Faces of COVID-19 in Sumter County

Published 8:44 am Saturday, June 6, 2020

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Breathe, Just Breathe

Tracy K. Hall

Tonja Dotson, Director of Cardio-Pulmonary Services at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center

Tonja Dotson grew up with a couple of cousins and a grandfather who suffered from asthma. Even as a small child she was interested in finding out ways to help her family breathe. A young Tonja thought she would pursue being a doctor or a nurse in order to achieve this goal. However, the year she graduated high school; a new path opened to her. Darton began offering a program that would make her into a respiratory therapist. Tonja would literally be able to help others breathe, just breathe.

Our community is grateful Tonja decided to enter the field of respiratory therapy. We have reaped the rewards of such a decision for the last 26 years. Tonja is the Director of Cardio-Pulmonary Services at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center (PSMC). She supervises 23 people and together, their team has been called upon to perform mightily during this pandemic. Respiratory therapists have been highlighted during this time because COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, however their work has always been important. Respiratory therapists treat a remarkably diverse population, from new-born to geriatrics, outpatient to inpatient. Tonja credits PSMC’s teamwork approach to treating patients. “It has been very trying for the staff, but it has strengthened our bonds to each other, the community and the patients. The staff must take the reins to lead this charge. We get called in early after a (COVID-19) diagnosis. We work shoulder to shoulder with doctors, nurses and X-Ray techs.” Respiratory therapists are particularly important because they have the skills to address COVID-19’s attack on the lungs and respiratory systems. Tonja explains, “The virus compromises the respiratory system’s ability to maintain oxygen levels, we work to mitigate some of its effects.” Some of the treatments available to respiratory therapists are oxygen delivery, management of ventilators and EKG. “Once a patient is on a ventilator, we constantly monitor to make sure breathing is maintained to what the body is accustomed to.”

Tonja states “It takes a team, no big ‘I’s’ no big ‘U’s.” Tonja is immensely proud of the work her staff has done. “Being part of healing, bringing healthcare to a patient– we don’t take that lightly. It is satisfying to be able to help somebody breathe in time of suffering.” Being from Terrell County, she is particularly mindful of the fact the patients of PSMC are family. “Being in a small town we always take the patient closer to heart. We know them or they are our relative. We live in a small world, so we take care of them as if they are our own mom, dad, brother or sister.” This is also an important approach of healing. The staff are being trusted to not only perform their professional duties but to also bring the heart of family to a patient as there remains a “no visitors” policy in place at PSMC. Tonja’s staff doesn’t stop there though. They have proven they can be family to other medical providers as well.

Is Tonya tired? Her voice says no. She credits that to the support of PSMC’s professionals. They take care of each other as they go about their work, because they are aware that everyone is being asked to bring their best to the forefront of this pandemic. “We look out for each other, that helps us take care of patients. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people. No matter how tired, they push through. It’s not seen as a sacrifice, they see it as volunteering, they lead the way. Our administration is totally supportive, the chaplain offers us prayers, we have a great support system.” She reports the team at PSMC is fueled by their passion to bring healing to our community, but they are also fueled by the community’s support of them. Tonja is overwhelmed by the community’s response to their task. “I can’t thank the community enough for their support. Children draw us pictures, we get calls and letters—the food! We are so blessed they care for us. Southern hospitality has not run out yet!”

Tonja reports working through this pandemic has been a learning experience. “I truly believe this situation has our staff, our community, our country, our world in one accord to overcome.” Tonja is quick to point out no textbook could prepare us for a pandemic. She is just as quick to remind us that we are all writing the textbook on how to overcome. Perhaps the first sentence of this textbook we are writing starts with one simple instruction, “Breathe, just breathe.”



Col. Eric Bryant and the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office’s work to maintain law and order during COVID-19

By Ken Gustafson

Col. Eric Bryant, Sumter County Sheriff’s Office

It is more than an understatement to say that things have changed drastically in Sumter County as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to statistics put out by the Georgia Department of Public Health, Sumter County has almost 500 confirmed cases, near 140 hospitalizations and a total of 44 COVID-related deaths. Since the pandemic began around the middle of March, businesses throughout the county have had to close their doors, schools have had to close and churches have been restricted to broadcasting their worship services online due to the social distancing guidelines mandated by the state to try and slow the spread of the disease. The economic and social ramifications wrought by the pandemic have been devastating to say the least.

Amidst all of this turmoil, the Sumter County Sherriff’s Office (SCSO) is experiencing the challenge of trying to maintain law and order throughout the county. It is challenging enough for local law enforcement agencies to maintain law and order during “normal” times, but with this unprecedented health crisis, the stakes have been raised.

For SCSO Col. Eric Bryant, it has been a difficult time for him and his fellow officers, as they have had to make adjustments during this trying and challenging time. One of these adjustments is changing how citizens can meet SCSO staff in person.

“First of all, as a sheriff’s office, we’re an office of the people,” said Col. Bryant. “Since this pandemic, we’ve had to restrict the people from coming in our office. That has been the biggest challenge for my office since this started, meaning that the general public can no longer just walk into their local sheriff’s office to inquire, ask questions or voice concerns. However, we have made adjustments, meaning that the public can still come to the building, but we’re doing a lot more conversations either outside, or they would have to have on a mask to talk with officials here at the office.”

As far as crime is concerned, Col. Bryant stated that during the pandemic, his department has so far received a fewer number of calls of domestic-related issues, meaning that it appears that people have been taking the COVID-19 quarantine seriously in order to protect their health and well being. As a result, in Col. Bryant’s opinion, the citizens have pretty much been complying with the law.

It goes without saying that the job of any law enforcement officer is an extremely stressful one. For Col. Bryant and his staff, the Coronavirus pandemic has forced them to make adjustments as far as the utilization of time and manpower is concerned. “Well initially, of course with school being shut down, it gave me a surplus of deputies that worked the schools to be able to utilize on the streets,” said Col. Bryant. “Once the courthouse operations pretty much came to a very minimum pace, it gave me some extra personnel again to do more patrolling on the streets.”

Col. Bryant went on to say that at the beginning, the biggest change was having patrolmen monitoring and policing people abiding by the curfew and shelter-in-place order. “That was the biggest difference that we started doing when this thing first kicked off,” said Col. Bryant. He went on to say that his deputies were watching for large crowd gatherings and were checking public areas that were closed to make sure that people were complying with the mandated social distancing guidelines.

According to Col. Bryant, since the pandemic has lasted so long, the SCSO has also done a lot of public relations work with civic organizations, churches and non-profit organizations as far as disseminating and distributing food and supplies for families in need during the quarantine. “We’ve done a lot of traffic. We’ve done a lot of handing of boxes. We’ve done a lot of communicating with people about the processes of picking food boxes or picking up supplies at different locations throughout the city,” said Col. Bryant. “And of course, we still have calls for services that we have been answering and because of the number of families that have been impacted by death, we’ve had an increased number of funeral escorts, which is another service that we provide to our citizens here so there have been more funeral escorts on a given day or on a given weekend.”

Col. Bryant went on to say that the pandemic has also forced the SCSO to medically screen inmates for COVID-19. As a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, inmates have had to be medically screened in the parking lot of the jail instead of inside it.

“This is done by an on-duty medical staff that we contract with to go over symptoms with the inmates and do temperature checks and that has been a major change for my jail operations,” said Col. Bryant.

For the SCSO, like everything else in life, it is hoped that things will one day return to normal once the pandemic is over. However, as a result of COVID-19, Col. Bryant says that there will be permanent changes in the sheriff’s office. “My employees will have a new uniform attire and that addition will be some type of mask covering the mouth and nose when they are interacting inside of the building and interacting with the public,” said Col. Bryant. He went on to say that at the SCSO’s headquarters, hand sanitizer stations will be as prevalent as soap and lotion and that posters demonstrating and encouraging hand washing will be prominently displayed.

“Here at the office, you can no longer be up and close and personal, if you will,” said Col. Bryant. “Employees maintain social distances throughout the work space and all of this is done to insure the safety of them and the safety of the community in which we serve.”

Though Governor Brian Kemp has reopened the state to try to get businesses and communities back on the road to recovery, it looks as if life after COVID-19 in Georgia will never totally be the same as it was before the pandemic. This is also true for all law enforcement agencies across the state, including here in Sumter County.



Chuck Smith: A Lesson in Loving Our Neighbors

Tracy K. Hall

Chuck Smith, Owner of The Maze in downtown Americus

Chuck Smith believes in community. He is especially passionate about our community. As owner of the Maze in downtown Americus he has a very systematic view of how we all impact each other. His beliefs have shown brightly despite COVID-19 bringing a shadow. Chuck calls Americus as he sees it. “I love Americus and I love my store. Americus is the downtown of Southwest Georgia.” Being the owner of one of the flagship stores for over 12 years, he meets the challenge of making Americus’ downtown better. How does he do it? By recognizing he is a part of a greater system. He has learned the power of loving his neighbor. It is evident in how he uses the Maze to benefit his fellow business owners.

Chuck, his 6 staff and his 30 vendors spent about 6 weeks with no sales. “I don’t like being bored; I don’t like sitting still.” So, Chuck took advantage of those six weeks to upgrade the store and ponder the best way to recover from the closure. He took energy usually reserved for his customers and venders and started identifying ways to become better.  Chuck rejects this idea of determining a “new normal.” He prefers to keep it simple; he views the pandemic as another life lesson, “we learn, and we move forward.” His idea of moving forward included taking others with him. He knew his ideas could benefit the Maze, but with the right twist, it could also benefit other local businesses. The Maze had been having a record year through March. How could he continue this trend and how could he bring his neighbors along with him?  The answer came. He would do what he does best, he would open his store back up with a sale. Not your typical sale though. Chuck would welcome his customers back with great service and products, but this time he would sweeten the pot. He promised a great deal, but in return he asked his customers for a favor.

It was a pretty bold move to ask a patron to do him a favor, but he believed in the character of the Maze customer. Chuck asked his buyers to eat at a locally owned restaurant. In return for doing so, he would discount furniture purchases. “I had a lady who saved over $400 on a purchase because she spent $8 at Monroe’s. I much rather take a $400 hit than lose Monroe’s.”  And so it went, Chuck would promise discounts at his store, if the customer first enjoyed dining with us. Chuck was confident this idea would work out great for everyone involved. Chuck would make a sell; a restaurant would make a sell and the customer would walk away with a deal and a delightful Americus dining and shopping experience. There simply wasn’t a way to lose. Every way he looked, there would be a winner. Chuck knows how to love his neighbor.

Seeing himself as part of a system is not a new concept to Chuck. He knows very well when other businesses, like the Windsor do well, he will do well also. “The Windsor is a huge supporter. We need the Windsor back full. It is the heart of downtown and when it isn’t working, we all suffer.” He is also quick to point out downtown events such as the Craft Beer Festival and the Women’s Wine and Chocolate Walk benefit him greatly. Chuck says when President Jimmy Carter is teaching Sunday school, he sees a boost in sales. “All of these things contribute to our numbers.” Chuck’s numbers aren’t only dependent upon local buyers. While he estimates 60% of his customers are from Sumter and about 10 other counties, the remaining are true “out-of-towners.” He brags on one particular demographic. “The best kept secret in Florida, is Sumter County, Georgia.” Florida hunters flock into the county on a regular basis to practice their skill. The hunters have been showing up early this year as they simply want a change of pace or a new view from quarantining in Florida. Chuck provides them with renowned Sumter County hospitality as they visit with us.

Chuck believes we have the potential to offer our brand of hospitality to more and more folks. “We need ideas about growing business and growing downtown. We have got to be proactive and aggressive about making it happen! I get excited about Americus!” Chuck speaks on “perceived value,” an idea of seeing ourselves and our area as having a particular value.  He challenges everyone to highly value what we have in our community.

Chuck makes sure he is doing his part by displaying how much he values Sumter County. He actively participates in community development conversations. He is doing his part by vision casting what he knows our little village can be. He is doing his part by living up to his own standards of excellence. He is doing his part by being consistent, reliable and believing the best of us is yet to be seen. He is doing his part to put feet to his ideals. Chuck indeed values our way of life. Perhaps this is why he so freely loves his neighbor.

The Maze is welcoming customers as they always have. Chuck will continue his furniture sale through June. The deal is simple—bring him a receipt from a locally owned restaurant and he will discount your furniture purchase by 20%.  Their hours are as they were before closing, Monday-Friday 10AM to 6PM and Saturday 10AM to 5PM. They are located at 131 W. Forsyth Street, here in Americus and you can always ring them up at 229.928.9688.