A look back at how the coronavirus pandemic changed the lives of eastern Iowans

Published: Jan. 1, 2021 at 6:43 AM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The coronavirus pandemic changed the lives of eastern Iowans throughout 2020. From sporting events to holidays with friends and family to just going out to eat - everything is now different.

It all started when China alerted the World Health Organization that it had documented cases of a mysterious pneumonia in Hubei Province.

On February 11 the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses announced the new virus’ name: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, or commonly called “SARS COV 2.”

That virus causes the disease we all know as COVID-19. And on March 8 Iowa had its first documented cases.

Neil Bennett was one of the first Iowans diagnosed with COVID-19. The Iowa City man contracted it while on an Egyptian cruise organized through his bank.

“I have absolutely no memory of the several weeks of treatment at University Hospitals,” Bennett said. “When I was in Davenport I went there with a tracheotomy and I remember that, but I don’t remember the ventilator in the ICU.”

Bennett spent 152 days in the hospital.

On March 12, 2020, schools, non-profit groups and even basketball tournaments announced changes to try and stop the spread of COVID-19.

That was the week most people in Iowa realized life was changing, but we had no idea how long it would last.

The NCAA wrestling tournaments were cancelled, the Big 10 canceled all competition throughout the end of the school year, and the Cedar Rapids Kernels had their entire season canceled.

Schools wouldn’t reopen for at least five more months, and fear allowed rumors and misinformation to flourish.

On Saint Patrick’s Day Governor Reynolds issued a State of Public Health Disaster Emergency – closing restaurants and bars, fitness centers, theaters, casinos, gatherings over ten and schools.

Iowa was one of the few states that never issued a shelter in place order despite urging from physician groups, and mayors like Cedar Rapids’ Brad Hart.

There was a stillness. A pause in life as we knew it. And we couldn’t find toilet paper.

Linn County saw a spike in deaths that were concentrated to one source - Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids. By mid-May, 25 residents had died of COVID-19.

Tom Vonderacek’s mom, Barb, was one of more than 100 residents and staff at Heritage who tested positive. She recovered.

“It was something that nobody expected and nobody had the answer to the questions that everybody had to ask,” Vonderacek said. “At the time when we didn’t know anything it was really difficult.”

Workplaces like meat packing plants were especially susceptible to virus spread.

The Tyson plant in Waterloo had more than 1,000 workers test positive.

“We walked out of that plant knowing that we had an enormous problem,” Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said. “About a third of their staff was wearing masks at that point. Some of them had masks, but they were dangling around their necks.”

In May, Governor Reynolds started relaxing mitigation measures.

“We can continue I think to lessen the restrictions and open up our state and start to begin in a very thoughtful, safe and purposeful way to start to continue to reopen our economy,” Reynolds said.

But even though many businesses reopened their doors, foot traffic was down.

Local diners, special occasion dining establishments, the local watering hole were all hurting.

Popoli’s in Cedar Rapids closed in the fall.

“Really took a lot of pride in everything we did to restore the beautiful features of the building and really build a business from scratch over the last six years to be a very busy business and bustling business but since March it’s been very difficult,” Co-owner of Popoli Gary Rozek said.

The fall also brought a return to school. Most schools limited visitors, required face coverings, and changed how the day flowed.

Many parents had to balance hybrid classes with at-home work, a stress on productivity for two generations.

There wasn’t an industry or element of life that the pandemic didn’t interrupt or change. And patience was waning when it came to staying six feet from loved ones and avoiding all but the most necessary interactions outside your household.

In November, Iowa climbed near the top of the country in virus spread. For most of that month more than 1,000 people were in Iowa hospitals receiving treatment for COVID-19.

Washington County Hospital and Clinics CEO Todd Patterson said a big concern at the time was the hospitals to the north that take a lot of transfer patients.

“If they end up with limited capacity, that can start to back up the rural transfer systems that we depend on a lot,” Patterson said.

By Christmas more than 3,700 Iowans had died of COVID-19. In nine months COVID-19 has killed more Iowans than some of the top killers of 2019 combined - stroke (975), diabetes (640) accidents (1,219), influenza (396) and suicide (487).

To save lives, and return to our lives, scientists say there’s only one solution - vaccines.

And on December 14 the first doses went into arms at six hospitals across Iowa.

Dr. Jorge Salinas – the hospital epidemiologist at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics – had been waiting for that day for nine months.

“These vaccines are almost a miracle, if they didn’t take the work of thousands of scientists for two decades, I would call it a miracle,” Dr. Salinas said. “And they work exceedingly well – 95 percent efficacy, a very safe profile of side effects - this can be the silver bullet, we can end this pandemic.”

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