In a Friday ceremony, the Jefferson County Health Department recognized the hardships and losses that the COVID-19 pandemic brought in the local area, including around 134 lives lost to the disease.

At the same time, the health department’s COVID-19 task force celebrated the community’s resilience and the incredible efforts invested by health care workers, community health officials and others to fight, treat and prevent the disease in the local area.

The ceremony, held outdoors at Jefferson County Fair Park, included the dedication of a new piece of artwork touching on the community’s grief, resilience, hope and the memory of those who have passed away from COVID-19.

The colorful, flowing painting, by Robin Chamberlain Sweeney, features a woman whose hair and dress are blowing in the wind, with an eagle flying free behind and a river in the foreground, in which can be seen the figures of cardinals, representing the spirits of those who have passed watching over loved ones they left behind.

The event featured several speakers, almost all of whom served on the county’s COVID-19 team, including a contact tracer, registered nurse, the county’s epidemiologist, and health department director Gail Scott.

Also speaking was Fort Atkinson resident David Stedman, who shared the story of his wife Cheryl’s struggle with COVID-19, of which she ultimately died just before Christmas in 2020.

Cheryl, a kidney transplant survivor with a weakened immune system, had been a tireless health care advocate throughout the region, also making a big mark in community theater and through the Lions Club.

Stedman shared the all-too-swift progression of his wife’s disease, starting with her positive test just after Thanksgiving in 2020, through her hospitalization, isolation and ultimate death.

“Knowing a loved one is struggling with this dreaded disease when you can’t hold their hand or be with them, and all you can rely on is phone communication from the hospital while you hold a constant vigil at home was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life,” Stedman said.

He said after Cheryl’s loss, he was fortunate to be bouyed by an incredible support system of family, friends and community members, but in the intervening months, the loss has taken him on a roller-coaster of emotions.

“There are lots of triggers that cause you to weep when you realize Cheryl isn’t here anymore to share her smile or zest for life, but then there are those moments when the memories or her help you move forward,” Stedman said.

“I pray that we never have to experience a pandemic where over 600,000 lives and counting are lost ever again,” he said.

Ellen Haines, who has spent 52 years in local health care, said that she was challenged, but privileged, to work with the county’s dedicated COVID-19 response team, commending the incredible effort this team had put in to try to keep the community safe.

Samroz Jakvani, the epidemiologist who has been working with the county since the early days of the pandemic, recognized all of those who have fallen to this deadly disease, the long-haulers who continue to feel the effects of the disease months after their diagnosis.

He also touched on the hardships felt by the populace as a whole as a result of this pandemic. For many, it meant months spent at home, isolated from friends and family and the schools and other social systems that meant so much in people’s lives. For others, it meant venturing into dangerous, public-facing, high-contact jobs.

In the immediate wake of the pandemic, Jakvani said, so many people lost jobs, while conversely, others had to take on more than they could handle.

Everyone has had to make sacrifices and accommodations. Some families lost loved ones. Businesses struggled, pivoting to curbside service or temporarily closing their doors. Parents balanced remote work with overseeing their children’s virtual classwork. Young adults graduated from “Zoom University.”

People found creative ways to celebrate life, such as drive-through birthday parties. Educators learned new ways to reach students learning from home.

Jakvani commended everyone who did their part to ease the pandemic during the toughest of times, from those who followed public health recommendations to ease the burden on their loved ones and the community, to the front-line health care workers administering to those who became ill.

While it has been challenging, the overall experience has built resiliency within the community, making local institutions, systems, supports and individuals more flexible and better prepared for whatever challenges the future might hold, he said.

Gail Scott, director of the Jefferson County Health Department, commended her team and all health care workers for their tremendous efforts during this past year-plus.

“This has been one of the most trying times for public health and health care in general,” Scott said. “Our field has seen a record exodus of public health officials.”

Under these conditions, the Jefferson County team and its community partners “came together to achieve the impossible,” dedicating long hours to contact tracing, public education efforts, outreach, and now the vaccination effort.

“Everyone in the world was susceptible to this tiny virus,” Scott said. “We found answers and forged ahead.”

Elizabeth Chilsen, public health program manager and incident commander for the county’s COVID-19 vaccination clinics, said that during the pandemic, long and stressful hours became the new norm.

“Despite the demanding days, our team continued to give their all, often times feeling like a cog in a machine that was designed to chase a problem that was neither being solved nor prevented,” she said.

“As the days continued, we could barely keep up,” she said. “The darkness seemed to completely consume us. This is the ‘how’ of the pandemic no one prepares you for — how gut-wrenching it is, seeing your colleagues burn out while the days turned to months and months into what felt like an eternity.”

Yet somehow, the local team found the strength to persevere, she said, coming together to help the greater cause.

“I have never in my life met more dedicated people, and I have never in my life been more proud to be a part of something,” Chilsen said. “Together we navigated through this COVID storm, and things are starting to look brighter.”

(The Jefferson County COVID-19 deaths estimate we are using is based on the New York Times count as of 6/13/21)

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