Cynthiana business owners, health leaders remember first COVID-19 case one year later

Harrison County, one year after first COVID case
Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 8:41 PM EST
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CYNTHIANA, Ky. (WKYT) - Nearly a year ago the spotlight was on Cynthiana, not for its small-town charm as it’s usually known for, but instead, word was spreading in places like the local coffee shop of something else.

“I was shocked it was Cynthiana of all places,” said Barbara Hunt with Main Cup Coffee Shop.

It was a Friday afternoon when Kentucky learned a new virus was present in the state. For longtime WEDCO Health Director Dr. Crystal Miller, it was a call she also received.

“I knew that we were testing someone, obviously in the public health world we had talked about that a lot among our colleagues. We suspected it would be Lexington or Louisville or a larger city,” said Dr. Crystal Miller.

That first confirmed case of COVID-19 was in 28-year-old Julia Donohue.

“At that point I didn’t even know what COVID was so when he said that I said ‘I don’t know what that is, what does that mean,’” said Donohue.

Donohue, sick from what started with flu-like symptoms and quickly escalating, was put on a ventilator at UK Hospital.

“They told me I was young, my body was strong so they were hopeful as long as they could help me maintain my vitals and all that I would recover,” said Donohue.

With Donohue testing positive for COVID, the work at WEDCO, the public health agency serving Harrison, Scott and Nicholas counties, was just beginning. Out of that first confirmed case there were 52 people Dr. Miller’s team had to track down for contact tracing.

“I never could have painted this picture, how hard it would be, how gruesome and how long,” said Dr. Miller.

Dr. Miller says she remembers in those early days the fear people had, especially since the first case involved a worker at Walmart. She says a conversation she had that first weekend with the store’s manager was telling.

“I said to her I noticed there is just no one here and the town feels deserted and she said, the interesting thing is our sales our down 30% and one town over in Paris, they were up 30% and that gave us a lot of perspective about people. Really felt like it was just here, it was just in Cynthiana,” said Dr. Miller.

This was the war room of sorts at WEDCO early on, a whiteboard kept tally of cases. While things have changed, a year later an eerie reminder is still present on those boards of those brutal first months of contact tracing.

“We got really close to those family members and talking to people who were one day fine and the next day in the hospital and we could not get a hold of them,” said Miller.

Dr. Miller doesn’t hold back on the fact that this has been a really tough year for her team, the days have been long and the criticism has been unrelenting. She says people now more than ever have a better understanding of what public health is and does-- and she has used that to try and bolster the mental health of her team.

“Know that the work you are doing is so strong and be proud of what you serve, who you serve and how you do it,” said Dr. Miller.

There has been no rest for the weary. Federal dollars help pay for more contract tracers and now Dr. Miller is focused on vaccinations. As the one-year mark approaches many in this small town are reflecting, and at the Main Cup Coffee Shop, business still goes on.

“We still have our normal customers come in, everyone wears a mask they go by the regulations and we’ve seen a lot of new people come in,” said Hunt.

For Dr. Miller, she has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of this pandemic, but it was a small town’s resiliency that she says won out in Cynthiana.

“Its small enough where we feel like family and we never lost site of that this whole year, we’ve never lost site of that,” said Dr. Miller.

Funding for public health was an issue before the pandemic and remains one now. It’s something Dr. Miller is also busy fighting for during the continued pandemic.

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