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'Together We've Weathered A Storm': Hospital Workers Reflect On The Pandemic

health care workers stand outside a hospital
Paul Tuthill

    The one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic is being marked in Springfield, Massachusetts.

     In the warmth of spring sunshine, dozens of front line health care workers stood in front of Mercy Medical Center to hear colleagues reflect on the last 12 months, to be thanked and congratulated for their dedication, and get a moral boost from prayer and song.

     Raw emotions poured out.

     " I didn't fear death," said  the hospital’s head of emergency medicine, Dr. Mark Kenton. "But with the my wife doing the same type of medicine, I feared my children being alone."

      He said he became anxious and depressed at the onset of the pandemic, but hid his feelings in order to show leadership.

     "I feared for my co-workers. Who would get sick? Who would not get sick? And for the first time in my career, I felt scared," said Kenton.

      Kathleen Bowers, a registered nurse, recounted how she held the hands of people as they died from COVID-19 because their family members were not allowed inside the hospital.  She said it was unlike anything she’d experienced in 35 years of nursing.

     "Together we've weathered a storm," said Bowers. " It has been a pretty significant storm for all of us. I remember coming in in the very beginning and just feeling helpless and hopeless and not knowing where we were going from here and what we were going to do next."

     "I am amazed at how far we've all come," said Bowers.

      925 people have been treated for COVID-19 at Mercy. 105 patients died.

      Mercy is operating a public coronavirus vaccine clinic and has dispensed more than 10,000 doses.

        Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno declared a local state of emergency on March 13, 2020.

     "These are extraordinary times, and that makes for decisive actions that have to be taken," said Sarno at the time.

     Among the actions taken were the closings of municipal buildings to the public.  City employees were put on staggered shifts and told to work from home, if possible.  The plan was to close the public schools for two weeks.

     Two days later, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker directed schools statewide to close, banned in-door dining at restaurants, and ordered limits on how many people could gather together indoors and out.    It was the beginning of a lockdown that would upend day-to-day life as everyone knew it.

     Sarno, now in his 12th year as mayor, had managed the state’s third largest city through numerous natural and man-made disasters.  There was the tornado that tore through a third of the city, a natural gas explosion that destroyed or damaged scores of downtown buildings, and an October snowstorm that took down much of the electrical infrastructure.

     But a pandemic was something completely different.

     "In essence, we were flying the plane as we were building it," Sarno said in an interview.

     Asked this week about the city’s initial response to the pandemic, Sarno recalled meetings with his key department heads at all hours of the day and night to develop a game plan for trying to keep the coronavirus at bay.

     "This has been like shadow boxing," said Sarno. "This has been an ever-evolving enemy we've had to deal with."

      Springfield had a face mask mandate weeks before one was ordered statewide.

            Sarno has been making weekly public reports on the city’s response to the pandemic live from City Hall every Monday on Focus Springfield Community Television and the city’s Facebook page.

      "In these types of situations, as we have done before, you got to tell people three things: What happened. What are we going to do about it. And, probably just as important, hope --we're going to get through this together," said Sarno.

      Delivering COVID-19 vaccinations to Springfield residents has now become a top priority.

    "If you punch this COVID-19 right in the face, once you do that you have the consumer confidence, the business confidence, the public confidence and everything will flow from there," said Sarno.

      During the shutdown of the economy, Springfield’s unemployment rate soared.  It hit 17.1 percent last June.  It has since come down to 8 percent. 

      When the local state of emergency was declared on March 13, 2020, there had not been a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Springfield.

      As of  the beginning of this week, there have been 18,147 total cases in Springfield with 224 deaths.



Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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