How local leaders, everyday folks led Alpena County’s charge against COVID
ALPENA — There were too many people to list, they said.
The people who led Alpena County’s charge in the war against the coronavirus spoke fervently, stories tumbling and blending as they described the systematic whirlwind that was the past 12 months.
Name after name slipped from their lips, list upon list of local residents who played a role in silently, selflessly, keeping Apena safe when the community was faced with a crisis unlike anything any of them had ever seen.
After a year of being too busy working to talk about the monumental task they faced, four busy leaders — Alpena County Emergency Services Coordinator Mark Hall; Kim Elkie, Alpena County Commissioners administrative assistant; Commission Chairman Bob Adrian, and 911 dispatcher Rory Sherwood — told the story of everyday folks setting aside everything but the need to take care of their community.
When state officials started warning that the coronavirus was headed toward Michigan, Alpena leaders were already deciding what to do about it.
Alerted to the coming crisis, Hall called a small team to the commissioner’s room in the basement of the County Courthouse, where a whiteboard was soon covered in writing.
The team soon moved across the street to the Alpena County Central Dispatch building, into the Emergency Operations Center, or the EOC — a tables and telephones-filled room that’s always kept ready to be a communications hub in a time of crisis.
As far back as anyone can remember, the Alpena EOC has never been needed before.
Hall, Elkie, Adrian, and Sherwood set up camp in the room, for nine weeks spending up to 12 hours a day making phone calls, filling out paperwork, and attending back-to-back video conference calls, sometimes fielding two meetings at once.
Preparing Alpena for the incoming tidal wave was no four-person job, they knew.
Coronavirus testing data, tracked by the team in a giant spreadsheet — from Wayne County, Oakland County, New York State, Italy — went daily to local health and government leaders.
Over time, the list of data recipients grew to 100 partners.
The hospital and health departments. Police and fire chiefs. College and school system administrators. Social service agencies and courts and the Chamber of Commerce and individuals who couldn’t say no.
Legislators stayed up to speed on the county’s pandemic response work. The governor’s office heard about Alpena’s efforts and sent a liaison to join the county’s videoconference calls. The team fielded three phone calls a week from the Department of Homeland Security.
Adrian began weekly leadership Zoom calls with city, township, and county officials. Attendance at the meetings grew. Eventually, up to 70 people participated in each call.
Personal protective equipment, the hottest commodity in the country, was needed everywhere. Sherwood looked under “every fencepost, rock, and shadow” to find every glove, gown, and mask he could get his hands on, according to Elkie.
Mask donations from JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts and gowns from Cadillac Products Automotive Company in Rogers City provided a portion of the needed supplies. A donor from downstate delivered a load of face shields in a private plane. Distilleries around the state stopped producing liquor and started making hand sanitizer, some of which made its way to Alpena.
The county’s first shipment from a strategic national stockpile turned out to be 11 cases of size-small rubber gloves.
As supplies came in, they were doled out as far and as fast as possible from a massive pile of boxes stored at the Merchant Building at the Alpena County Fairgrounds.
Meanwhile, at the EOC, the conference calls kept coming.
A finance team, led by Alpena County Commissioners Bill Peterson and Marty Thomson as well as Lynn Bunting and Tammy Sumerix-Bates, both of the commissioners’ office, figured how the county was going to pay for everything and filled out stacks and stacks of grant application paperwork.
A business task force was headed by Mary Beth Stutzman, president of the Alpena Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, who fielded calls from tearful and terrified business owners, funneled information about their needs to the EOC, and acted as point person to steer them to sources of funding.
With technology bursting on the scene and desperately needed, Alpena County technology department tech guru Logan Kemp was a hero to many, wrestling wayward electronics into submission.
The Alpena Fire Department was on standby, ready to provide paramedics and funneling vital news to the community. Police leaders were always available to help with decision-making, and 911 dispatchers calmed a frustrated and frightened community.
Health department officials — Devin Spivey, Matt Radocy, Denise Bryan, and Judy Greer — were everywhere, staying on top of everything.
Don MacMaster, of Alpena Community College, and Paul Diamond, of Omni Metalcraft, made Alpena County a leader in its vaccination efforts by opening the college gym and the Alpena Mall as vaccination clinics. Unlike other counties, Alpena was able to set up shop in three vacant storefronts in the mall, without having to tear down between each clinic.
Before health officials had access to those spaces, they were administering vaccines in parking lots, giving recipients flags to put out their windows if they had any reactions while they lingered 15 minutes after their shot — a routine that wouldn’t have been sustainable in a Michigan winter.
With the future of the virus and the community uncertain, leaders had to plan for what might lie ahead.
Representatives from Hope Shores Alliance, Sunrise Mission, and Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency — knowing the community’s most vulnerable populations might have to face the deadly virus with no doctor, no home, and no way to care for themselves — planned a response if someone sought shelter while showing symptoms of COVID-19, including a partnership with the Thunder Bay Transportation Authority.
Watching grim numbers across the nation and state, Elkie spent one full day counting body bags and morgue storage.
Nobody took lunch breaks, but many days, someone would bring a slow-cooker full of food, and they’d eat together while they worked, Elkie said.
The work at the EOC was an exhausting and life-changing privilege, Elkie said, echoed by Hall and Adrian.
There were so many people, they said — too many to list or to properly thank.
And all of those people worked as one because they had one goal, according to Hall.
“The task was to keep people alive,” Hall said. “To keep our businesses afloat until help could come.”
For a year, nobody worried about who would get credit. Nobody fretted about stepping on toes, and nobody got sidetracked, he said.
“What was the next problem, and how were we going to solve that — that was our focus,” Hall said.
Without accolades, they came, they worked, and they protected their community. And now, Hall said — like the rest of the tireless workers of the EOC — “I can tell my grandkids I was part of the solution.”