2021: A Year Of Memories – 12/31/21

A History And Celebration Of The Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared in The West Virginia Daily News on August 2, 2021. COVID-19 has had such a tremendous impact on our world that not a single one of us remain untouched by it. This story, as expertly written by Lyra Bordelon, provides an in-depth look into the character and heart of those heroes in our community who created the Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Taskforce. We owe them all a debt of thanks, and I couldn’t be more proud of Lyra for telling this story.

– Matthew Young

The model-setting Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force gathered in person, in celebration of the hundreds of volunteers and hours put in by the Greenbrier Valley community.

The Task Force and the many volunteers who aid it have guided the Greenbrier Valley through the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping every organization in the loop with the latest news, transmission figures, coordination efforts, grant information, CARES and American Rescue Plan information, food drives, tutoring services, and whatever the community might need. On Wednesday, July 28, a volunteer celebration was held at The Clingman Center of Montwell Park in Lewisburg.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, who chairs and is a founder of the Task Force, kicked things off with an opening statement.

“Good evening! What a joy it is to see y’all here tonight,” said Baldwin. “Thank you for coming! On behalf of a grateful community, thank you for all you’ve done since March 2020 to protect public health in the Greenbrier Valley!” said Baldwin during opening statements. “[The 532 volunteers who helped with pandemic response in the Greenbrier Valley] have done so much together over the last 502 days, and we have so much more work ahead of us. But we pause tonight, while we can, to share our gratitude and catch our breath. And we would be remiss if we did not begin by remembering the 65 precious lives taken by COVID in Greenbrier County and the 2,939 lives across West Virginia taken during the pandemic.”

The goal was to honor the ample work of the volunteers throughout the Greenbrier Valley during the COVID-19 pandemic. Encouraging more of Greenbrier Valley to get involved, Keynote Speaker Tom Crabtree said “community exists because of volunteers” and “you are the someone you can help.”

The theme of the Wednesday night celebration was “TEAM” – “Together Everyone Achieves More,” something the history of the organization highlights.

“This snapshot in time shows the special nature of this area, when disaster strikes people not only rush to take care of their community, they rush to collaborate and work together,” said GGLTRC Board member Julian Levine on Wednesday. “This rush to collaboration is special, and it isn’t the norm everywhere. It’s something that makes me proud to be from the Greenbrier Valley, and proud to serve this community.”

In early March 2020, representatives from organizations across the region gathered at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) to offer a preliminary response plan if the coronavirus broke out in Greenbrier County and offered advice for the public to monitor their own health. This meeting, packed with over 100 people, would be the last large gathering that many would attend until 2021 brought vaccination clinics, and helped form the backbone of the Task Force.

“We have been synthesizing information, … trying to decide what we’re going to do as a county,” said Greenbrier County Schools Head Nurse Paula McCoy during the meeting. “We are most concerned with our students and with their families. … Other factors, such as working parents who rely on schools to watch their children as they go to work and potential familial exposure, are also being considered by the Board of Education. We are very aware too of our grandfamilies. … [About] 70 percent of grandparents have at least some responsibilities, and many of them full responsibility, for raising their grandchildren and, as we know, that’s the high-risk group that could have a negative effect if they caught the coronavirus [Covid-19]. We’re considering all of those things as we put our plan together.”

Instead of individual organizations deciphering announcements from the state and federal governments on their own, the Greenbrier Valley came together into one organization – the Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force.

A few days later on March 17, Baldwin and Kayla McCoy, then the Greater Greenbrier Long Term Recovery Committee Executive Director, called a smaller, socially-distanced press conference.

“Kayla and I are here on behalf of the Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force,” Baldwin explained in March 2020. “After the June 2016 floods, it was our time and the community came together to make sure everybody was working together, and brought everyone to the table. That’s when the Greater Greenbrier Long Term Recovery Committee was formed and we wanted to try to translate that same idea, which has been successful … to this response. We’re not in the middle of a natural disaster, … but in some ways, I think, this public health crisis is similar to that. … We’re meeting every other day by conference call to try and coordinate all the efforts going on in the area. … The reason we’re here today is that folks are starting to ask how they can help. … Bottom line is we don’t need volunteers right now, but we think we’re going to be in a position pretty soon where we probably will need volunteers.”

The prediction was also accurate – in-person classes were suspended for local students and the first project was coordinating volunteers needed to get meals to the hundreds of kids now not coming to school. The Greenbrier County Commission declared a state of emergency, following the state-level declaration.

In March 2020, Kayla McCoy was coordinating these efforts, and spoke to The West Virginia Daily News between questions from community volunteers, teachers and other employees of Greenbrier County Schools, and the West Virginia National Guard in the cafeteria of Greenbrier East High School.

“We’ve had to get creative with what we serve – the milk truck crashed on I-64 on its way here, so we only had … about 12 milk cartons worth of the individual milk, so some of the dairies [are] yogurt, cheese sticks. We’re just doing what we can to get it out the door. The plans also include a special delivery currently planned for Wednesday, which should provide enough food through the following Sunday. On Wednesday, when we send out the multipack, we’re going to be looking at things like sending a pack of PopTarts, a whole box. Sending like five things of cereal. We may have an executive pastry chef coming to make a bunch of pepperoni rolls … because we’ve got pepperoni, we’ve got cheese, we’ve got flour.”

After a few weeks, Greenbrier County Schools was able to hire a contractor to provide more systematically prepared meals. At the same time, the Task Force tackled the lack of personal protective equipment, which was still hard to find in the early days of the pandemic.

“Bee Kind was a small yet significant response project funded by Volunteer WV and led by our CRCH Program and Outreach Coordinator, Joyce Martin,” said Courtney Hereford, Director of the WVSOM Center for Rural and Community Health. “WVSOM and community volunteers united to sew over 250 fun youth masks and instructional packets to deliver the ‘Be Safe, Be Healthy, Be Happy, and Be Kind’ training. Approximately 250 youth were served … from September to October, though masks and training materials continue to be circulated through youth outreach events. What touched me was the importance of teaching our youth that protecting our peers, families, and communities are acts of kindness; public health response (and prevention) is an act of kindness.”

During the early days of the pandemic, the Task Force used the Clingman Center as a base of operations.

“[We received a] $75,000 dollar COVID-19 response grant through the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation to coordinate local response to get more ready-to-eat meals to families and seniors affected by the pandemic,” Levine said, this time as Executive Director of the Greenbrier County Health Alliance. “GCHA coordinated with amazing partners … to put more meals, created from as much local food as possible, into the hands of seniors and vulnerable folks who were asked to quarantine to protect their own safety and that of the community. Thousands of meals were provided through these organization’s network of volunteers, they also provided critical weekly, safely distanced connections to isolated seniors.”

The pandemic became real for many locally after an outbreak at the Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte in early June 2020. Dr. Bridgett Morrison of the Greenbrier County Health Department explained at the time, saying “we’ve had 28 total [new] cases … since last Thursday, which all seem to be associated with the outbreak. Once we were told of the first positive, [we] started doing contact tracing and getting the church’s roster and encouraging testing. … We have some [cases] that are completely asymptotic. We have quite a few of them that have mild to moderate symptoms. There is one that is hospitalized. … We’ve been very blessed with this outbreak so far, but obviously we’re still in it, so we have to continue to watch and monitor community spread.” Expanded free testing was offered at Dorie Miller Park that weekend.

The State Fair of West Virginia was not held for the first time in nearly a decade, with Executive Director Kelly Tuckwiller-Collins explaining that when the fair bird “when we first discussed moving forward with the 2020 State Fair, we knew it was a fluid situation that could change quickly. Unfortunately, the number of COVID-19 cases surged only hours after our initial announcement. After speaking with local and state health officials as well as community members, it was a hard decision, but the right decision to cancel.”

The Task Force and Jennifer Mason of the nonprofit Feeding Seniors, Saving Businesses, continued forward, coordinating food supplies and education assistance as the pandemic raged on. In June 2020, Mason called for assistance in refilling the food pantries, explaining that approximately 360 families were using the five food banks, many for the first time, having lost their job or income as a result of the pandemic.

“You see how they’re just spent – that’s the only way to say it, they just look spent,” said Mason. “They don’t know what to do and it’s hard for them because they’ve never had to accept help. These are hard working people and they just need our help. … I know our community, especially Alderson, has been hit with these floods so recently and I hate to ask people to do any more, but even if every family just gave one, can we’d be better off.”

In October 2020, Mason, alongside Dinsmore & Shohl, the law firm she is a part of, created a tutoring service and more Wi-Fi accessible locations for the students that were severely impacted by the remote learning in place due to the pandemic. During later review sessions, each Greenbrier County school saw massively increased rates of failed classes or reduced grades during the remote learning year during this time period. Superintendent of Schools Jeff Bryant later said the schools and the staff had “risen above. It validates how important a teacher in a classroom is.”

November and December were the height of the pandemic for Greenbrier County, with several City Halls, businesses, Greenbrier County schools, and more opened and closed multiple times as workers and students were exposed. Several iconic members of the community were lost, including long-time first responder Gary “Peanut” Bland and 2016 flood recovery expert Pat Church in Rainelle. Even the first-degree murder trial of 2017 Dorie Miller Park shooting suspect Edward Smith-Allen was pushed back in the Greenbrier County Circuit Court due to the risk of exposure.

As both the pandemic and 2020 election raged on, Seneca Health Services began to expand their program. Their crisis line saw a 140 percent increase in calls and the staff saw an uptick in mental health issues, such as depression, fear, hopelessness, and increased risk for substance abuse. Marcie Vaughan, president and CEO of Seneca Health Services, “both COVID and the election are very emotionally charged. It’s almost like a heightened state of anxiety for individuals because they’re attached to what their own personal belief is. The key is moderation. Limit the amount of time that is engaged in those activities and have that off switch so they can engage in healthier behaviors, like exercise or sleep.”

As of December 17, 2020, the Greenbrier County Health Department reported 685 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 26 in the hospital, and 25 deaths. However, that month also saw the first signs of light at the end of the tunnel – the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I got it – it was elating and overwhelming and I can’t help but say it was a little bit tearful,” Morrison told the Mountain Messenger. “As exhausted as we are from the health department side, and I work at the hospital too, as tired as we all are, the healthcare workers, it was elating to get it, to have it, to get it administered, and that hope of eventually quiet this pandemic and literally put the pandemic behind us. … It’s always been here [in Greenbrier County] but it’s even more prevalent now – please buckle down, wear your masks, social distance, be extremely cautious over Christmas, and that’s one way you can help your healthcare providers in your community.”

By March 2021, vaccination had expanded, and transportation to get older West Virginians vaccinated was a high priority – Mason explained “there are some Greenbrier County residents [that] need help with either transporting people to the fairgrounds or there are some people who are homebound [that need help]. We’re working on a solution on how to get the vaccines to them.”

The county’s middle and high schools returned to a five-day-a-week schedule beginning March 1, per guidance from the West Virginia Department of Education. Board President Jeanie Wyatt said “I’m very proud of what all of our schools have gone through in the last year. We can see some failures going on, but hopefully with getting back we can take care of all of that and get our kids on the right track.”

Soon after, as vaccination accessibility expanded, the focus, size, and scope of the clinics also expanded, and moved to the State Fairgrounds. By April 2021, Morrison told the Mountain Messenger “we are well over 20,000 [people in Greenbrier County vaccinated with a first shot]. That’s not just what the health department has done, that’s all of our partnered community members. … We have vaccinated anywhere between 800 and 1,300 people during [each of] these vaccination clinics.”

Because of all of this, the Task Force became a model that was imitated by counties and areas across the state. It was also awarded several times over, including once as the 2020 Lewisburg Volunteer of the Year, which was read during Wednesday’s celebration.

“I, Beverly White, Mayor of the City of Lewisburg, by the authority vested in me, do hereby recognize the Greater Greenbrier Covid-19 Task Force as the Volunteer of the Year for the year 2020,” reads the proclamation. “… The City of Lewisburg is fortunate to have citizens who actively volunteer their time and effort in our community, especially in times of need, and … sometimes the services these volunteers provide are not highly visible but greatly enhance the quality of life in our community. … The Greater Greenbrier Covid-19 Task force has been monitoring the pandemic very closely since it was announced and has been collecting and disseminating information to help citizens of the Greater Greenbrier area during the pandemic, and … provided guidance and community outreach strategies to communities throughout the Greater Greenbrier area, [and] have helped Identify resources derived from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, such as unemployment benefits, loans, business assistance, etc.”

These efforts were the central reason for the celebration, and Baldwin noted it was one of the first times since March 2020 that everyone was together in person. A candle was also lit for the lives lost and destroyed by COVID-19. The speakers included Baldwin, Mason, Levine, Bryant, Morrison, Hereford, Drema Mace-Hill, WVSOM President James Nemitz, State Fair of West Virginia Executive Director Kelly Tuckwiller Collins, Jeff Campbell, and the Keynote Speaker Tom Crabtree.

“About 25 years ago, my wife and I visited the Greenbrier Valley for the first time,” said Crabtree. “We stayed at The Greenbrier and loved it. We returned here many times over the next 10 years or so, and each time I would drive through White Sulphur Springs, I would shake my head and look at the abandoned storefronts on Main Street. [I would] sigh out loud, [and say] ‘somebody ought to do something in this town.’ One year, when I sighed out loud, my wife Lisa responded ‘you’re somebody, why don’t you do something in this town.’ I had to admit she was right. A few months later we opened 50 East and 15 new apartments.”

“Ten years later, a great flood inundated the Greenbrier Valley. I arrived in town the next day and toured the devastation with a friend. I caught myself mumbling, ‘oh my gosh, somebody needs to help re-build this town.’ I had to admit to myself that I am somebody.”

Crabtree ended by emphasizing that each member of the community can do something to help make life better.

“The manifestation of the spirit for the common good. What a powerful thing it is. … The reality is that volunteerism isn’t just important to our community, it is what makes us a community. It is what makes each of us somebody.”

The celebration bought a number of willing volunteers from other organizations – Hill and Holler, The Asylum, The Local, and Amy’s Cakes and Cones each donated refreshments, Greenbrier East High School’s (GEHS) Future Health Professionals (HOSA) help set up, while GEHS’s Second Block Rock performed, Greenbrier Printing and The Greenbrier donated banners and a sign, and WVSOM’s Clingman Center served as the venue.

“For 17 months now, the COVID Task Force has been meeting virtually. That’s one reason it’s so exciting to see you in person here today!” Baldwin said on Wednesday. “Being part of this task force has been one of the honors of my life, because it’s filled with such good people who all share the same simple goal–protecting public health together. No one requires us to meet. No one is mandated to be there. We are a volunteer group from all professions that chooses to work together for the good of the community. Basically, we were the umbrella group that coordinated specific efforts, and it’s been a beautiful thing! … We also thank the members of the media who worked diligently to help us spread news regularly via various mediums to ensure the people know what’s going on. … Last but not least, we want to recognize the lady who made tonight possible, who coordinated so many projects over the last year, who is the most organized leader any of us has ever seen…thank you Jennifer Mason for your thoughtful leadership!”

Lead by Baldwin, the Task Force is comprised of members from the following organizations:

– the Greenbrier County Health Department, Greenbrier County Board of Education, Communities in Schools, United Way 2-1-1, Access to Education/Dinsmore.

– the Greenbrier County Health Department, Rainelle Medical Center, Greenbrier Valley Medical Center, Robert C. Byrd Clinic.

– the Feeding Seniors/Saving Businesses Bimbo Coles & Company Program, the Committee on Aging, Lewisburg/Fairlea Food Locker, the Greater Greenbrier Long-Term Recovery Committee.

– the Greenbrier County Commission, City of Lewisburg, City of Ronceverte, City of Alderson.

– Former local delegates Cindy Lavender-Bowe and Jeff Campbell.

– Homeland Security & Emergency Management, Lewisburg Fire Department.

– the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, WVSOM Center for Rural & Community Health.

– Seneca Mental Health, High Rocks & the Hub, Family Resource Network and the Family Refuge Center.

“I also want to recognize several subgroups of the task force who worked on specific projects–Community Resource Guide (Cindy Lavender Bowe & Lisa Snedegar), Mask Messaging (Julian Levine & Kayla McCoy), Broadband, & Vaccination Clinics (Dr. Morrison & the Health Department),” Baldwin said.

Local organizations also contributed in various ways, including The Hub, Communities in Schools, State Fair of West Virginia, United Way of Greenbrier Valley, Greenbrier Valley Airport, Meadow River Valley Association, Aviagen, The Greenbrier, The Greenbrier Clinic, Greenbrier Physicians, Gateway Industries, Greenbrier CVB, Open Doors, Old Stone Presbyterian Church, and Greenbrier Valley Community Foundation.

Although not on the Task Force itself, Mason also acknowledged the efforts of Gateway Industries and Wellspring of Greenbrier for providing meals and helping with vaccine clinics.

The Greenbrier County Health Alliance also thanked more local organizations for help with stocking food pantries and feeding volunteers, such as Wellspring of Greenbrier, Greenbrier County Committee on Aging, Fruits of Labor, Marvel Center, WVU Extension, Western Greenbrier Farmer’s Market, First Baptist Church of Quinwood, First Baptist Church of Rainelle, Renick Community Center.

“The thing I love about this community more than anything else is that we like working together!” Baldwin said. “That’s what made the structure for this response pretty easy. We just got the band back together that led us through flood relief and redirected our efforts to pandemic relief. As Tom Crabtree talked about so passionately tonight, we are truly a community built on teamwork. This has been a team effort. At the same time, our clear community leaders are the members of the Greenbrier County Health Department! From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for caring enough to work together everyday for the greater good. We see you. We appreciate you. We thank you. We are inspired by you. We are grateful. Now, this is a celebration…but this is not over. We still have much work to do. Active cases are up 50% across the state over the last week. We must remain vigilant for the good of our neighbors. And we must remain committed to working together.”

“We continue meeting with health officials and state officials to make an informed decision for the start of school,” the Task Force reported in the July 27 Task Force update (in order to see these updates, follow “Senator Stephen Baldwin – WV” on Facebook). “As soon as we arrive at a conclusion, we will communicate it widely. … Statewide, cases are up about 50% just over the past seven days. Several of our surrounding counties (Nicholas & Webster) are in the gold and orange. This is not over yet. Nationwide, we are entering a fourth wave that is by and large affecting the unvaccinated.” Even now, the Task Force’s work is not over, with members coordinating a potential response to the Delta variant of the virus, which has been the reason for a recent case spike in West Virginia. Members of the Task Force are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated.

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