The Crossroads has seen both one of its deadliest months of the COVID-19 pandemic in February and one of the least-deadliest in March.
As the region moves into a new phase of the pandemic — one that stresses the health care system less — the public and local health care officials reflected on those they lost the past two years, how it has impacted them and what they hope for moving forward.
Early in the pandemic Victoria resident Jean Briones, 71, lost her husband John Briones to COVID-19 at age 67.
“I miss him and a lot of that has to do with the fact that I couldn’t see him,” Briones said.
John Briones worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 40 years and in his retirement began to work part time with Community Action Committee of Victoria as part of its Meals on Wheels program, Briones said.
He also regularly helped around the house and babysat their grandchildren, she said.
As John served the people on his route he would slowly get to know them and find out some of their needs, she said. From there, he would go shopping for things they needed such as toiletries, allergy medication and more to give to those he served.
For many of the people the Meals on Wheels program helps, the person who delivers their meal is often the only person residents will see all week, said Vicki Smith, Community Action executive director. Because of that, delivery staff know how important it is to keep that connection to residents. And John, as the “go to” person for the meals program, remained faithful to the people he served even though he knew the risks of the virus.
“He worked to the last day that he could with Meals on Wheels,” Briones said.
It wasn’t allergies
Before getting COVID-19, John was in good health, she said.
His doctor originally diagnosed him with a sinus infection, which was common for him given his history with allergies, she said.
The same day he went to the doctor, it rained as he delivered meals to those on his route, and by the time he got home his symptoms had become significantly worse, she said.
John stayed at home for a week before his condition got to a point he needed hospitalization in April 2020, she said.
He was in DeTar Hospital’s intensive care unit for 17 days and would never come home, she said.
“If there was some type of vaccine or medication at the time I think it would have helped him get out of it, but at that point he couldn’t,” she said. “We did everything together, so it was hard, very hard, and I think that’s why I still miss him. He was a good husband.”
John is one of many who lost their lives in the pandemic. For the community that has continued on in the face of those deaths, it has been a challenge as the virus and circumstances evolved.
Community Action, beyond just its Meals on Wheels program, provides services such as utility, rental, tax assistance to lower income families. One thing that has been challenging for those the program serves is the isolation the pandemic caused, Smith said.
The impact on mental health that isolation caused will be particularly challenging going forward, she said.
“We’ve all been affected,” said David Gonzales, Victoria County Public Health director. “I don’t care what industry you work in, what you do for a living, from myself working in public health seeing a lot of the operations to somebody working at home or a stay-at-home mom, we’ve all been affected.”
For much of the pandemic, and still today, the challenge for the health department has been getting the right information out to people as circumstances and the virus changed, Gonzales said. Often, that would lead to frustration for people as that information changed as more was learned about the virus. It continues to evolve even now.
“It was just a constant battle to get the right information out there,” he said. “What’s been important is that we adapt and learn.”
Looking ahead, the virus is expected to become cyclical and seasonal like other coronaviruses, according to Gonzales and Daniel Cano, Citizens Medical Center chief medical officer.
When another case surge will happen in the Crossroads remains uncertain. The subvariant BA.2 of the omicron variant of COVID-19 has caused surges internationally and is growing in prevalence across the U.S. Both Cano and Gonzales feel the trends are pointing to a new phase of the pandemic.
That phase is one with greater prevalence of treatment options, medications and vaccine availability that should prevent strain on the region’s health care system.
The strain the past two years was particularly challenging for the health care system as staff and capacity was constantly tested, Cano said.
“Everyone was just stretched to the max every time there was a surge,” he said.
It was particularly frustrating early on in the pandemic as there was very little health care providers could do to fight the virus itself, Cano said.
In the aftermath, the result is a more resilient and innovative health care system going forward, he said.
Right now, it appears there is a light at the end of the tunnel, Cano said.
With BA.2, Cano feels with it so close to the initial omicron surge that infected so many people, there might be a herd immunity to the subvariant between immunity from exposure and those who are vaccinated. But that’s not guaranteed as of yet.
“I think we’re headed to an endemic where it’s here, we learn to live with it and adapt to it,” Gonzales said.
Going forward, the surges should become less and less severe and line up with other coronaviruses and it will be critical for people to get vaccinated to keep those future surges from affecting the health care system’s capacity, Cano said. As more people study the data from this pandemic, there should be recommendations soon as to when to vaccinate for COVID-19 seasonally, similar to the flu.
As for John Briones’ family, his grandson Aiden Briones, 10, in particular has missed his grandfather, as they used to share their love of comic books and swap stories until late in the morning, Jean Briones said.
Briones hopes everyone gets vaccinated and continues to exercise caution in public crowds by wearing a mask, as she continues to do after John’s death.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” she said.