BELOIT — Beloit City Manger Lori Curtis Luther vividly recalls the events of March 13, 2020 as the city held its first meeting with the emergency management officials to evaluate the impending grim landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We scheduled a meeting with the police and fire chiefs and some other staff to basically see what we were dealing with here,” Luther said. “That was the beginning for us. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year, but certainly we are in a much more hopeful place than we were.”
At Beloit Health System, CEO Tim McKevett said by mid-March of last year staff had heard rumblings of the then-mysterious COVID-19 virus popping up across the country and other parts of the world.
“We saw an increase in our patient census on St. Patricks Day—that’s when we new this was different,” McKevett said. “We were fortunate early on to have the ability to conduct testing. That’s when we realized that this was serious.”
On March 13, 2020 the School District of Beloit let out students with a plan to cancel in-person learning starting on March 16, 2020. That same day, the Beloit City Council approved its first emergency declaration related to the pandemic.
On March 21, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a Stay at Home Order. Soon after, on March 25, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a Shelter in Place order. Both orders virtually pushed employees to work from home and students to learn from home.
COVID-19 in Beloit struck swiftly and brutalized residents young and old as municipalities, health systems and public health entities scrambled to combat the pandemic.
Over the course of the last year, Beloit Health System handled over 500 in-patient admissions on the COVID-19 unit, representing roughly 60% of hospitalizations in Rock County.
As of Wednesday, no patients were receiving care in Beloit for COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, the health system celebrated hundreds of successful patient treatments, some of which were more emotional than others as some patients were in intensive care for over 30 days.
“When you hear about those stories, you drop what you are doing and you go see the discharge happen,” McKevett said. “All the smiles and tears of joy from the patients themselves and their families mean everything to our staff.”
As of Monday, March 8, a total of 4,784 virus cases had been reported in Beloit since March 23, 2020. Cases in Beloit peaked in November when over 1,200 cases were recorded in the deadly surge of the virus.
By Aug. 4, 2020, the Beloit City Council introduced a citywide mask requirement, making Beloit one of the first municipalities in Wisconsin to require face coverings. Current mitigation measures remain in place including limited event and group sizes.
Through it all, McKevett said staff at all levels responded quickly and without hesitation to care for patients suffering from a disease that not much was known about, with no vaccine yet available.
“Being part of the health system at a time like this is historic in nature and I can’t say enough about how proud I am and how humbled I am by the response of our staff,” McKevett said. “I am so moved by their courage, compassion and their resilience as they’ve provided university-level care to the community here in Beloit.”
Luther said the partnerships established with the Beloit Health System, Rock County Public Health Department and Beloit Area Community Health were vital in the city’s swift response to the pandemic.
“Our focus this whole time has been on keeping the community safe and continuing to provide needed services to our residents,” Luther said. “Those partnerships helped us greatly and will continue to be vital in our response moving forward.”
Then there was hope. On Dec. 22, 2020, the first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Beloit and were administered to Beloit Memorial Hospital staff. The mood was electric as multiple staff members were overcome with emotion after enduring the pandemic.
“I think our staff saw there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel,” McKevett said. “That day was incredible.”
Since then, over 15,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered by health system staff in Beloit.
“We expect vaccine supply to continue to increase and by the end of the summer we believe we will be well on our way for vaccinating a good portion of the community,” McKevett said.
Both Luther and McKevett stressed that reopening, while seemingly on the horizon, would need to happen incrementally with a focus on continued masking, social distancing and proper hygiene strategies.
Luther said the city was waiting on “more definitive public health information” before submitting proposals to the Beloit City Council related to increasing allowed group sizes.
“It’s difficult to predict,” Luther said. “We have plans in place for reopening the golf course and swimming pool. At this point in time before we make any formal commitments to start to return to more outdoor activities, that will have to be accompanied by social distancing and other safety measures.”
McKevett added, “Don’t give up and don’t take your foot off of the pedal as we move into the spring and summer. Be cautious and be smart.”