Officials see hope against COVID, but urge against letting guard down

Staff Report

Some public officials locally and across the nation have worked more than 20 years in a governmental capacity. But one year ago, all officials from the White House down to tiny communities tried to grasp how they could weather the storm of a pandemic.

Plaquemine Mayor Ed Reeves hands out face masks to motorists as part of a parishwide giveaway Saturday, April 25 at the COPAC Center, one of 14 distribution sites pariswide. Approximately 1,800 cars passed through the Plaquemine site in a two-hour period.

From a shelter-in-place mandates, to masks and restrictions, closures, cancelations and vaccinations, the coronavirus left nobody immune to the virus or the changes in life.

One year later, work continues in government. Some facets and priorities may have changed, but many aspects of government operations have stayed afloat.

The parish felt the brunt of it. Iberville has had 3,000 cases and 90 death thus far and coronavirus brought circumstances never seen in the lifetime of any current public official.

“Like everyone else, many of us in the courthouse had been shut in and taking it seriously,” Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso said. “When it happened a year ago, everyone was shut down six weeks, working from home, and we were able to keep things going

“It’s been tough for everyone … businesses have suffered, along with restaurants and bars, but we all seem to be working our way out of it.” he said. “But we still can’t let our guards down yet.”

It’s the same approach Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi embraces. The lower number of new cases and hospitalization brings some hope, but the fight is not over.

In fact, many challenges continue to mount in the day-to-day operations at the Parish Jail, he said.

“We’re one year into this virus, but we’re still battling it, and people don’t need to let their guard down … we’re on our third surge in the jail,” Stassi said. “We’ve been using the people jail space for felonies, but then they all come in asymptomatic with no fever or nothing, but they all carried the virus.”

Stassi himself went through a bout with COVID that put him out of commission for more than a month, including two weeks in the hospital.

“I don’t need anyone to explain to me how bad it is … I’ve already been there,” he said. “I was one little stretcher ride away from ICU.”

The issues from COVID made the seemingly routine procedures seem much more difficult, Plaquemine Mayor Ed Reeves said.

“The biggest thing I’ve tried to do is protect employees, … we were worried about their health,” he said. “We had a few in particular that we worried about getting COVID, such as the meter readers, and that was very trying,” he said. “Plus, we had people here in customer service, and we were always worried about them bringing virus in before the vaccines came along.”

During the course of a year, nearly every family knew someone who had COVID. But in that same time span, residents have found ways to persevere instead of panic, St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson said.

“It started off scary and unpredictable, but we became more educated about COVID, its effects and things of that nature,” he said. “One COVID death is too many, but one year out we don’t have as many horror stories that we have seen publicized in larger cities.”

For many residents, the inconveniences and loss of activities that make up their routine lifestyle have been among the most difficult part of the pandemic.

“It’s been an inconvenience because we’ve lost our normal way of life – everything from social activities,” Johnson said. “We’re a very religious community, and not being able to go into church for a funeral has been abnormal, but we’ve made it through.”

The way parish and municipal entities held meetings and schools conducted class have obviously looked different, thanks Zoom meetings and virtual learning.

Technology kept the ball rolling during the last year, but it has been a major adjustment, Grosse Tete Mayor Mike Chauffe said.

“Never in all my years did I imagine we would be going through so many virtual meetings,” he said. “I realize we had to keep government operating and kids still have to go to school, but it’s been a big adjustment.

“It helped us continue business, but it’s so hard on others, especially the kids in the virtual learning programs,” Chauffe said. “I think we will get through it, but I’m convinced that it will take the vaccine for us to get it. I’ve urged as many people as possible to get the vaccine, because that’s going to be our path back to normal life.”

The amount of time it will take remains a big question, but Reeves said focus needs to go on a sector that has suffered during the pandemic.

“We need to get the businesses back on their feet, and that’s going to be a major goal, although I’m not aware of anyone here who went out of business,” he said. “While everyone has afloat, I know many are hurting.”

Restrictions will likely ease as the case count decreases and more residents take the vaccination, but the time frame is not certain.

Reeves would like to see restrictions end by summer for a Fourth of July celebration, although time is running short to plan for the event.

“The Fourth of July would be a nice turning point for an end to all these restrictions,” he said. “We will have to plan, but we don’t have a band booked … we’re still watching the radar.”

Some plans have already taken shape. The Plaquemine Community Center is booked up for the rest of the year, and plans are on the books for a St. Jude Car Show this year.

“I think it has helped tremendously that most people have followed the CDC warnings, although it’s sad that we’ve lost 90 people in Iberville, which has really hit home – those people aren’t ever coming home.”

Vaccinations will ultimately make the biggest difference, according to local officials.

Some residents remain skeptical, but many are starting to get the message, Johnson said.

“There are far more reasons to take it, and it beats the alternative,” he said. “One year removed, and I think we’re starting to see the sunlight. I’m thankful the restrictions have been eased and more people are taking the vaccine, but we still have some work to do on the hesitancy and fear of the vaccine.”

Ourso said he is convinced that the vaccinations are the path that will lead to the end of the pandemic.

“The numbers are saying it all,” he said. “I feel very good about the numbers so far, and I think the sooner people take the vaccines, the sooner things will start rolling again.”