WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — On March 18, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Wichita County by the Wichita Falls-Wichita County Public Health District.
One year later, city officials and local health officials reflect on the city’s response to the pandemic and how they plan on moving forward in the years to follow.
Almost two months after the first COVID-19 case hit the United States, a case was confirmed in Wichita County.
According to Public Health Director Lou Kreidler, the victim and spouse flew into DFW Airport, then drove to Wichita Falls and the only contact was with others through medical visits.
Kreidler reflects on receiving the news.
“To get that phone call that we had our first positive case… A little scary,” Kreidler said. “A little not knowing what it was going to look like.”
Stephen Santellana, Mayor of Wichita Falls, said the early days of the pandemic were marked by grim predictions, and working to make sure Wichita Falls didn’t become one itself.
“The two cases turned to ten,” Santellana said. “We were being flooded with a lot of data, so when we first found out, you start looking at these charts people were predicting what the pandemic was going to look like. For me, it was trying to make sure we weren’t going to look like those charts.”
On March 27, just nine days later, Wichita Falls City Council approved a shelter-in-place order.
On March 30, Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom placed the county under the same order.
As city and county officials made amendments to their orders, CDC guidelines and mandates from Gov. Greg Abbott began an ongoing battle on what local leaders could and could not enforce.
Wichita Falls City Manager Darron Leiker said the conflicting messages and directives made the first month mass chaos.
“We were getting mixed messages honestly from the state,” Leiker said. “They would tell us, ‘Okay, everybody should wear a mask, it’s the best science, the best practice.’ But yet they would say, ‘You can’t really enforce it.’ We didn’t have any teeth, if you will.”
Amy Fagan, Assistant Director of Health, said changing information became a battle during the pandemic’s early days.
“The information was continuously changing,” Fagan said. “Guidance would come out from CDC. Guidance would come out from the DSHS but often times, we would already be faced with a problem or a conundrum and that guidance wouldn’t be there.”
While there was confusion, everyone did their part to adjust.
Churches had services outside in cars, restaurants were strictly pickup and curbside and many people did their part to make masks.
As shelter-in-place orders expired during the summer months, Wichita County residents slowly got back outside to enjoy the warm weather, but as the holiday season began, case numbers began to rise.
“The goal was not to inundate the hospitals,” Santellana said. “We knew COVID was going to hit our community. We knew it was going to spread through our community. The goal was to have it spread at a lower even rate rather than these huge spikes. The huge spikes are going to inundate the hospital system.”
United Regional was on the brink of that as officials from the hospital urged the community to take precautions in October.
That month, Wichita County saw more than 1,100 active cases after the county had almost 2,000 total cases from March to September.
The spike only increased during the holiday season, which saw the county hit a peak of over 3,000 active cases by January.
“I can remember being in this room and finding out at four o’clock in the afternoon that we had 10 cases that came in,” Kreidler said. “And telling staff that they couldn’t go home because we had to investigate them. Then I can remember this vividly when we got to 100 cases in a day, and then 200 cases in a day. We couldn’t hire enough individuals fast enough to keep up the pace.”
But as the vaccine slowly rolled out into the community, late January began the decline that everyone was waiting for, which proved to be a light in this dark time in Wichita Falls history.
“I think that given the cards we were dealt, we played them well,” Leiker said. “It was difficult because again we were navigating changing seas from the state and federal level, but I think on balance we did pretty well.”
With Gov. Abbott fully opening the state and students on spring break, these officials urge everyone to wear a mask and continue the declining numbers in 2021.
“It’s great because I always thought it was going to be about a two year process,” Santellana said. “As it’s more manageable, as the state opens back up, for the council it’s a huge relief because we have a lot of business to get done with the city of Wichita Falls.”
“We know the pandemic is not over,” Fagan said. “It’s merely on the tail end of where we’re at in this process and we need to keep it there. WE don’t need to do anything to push us back.”