By Kaitlyn McConnell, Writer in Residence
Lessons for future community leaders after two years of COVID-19
There is much about the COVID-19 pandemic that everyone, everywhere — the Ozarks, Missouri, the United States, the world — would just as soon forget. As with all parts of life, however, 2020 to 2022 offers a unique opportunity to learn.
That is why this publication exists: To not only remind others of what took place, but also to inform new generations about one community’s response to the pandemic.
In August 2020, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks published “First Response: Springfield-Greene County Confronts COVID-19, March–July 2020,” to chronicle the initial responses and decisions made by local leaders. This update serves as a look back across the past two years while reconnecting with several of the leaders featured in the first report — and meeting some new faces who stepped up to lead along the way — as we look ahead as a community to what may come.
As we learned time and again over the last two years, Springfield-Greene County is not an island. Decisions made here may have an immediate impact within the city limits, but they cascade far beyond the county line — and beyond the pandemic, given that some silver-lining discoveries made along the way seem here to stay.
The early days
Long before the first “presumptive positive” COVID case was discovered in Greene County in March 2020, local government and health organizations were preparing for what they believed to be inevitable waves of disease that would eventually come to the region.
“I still go back to my breakfast with Clay Goddard at the end of February 2020, when he talked about the ‘novel virus,’” says Brian Fogle, president of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, of a conversation with the former Springfield-Greene County Health Department director. “We were all still calling it coronavirus. I’d never heard that term. And he said, ‘A novel virus means we don’t know what it’s going to do.’ That has continued to stick with me.”
More than two years after those words were heard, Goddard’s fears have proven justified.
Nearly 71,000 Greene County residents have tested positive for COVID since the pandemic began. Local health systems, pushed nearly to the breaking point, have expanded capacity to serve patients beyond their service areas of southwest Missouri and northwest. Waves across the country exceeded hospital capacities in other areas, and patients have come to the Ozarks for treatment.
While discussions, speculation and preparation were taking place prior to March 2020, that month saw a watershed moment in the pandemic: Greene County’s first patient to test positive came on March 12, a moment that was announced with a news conference of health system representatives, local leaders and even representatives from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office.
Efforts to “flatten the curve”
In the subsequent days, health systems added visitor restrictions, postponed non-emergent procedures, and quickly launched efforts to increase capacity. One example was at CoxHealth, which added a 51-bed COVID intensive care unit in shell space at Cox South within two weeks. A few months later, 30 beds were added to the unit.
On March 24, Springfield Mayor Ken McClure issued a stay-at-home order re to help mitigate the spread of disease and to “flatten the curve.”
“You can go back to the initial decisions in March 2020, and I can remember just about every day of that month two years ago,” says McClure in March 2022. “It was just so challenging. But the initial decisions, I think, paid dividends. Where we basically had to shut things down for a while, we had to give the hospitals time to ramp up, we had to put the occupancy restrictions in. Those paid dividends.”
The Springfield stay-at-home order was seconded on April 3, when Gov. Parson issued the “Stay at Home Missouri” order, which decreed that individuals living in Missouri should avoid leaving their homes or places of residence unless necessary.
The pandemic slowly escalated in southwest Missouri, but work was still underway to combat the rising numbers of cases. One of those means was a masking requirement in Springfield, which was in place from July 2020 to May 2021.
“That was exactly the right thing to do at that time,” says McClure. “Clay Goddard and I had a lot of discussions as to timing — how long can we keep that in place, the impact on the community. We both agreed that we had one shot at it; we could put masking in one time. Now, we could extend the expiration dates, which we did several times, but we really had one shot at it. It did what we needed to do, and that was to buy time for the vaccine.”
The importance of transparency and communication
Through decisions and efforts related to the pandemic, local leaders agree that transparency and robust communication were key. An element of these efforts included news briefings, which were regularly held to help keep the community informed.
“I was so happy to see our institutions come together like we always do — our hospitals, our governments, our nonprofits, the faith community, the media, all really focused on keeping our residents educated and informed,” says Cora Scott, the City of Springfield’s director of public information and civic engagement, who emphasizes the role of transparency in a crisis. “And being willing to answer all of the questions, no matter how difficult, and staying true to that.”
The importance of those efforts for communication with the public were clear at the top level, but also within organizations to keep stakeholders in the loop. An example was an online dashboard that Missouri State University maintained to keep faculty, staff and students informed of where things stood.
“The more you’re communicating real information, real data — that’s why it’s important to have a dashboard and update it every day and communicate weekly,” MSU President Clif Smart says. “It’s creating that trust that we’re getting the best information from the nation, from the state, from our local health care providers, from other similarly situated institutions that we’re all working and planning together.”
New adaptations to support one another
Of course, that information led to decisions that no one expected to make, such as the aforementioned masking requirement and occupancy limitations. As educational institutions, the decision on whether to go virtual was one of those decisions.
“We pivoted back very quickly. We finished the spring semester online in 2020, but even our courses that required one-on-one and in-person (elements) were meeting through socially distanced ways and at odd times to get everybody’s lab work in,” says Dr. Hal Higdon, chancellor of Ozarks Technical Community College. “When we came back for fall, we were back to normal other than being masked, and then we had also spent the entire summer putting over 200 classrooms into an ability to go virtual at any time.”
While both Higdon and Smart speak to the benefits of technology, they also note that they believe going completely virtual would have been the wrong decision for their institutions.
“If we had moved everything online, thousands of our students would have dropped out and never completed college or never started college, because a third of our students are Pell,” says Smart, of students who receive federal subsidies based on financial need. “Many of our students don’t have the kind of internet at home to do work, or a laptop or a computer terminal to do work. We’d have students who would have to try to work on their phones, sitting in a McDonald’s parking lot (for Wi-Fi), and who would be expected to contribute to family income if they’re living at home. Going fully virtual would have been not a viable experience.”
Instead, those institutions operated under modified guidelines — such as with required masking and social distancing — to keep everyone safe.
Creating that type of plan was also a factor at Springfield Public Schools. When the state’s largest district went back to class in the fall of 2020, it was in a modified format: Families could choose two days of in-person instruction, or go completely virtual.
“We are balancing the impact of a global pandemic with the critical need for our students to continue their learning,” noted the SPS reopening guide from before the start of the Fall 2020 semester. “By offering In-Person and Virtual Learning options, we are providing families a choice that allows them to access high-quality instruction provided by SPS teachers in formats which will best meet the specific needs of each student.”
Versions of going virtual were echoed by many districts throughout the region, prompting the need for innovative solutions in regard to parents who could not stay home with children — especially health care and other essential workers, who were desperately needed at their jobs.
One example was at CoxHealth, which launched its School Care Program for children of employees in August 2020. The health system shuttered The Meyer Center, its flagship fitness facility, to house the program, which offered a space for employees’ children to learn virtually and under supervision while their parents were at work.
Another similar innovation that predated the schools’ reopening plan was at the Discovery Center, which shifted its focus in March 2020 to care for essential workers’ children.
“For a lot of leaders, being reactionary is something that you try to avoid,” says Rob Blevins, executive director of the Discovery Center. “You should avoid it, but it became unavoidable. But what I saw specifically on my team, and some other really awesome examples in the community, was this new willingness and ability to be reactive well, even though it’s not ideal. It was like ‘the best that you could do’ sort of thing. I found it to be inspiring that, despite the fact that everybody kept getting punched in the face, they kept getting up.”
From individuals to institutions, those sudden changes were felt across the spectrum, and with a wide variety of needs. To help mitigate the impact of those shifts, aid came from several sources. From the federal level, Greene County received $34 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which was followed by $57 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. The City of Springfield received $40 million in ARPA funding.
Support was also found on a local level, with such generosity that it’s impossible to mention all who stepped up to help.
“A surprise — that’s not really a surprise because I know our community so well — is the exceptional generous and philanthropic response from donors, partners like CFO and United Way of the Ozarks, and local churches and faith-based organizations,” says Janet Dankert, president and CEO of Community Partnership of the Ozarks. “Going into the first year having to cancel in-person events and fundraisers created a lot of uncertainty and worry, but we found that donations actually increased. I think most of our nonprofit partners had the same experience, which was such a blessing.”
Working towards a vaccine
The social shifts during the pandemic obviously were in addition to the reason for them in the first place: The health-related ramifications, which were strongly felt by the health care community.
Springfield is a hub for health care in the region, meaning that even though both CoxHealth and Mercy and other partners are located in Greene County, they serve patients from throughout the region.
“I think the biggest thing that we underestimated was the amount of death that would come out of this,” says Craig McCoy, president of Mercy Springfield Communities. “Our folks have done a tremendous job of supporting each other and our pastoral care staff in dealing with death rates we’d never seen before and hopefully will never see again. I wish we’d been a little more prepared for that. Floors that might see one or two deaths a month were seeing three or four a shift. The toll that takes on individuals is very hard. It’s an emotional toll it takes.”
Measures were taken with the faith that once a vaccine arrived, things would change. That shot arrived in December 2020, when the first shipments of COVID vaccine reached Springfield.
Mercy Springfield, which received the Pfizer vaccine, administered its first doses on Dec. 14, 2021, to two nurses honored as the first recipients.
A nurse was also the first to receive vaccination at CoxHealth, but the allocation of Moderna vaccine took slightly longer to arrive. CoxHealth administered its first doses on Dec. 21, which coincided with the appearance of the Christmas Star — which NASA describes as the planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn — for the first time in 800 years.
“It was sort of a spiritual time,” says Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth, of that night. “I remember some of our toughest physicians, when they saw people getting vaccines, seeing tears roll down their eyes because we found a solution.”
Like the vaccine’s ability to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations from COVID, however, misinformation was also strong.
While many were eager to receive the vaccine, Greene County’s vaccination rate remains at just 53.9 percent as of March 2022.
The evolution of variants
That low vaccination rate was particularly relevant in summer 2021, when the delta variant hit southwest Missouri. It was one of the first places in the country to see surges of the variant, causing significant national media focus on the region. Mayor McClure was a guest on “Face the Nation,” speaking on national network TV about the impact of delta on the city and surrounding area.
“My message was, ‘This is coming to your communities; trust the vaccine,’” says McClure.
The presence of delta set in motion a new pattern for COVID: Peaks and valleys of disease as outbreaks and new variants came on the scene. Next was the omicron variant, which began to peak in early 2022 and caused far more cases of COVID and surging levels of hospitalizations.
“It has shifted the paradigm in terms of us really moving into a phase where we know that probably any of the other variants that come along are going to be much more transmissible like omicron has been,” says Katie Towns, who was promoted in 2021 to her role as director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department after former director Clay Goddard left to join the Missouri Foundation for Health. “Therefore, more and more people will contract the illness — and without vaccine providing that protection, people are left very vulnerable.”
That reality has been accentuated by the fact that COVID vaccines proved extremely effective in preventing severe hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.
“When you have a life-saving vaccine that was put together by the smartest brains in the world, that could have saved hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives, but yet people are choosing not to get vaccinated based on actual disinformation, it’s very disheartening to me,” says Scott, the city’s public information director. “So I would say the pandemic has made me more committed to public information, and making sure that everyone gets the information they need to make an informed choice.”
Facing division and misinformation
The surge of community strength, shining brightly through the pandemic, also was accompanied by division as some felt measures to combat the pandemic were too extreme and infringed on their rights.
Such sentiments were not isolated to southwest Missouri, but were part of a larger narrative across the state and country. For instance, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed lawsuits against school districts across the state over mask mandates. Similar opposition also was filed locally, both through lawsuits and a significant number of people who came to speak out against Springfield’s masking ordinance at city council meetings.
Another example came in 2021, when individuals appeared before council wearing yellow stars — comparing current times to the Holocaust — to speak against a resolution encouraging vaccination.
The action prompted a rebuke from the official Twitter account of the Auschwitz Memorial, which stated that “A mask is not a yellow star. Such a comparison is disrespectful to Jews humiliated by it during the Holocaust.”
That was not the only unexpected moment of concern through the pandemic for decisions made. An anti-vaccine activist from Alabama visited Springfield in 2021, accosting CoxHealth’s Edwards in a parking garage, workers at a local pharmacy, as well as Springfield’s school board and city council.
McClure shares the concerns that he and other leaders had related to these realities.
One came at a city council meeting when gunshot-like bursts could be heard outside a window. Alarm eased once it was discovered that fireworks were going off nearby — but it highlighted of the level of tension present at that time and that was still present at the end of 2021.
“I had a fleeting fear, when they had the tree lighting on the Square back right before Thanksgiving, of somebody taking a pot shot at me,” says McClure. “It didn’t stay there very long, but I thought ‘You know, if somebody wants to do something, now’s time to do it.’”
In March 2022, things feel better than they have in, literally, years.
Cases are low, most elements of life have returned to normal — but in a world that will never completely live up to that word. How can it, with 723 Greene County deaths due to the virus, and many others affected by COVID in ways that continue far beyond the life of the virus.
Unfortunately, this includes ongoing division of the world in which we live.
“I think instead of bringing us together, it probably further exacerbated divisions,” says the CFO’s Fogle of the pandemic, a differentiator from other tragedies. “One of the things we’re working on for next year is how do we, as a community foundation, help a community heal? Heal from a pandemic, heal from the divisions from the wounds caused by this divisiveness?”
For organizations, the pandemic has revealed needs and opportunities in ways not seen before COVID. Some ways relate to technology, and moving forward with options such as going to hybrid models of education and communication. Additional needs show through areas like food assistance.
“What we’ve seen is that there’s a lot more direct intervention needed. And there’s a lot more work on the ground that we can do, especially in the rural counties of our service areas that are particularly under-served,” says Bart Brown, president and CEO of Ozarks Food Harvest. “Sometimes there’s only one agency or one food pantry in a county in the rural areas. Because we were able to do logistics of direct distribution very efficiently, that’s something that we feel like we can scale really well and then help communities grow their own locally supported or locally helped programs.”
Like many other places in the country, the “Great Resignation” also has affected the Springfield area. The largest number of people who have not returned to the local workforce fall into the 25–49 age bracket, says Matt Morrow, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
“That’s the same thing nationally,” he says. “Where we’re different — and this is a challenge that we’ve had even before the pandemic and we have it now too — is that our labor participation rate is lower than the national average. That hurts us because it’s about five percentage points lower than the national average. If we could just close that gap, we would have a lot of workforce needs being met right now.
Morrow notes that reality ties to a lot of factors, perhaps including education and the region’s cost of living. For some, work and life priorities are different, with some households figuring out how to make it on one income instead of two.
That’s an even starker reality in light of the role health care plays in the regional workforce, and shortages caused by rapid rates of retirement that were present even before the pandemic.
“We knew there were workforce challenges coming,” says Mercy’s McCoy. “COVID just expedited that in rapid fashion. We have to determine how to get the pipelines back up. The challenge is you can generate additional workforce (but) it’s the experience that went out. A much younger and inexperienced workforce is coming out of this.”
The reasons those people leave their jobs are complex and unique. And for even those who haven’t changed jobs — or have evolved into roles with more responsibility, like Towns — it’s safe to say that the pandemic has greatly impacted how many see the world.
“I just think that the establishment of such a deeper connection with my kids throughout this process has been something that I will hold extremely close throughout the rest of my life,” says Towns. “Because as hard as it was to endure, you know, going to work every day and having it be extremely stressful, while they’re going through things like their schools shutting down completely and me working seven days a week sometimes, and seeing them very little, to always carrying stress with me when I was at home.
“There were also these moments of provocation that came from that where I had to stop and sort of detach from work, and just make sure that I was connected to them and gave them the emotional support that they needed in order to navigate this themselves. That has given me new attention and awareness of their needs, and sort of a reciprocity that’s developed, that they also invite me into that place.”
Such moments of warmth, as well as loss, will be a lasting testament to the pandemic.
Which technically isn’t over.
Yet, we must move forward. As we do, hopefully we can better appreciate our lives and community — and the seemingly little things that turned out to be more significant than we realized — while passing along lessons that others can learn from in the future.
“I went back and started reading some things about 1918 to see, and I thought, ‘We ought to be capturing that, too,’” Fogle says. “So five years from now, 10 years from now, whatever happens, that we might say, ‘Here is sort of a playbook and lessons learned so that you’re not having to reinvent the wheel.’
“I think history rhymes, and that we can leave behind some lessons, hopefully, for future folks that deal with whatever that issue might be.”