings when it’s not needed.”
Wippel said they’ve heard from groups who want to meet the board and they can do that virtually instead of having them drive from Columbus or elsewhere in the state.
“If they’re going to do a five or 10-minute introduction on who they are, we can do that online,” he said.
Another big change is the continued growth of rural broadband access, Wippel said.
“I think that will be beneficial to the people and we’re working on that in the county — and I think that’ll be a big positive,” he said.
Henson said he felt like the county has done well and come through the pandemic with a lot of success.
“Our hats are off to all the elected officials and the public for bearing with us,” he said. “For the most part, we’ve done a remarkable job.”
One of the changes that will last for a long time is the relocation of the Pickaway County Treasurer’s Office and the addition of a drive-thru, which was paid for by CARES Act funding.
“It’s a real plus for us,” Ellery Elick, Pickaway County Treasurer, said. “It’s something I’ve wanted ever since I took over 18 years ago. It’s really easy to operate and if you’ve gone through a bank drive-thru, this is basically no different — having it open.”
With Circleville, a lot of policies, equipment and procedures that had been put into place were tested for the first time.
“It wasn’t the emergency that it could have been,” Circleville Police Chief Shawn Baer said. “We had a lot of stuff, like even our computer systems are mobile and things we can do from the web. If we needed to, I could take the entire police department and set it up at a local restaurant.
Our policies are national policies and a lot of people may not realize this, but the police department, fire department and sheriff’s office all use national policies,” he said. “When this hit, one of our policies that kicked in was naming someone an exposure control officer and that became their full-time.”
The city also used CARES Act money to provide grants to downtown businesses to help them stay afloat; that supported 24 different businesses. Mayor Don McIlroy said he wished that the requirements were a little easier so more businesses could have applied, but that the program was beneficial to the businesses.
“The businesses that I have talked to was really appreciative of it,” he said. “I wish that more of the businesses that were eligible applied and the covenant of being in business a year wasn’t there. People that had been open six months were suffering just as much as everyone else. New businesses could have really used that money.”
The city also used some money to make upgrades to city hall, including an addition that would act as a second entrance to the building to improve security. They also purchased laptops so people could work from home as needed.
“It was really difficult for us to communicate as a city just by phone, and computers were purchased out of the money and all city council members and the majority of administrative staff received laptops to be able to attend zoom meetings,” he said. “If something happens and we go down again, we can do them again. Most of our computers here didn’t have cameras, but now they all do.”
Circleville Fire Chief Brian Thompson said to him, the relationships of first responders across the county grew stronger out of the need and desire for equipment and communication.
“We had a good relationship with the other departments, but they were strengthened through this,” he said. “Say that Harrison Township [Fire Department] was low on gowns and we had some we could spare, we would extend those to them and once they got their replenishment, they’d give them back. We encountered a whole bunch of safety goggles at the firehouse and we gave a dozen of them to the police department. The cooperation between everyone in the county, that were taking an abundant amount of COVID calls and were running low on supplies, strengthened relationships across the county.”
Baer said another added benefit when it came to the departments was the police department and fire department were made separate purchasers for equipment and the city could buy double the amount instead of purchasing some for the whole city.
“Fire would buy six of something and we could buy six,” Baer said.
Darrin Flick, Pickaway County Emergency Management Agency Director, said there have been a number of changes that have come from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have really come together as a community,” he said. “Specifically, the lines of communication that were strengthened as a result of the pandemic are critical, not just during an emergency, but also in day-to-day normalcy. Being able to pick up the phone and talk with Tim Colburn to discuss things that are occurring in the community that may impact the hospital or vice versa has paid huge dividends.
Likewise with public health — the long-term care facilities, the funeral homes, the grocery stores that kept our food supply going, the list goes on. Without increased communication, we could have had a very different outcome with the number of cases and deaths in the county.”
Flick said they’ve also built resiliency in government through several new procedures.
“The ability to conduct remote work operations for essential government services has been huge,” he said. “We now know that if something were to happen where we cannot occupy a certain building or office, we can pick up most of those functions from elsewhere. This capability existed in theory prior to COVID-19, but we were able to demonstrate it in practice over this past year.
That includes our ability to build additional redundancy and resiliency in all of our communication, internet and telework infrastructure that we didn’t have pre-COVID-19. All of which makes us more able to continue essential services, no matter what happens here within the county.”
Dr. Joe Gastaldo, an infectious disease specialist with OhioHealth, said there has been a lot of things the healthcare industry has done they need to continue, and medical research has received a large boom.
“Healthcare systems have had virtual huddles on a regular basis and had open and transparent collaboration for the benefit of the community,” he said. “We need to explore more of these types of things for the community. I see us working together more closely.”
Gastaldo said telemedicine has been brought to the forefront, the idea that you can visit a doctor virtually through zoom or over the phone and not have to travel far to get questions answered.
“We need to look at how we continue to learn from this and continue to deliver healthcare virtually for people who live far away,” he said. “There are things people will still need to visit the doctor for, but there are many things we can do quite well in telemedicine.”
Drive-thru clinics have also been something Gastaldo sees continuing as the community moves forward.
“We have all these drive-thru clinics for COVID vaccinations and we can look at how we do them for flu shots and healthcare delivery,” he said. “We can look at bringing these processes closer to home. Patients prefer it.”
Gastaldo said another benefit of the pandemic and people staying home is that there is a sense of community, especially a hyper local one has developed.
“I think it’s true that we know our neighbors a lot better and we’re learning how to be happy in our cocoons of our home and our neighborhoods,” he said. “There’s been more of an emphasis on resiliency and taking care of yourself. COVID-19 has been extremely stressful and it’s not only the illness, but how our lives have been altered.”
Gastaldo said the vaccines could leader to further development in treatments for other major illnesses.
“MRNA vaccinations have been around for years and now that we’ve used it safely in millions of people, it’ll be a renascence and they’ll use what they’ve learned and apply it to many other infections, cancers, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. We could be at the forefront of having many other vaccines for other infections and diseases.”
Adena President & CEO Jeff Graham said there a few things that Adena is doing around its health system now due to the pandemic that will stick around, including telemedicine and drive-up services.
“We have to keep people isolated and when we were shut down last year, we had to put in place a telemedicine platform that really was nonexistent in the healthcare world,” he said.
“You saw some of it, but we quickly made that a standard that now we still use, which increases access and will only continue to grow from the platform that it is now. It’s a great patient access and convenience tool that came out of COVID.”
Graham said they started a drive-up lab service as well so people didn’t need to enter the hospital to have their blood or other samples taken.
“In the height of the pandemic, we had no visitation and no patients going into lab areas to get their lab draws,” he said. “Now, we have a drive-up lab service that’s been a tremendous hit with the community and we’re going to keep that service because it’s been really well received.”
Another big thing Graham said was the partnerships and relationships with other area hospitals that have come from working together during the pandemic.
“Here in this part of Ohio, the relationships between hospitals has grown to a place that they’ve never been before through helping each other out during the pandemic,” he said.
“We were all coming together in the regional incident commands the governor had put in place. Sharing of information and supplies, patients we had and even at one point,
transferring patients back and forth. How hospitals have united together even though they’re competitors is a big deal to come out of this. They continue now even as the vaccinations are being out there. We’re working together on how we can be the best we can be for the communities we serve.”
Lastly, Graham said Adena has created “Adena at Home,” where healthcare professionals visit people in their homes, similarly to house calls of the past, in order to help slow the spread.
“Patients that were sick with COVID but didn’t need total ICU type care, we were able to keep them at home and we actually had doctors and nursers and other technicians physically seeing them in their home and checking on them regularly for vitals and other treatments they needed,” Graham said. “We were able to keep a large number of patients out of the hospital and treat them in their own homes. That was a big deal.”
Ty Ankrom, superintendent of Pickaway County Educational Service Center, said the county’s superintendents met the morning Gov. Mike DeWine announced the shutdowns and talked about their plans believing it would be imminent.
“A large part of our conversation was about the belief that schools would be closed sometime soon, but we had no idea it would only be a few days out,” he said. “After the governor’s announcement, all of the county’s districts canceled classes for the next day. The day was spent planning how to transform from what had been education for decades into something completely new over the weekend.”
Ankrom said they looked at the immediate concerns since they were ill-prepared to teach fully online and many students didn’t have internet access — the equity gap grew larger. However, early-on guidance from Flick was very helpful. They’ve long since re-opened the schools to in-person glasses.
“I need to point out that before the pandemic hit, we were having conversations with Pickaway County Public Health and Emergency Management Administration for the county,” he said.
“We were preparing for the worse. [Flick] gave us a lot of advice, recommendations and PPE. Pickaway Health listened to our questions and provided immediate answers or investigated and got back to us quickly. Since Adam Negley took over as health commissioner, he has spent as much time meeting with us as we had requested. We could not have been open nearly as much as we were without these two selflessly giving us time.”
Ankrom said having gone through the experience, there are a lot of positives that came out of the pandemic. Teachers are better prepared for online learning through professional development, increased technology for students and families, priority access to staff for the vaccine, community and supported food distribution and more.
“Some of the adjustments that have been made and the reinventing that’s happened will be kept,” he said. “They work.”
Tourism and business
Nathan Wilson, executive director for the Pickaway County Visitors Bureau, said they’ve made a lot of new connections in 2020.
“During a difficult time, we found our community partners eager as ever to get involved, where possible, and we, as an organization, are better prepared to serve our community and visitors, regardless of the challenges we may face in the future,” he said.
“The best example of this is our approach to the annual event series. While continually changing plans last year, as new regulations were put in place, we developed a more proactive way of event planning with established contingencies that will guide the structure of each event.
Additionally, while some services were restricted, due to health and safety regulations, we were able to work with county organizations on several important projects that will improve accessibility and amenities for visitors and residents alike.”
Marlee Martin, executive director for the Pickaway County Chamber of Commerce, said businesses have been innovative in how they’ve weathered the storm with increased social media presence and looking for new funding opportunities.
“I cannot tell you how great it is to see so many of these businesses make use of the additional funding opportunities from the state and local levels that have helped with payroll, marketing and development that has allowed their business to stay open and continue on as a staple here in Pickaway County,” she said.
“This is what we want to see from our businesses. We want to continue to see them prosper and flourish and continue to serve this community in their unique capacity! I want to remind folks of Circleville and Pickaway County to continue to shop and eat local.”
When it comes to farming in Pickaway County, Wippel mentioned that age-old work had to transform to something entirely new.
Wippel said when it came to farming, you have to be continuing education credits to be able to apply chemicals to your fields, something that’s now been moved online.
“All that is online now and you don’t have to sit in a classroom for half a day,” he said. “Some of the training that has come online, not just in Ag, will probably stay. It makes it easier to do it without having to spend more time in person doing those things. I think it’ll stick around.”