By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • It was a year ago this week that Hoke County saw its first known confirmed case of COVID-19.
On March 18, 2020, Health Department Director Helene Edwards joined the Hoke County Commissioners in announcing the first case at a press conference held in the old Armory building. A county resident who’d been feeling ill had tested positive March 16.
“There’s a question that will be asked, are we our brother’s keepers? The answer is yes, we take care of Hoke County,” Commission Chairman – vice chairman at the time – Harry Southerland said that day. “Our chairman (James Leach) has said it time and time again, that Hoke County is the greatest county in North Carolina, and for that reason, that’s why we are standing here today to let you all know that you are safe and you’re sound. We’ve got everyone behind you 100 percent.”
That week in March 2020 was filled with a flurry of official statements and emergency orders from local and state authorities, issuing unprecedented cautionary measures. Public schools closed, restaurants were shut down, churches canceled services and toilet paper vanished from store shelves. County officials instituted a state of emergency – an action typically reserved for hurricanes in this area – and made emergency efforts to expand support programs for seniors. Hoke County Schools staff raced over a weekend to come up with a plan to distribute Chromebooks, and provide instruction and food to more than 8,000 students suddenly stuck at home.
In the months since, more than 4,000 people in Hoke have tested positive for coronavirus. The vast majority have since recovered, and some never showed any symptoms – being “asymptomatic” carriers of the virus, able to spread it to others without even knowing they had it.
And, case numbers are finally going down: in the last 14 days, Hoke saw 112 new cases – including just 53 in the last week.
In early 2020, those numbers might have seemed high. A year later, and it’s a sign of improvement.
When Hoke saw its very first confirmed case of the virus, no one knew whether the pandemic would still be going on a year later; or that 54 Hoke residents would die of coronavirus-related causes in the next 12 months.
Early predictions for an effective vaccine timeline suggested it might be the middle of 2021 before most people could get a shot to prevent them from getting sick from COVID-19. Instead, emergency authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration made first one, then two more vaccines available before the one-year mark of Hoke’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. Today more than 5,800 people in Hoke have been at least partially vaccinated – about 10 percent of the total population – and over 3,500 are completely vaccinated.
Vaccination efforts continue, while other parts of life slowly begin to get back to something closer to normal. Restaurants and bars are back, schools offer in-person learning and toilet paper is plentiful.
Hoke’s State senator, Sen. Ben Clark III, noted the trials and triumphs of the one-year anniversary in a statement this week.
“I am so proud of the way Hoke County citizens have risen to the challenges brought on by extraordinary circumstances. Our healthcare providers and support staff have tirelessly remained on the front lines from the very beginning. Teachers and staff set up efficient virtual schools within two weeks’ time. Community organizations found new ways to deliver meals and resources to those who needed them. Churches sprang into the technology age with the help of Facebook Live, Zoom, and conference call lines. Our seniors pushed themselves to learn how to teleconference so that they would not lose touch with precious grandchildren and other distant relatives.”
In a time of uncertainty, the Hoke community looked out for one another, Clark said.
“Old sewing machines were put back into service to make the earliest pandemic masks which were freely shared with many. Most people religiously followed mask wearing and other safety mandates. Nearly every one in the county saw it as their responsibility to help each other. Local community and healthcare leaders really stepped up by providing real time information and encouraging vaccination as soon as it was available.”
“I really can’t say enough about the Hoke County health department which extended its hours to vaccinate as many as it could. It has truly been a team effort over the past year which makes me quite proud to be a member of the Hoke community,” Clark concluded.