'You have to work through it': One year after COVID-19 pandemic began, many are still coping

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

As Southwest Florida emerged from Year 1 of the COVID-19 pandemic and the strain, heartbreak and anger that accompanied it, much was still coming into focus. 

How to think about a 12-month period in which more than 87,000 people in Lee and Collier counties caught a disease no one had even heard of the previous year?

Even those in the business of preparedness couldn’t have envisioned how the year would unfold. “We knew it was around, but I had no idea what the year would be like, said Larry Antonucci, president of Lee Health, the county’s largest healthcare system and its biggest employer. "I received that phone call that we had the first patient in the system … actually it was the first death in the state of Florida – I thought, it’s sad that we’ve had our first death (but) I just didn’t imagine what those next few months would be like – all the challenges we saw."

But the year also brought many moments of triumph, along with countless questions. Some people's lives shattered, while others saw only minor changes. 

The first Florida death officially attributed to the disease happened in one of Antonucci's hospitals, which have been on the front lines of the COVID fight ever since.

North Fort Myers resident Jermaine Ferro, 77, had traveled with her husband, Salvatore, to the Dominican Republic to celebrate their first anniversary in February. Both became ill once they returned. She died March 5. He survived but was in a coma for five weeks.

Even those not personally touched by the virus have likely felt its effects in their lives: The school years cut short, the restaurants shuttered, the jobs lost, the store shelves stripped.

It may be a surprise that Antonucci has used some of his precious pandemic year downtime to teach himself guitar, though ask him what he’s playing and the first tune he names makes perfect sense: “A Hard Day’s Night.”

The toughest part of the year? The early days of the lockdown, when hospital visitors were banned, he said.

 “We tried to do the best we could to be a surrogate family for them, but I would sit and think about a person dropping off their spouse at the (emergency department) and maybe never seeing them again. It just tore me up,” he said.  

A fully recovered Jacob Cairo and his mom, Jamie, at home in Estero.

Estero's Jamie Cairo lived through such a separation.

She gave birth to her son Jacob at HealthPark. Eighteen years later, she was camped in the hospital’s parking lot while, inside, he battled a virulent case of multisystem inflammatory syndrome-COVID.

His heart rate was too high. His blood pressure was too low. His heart was inflamed, his pulse irregular. He was on fentanyl for pain. It had all happened so fast.

Teen fights a long battle

Months earlier, the Estero High grad had recovered completely from a mild case he’d caught while working his summer job at a a JetSki concession on Fort Myers Beach in August while waiting to go back to Valencia College near Orlando. Someone he knew had it, so he dutifully got tested – mom Jamie is a nurse, after all – then when it was positive, quarantined for two weeks.

“I thought it was like a cold,” he recalls. “I was feeling so good I couldn’t wait to get off quarantine,” and following a negative test, he went back to life as usual.

Until he was exposed again.

Once more, he went for a test. It was negative

Then his eyes got bloodshot.

“We were like, ‘Jacob, you’ve got to take better care of yourself and cover your eyes,’” Jamie recalls, “and he was like, ‘Mom, I work in the sun and saltwater.’"

By Oct. 17, the bloodshot eyes were gone, but there was an angry rash on his wrists and ankles.

Back to urgent care he went, where he tested positive again, received IV steroids and medicine for GI distress and sent home.

"We’re like, ‘Wait, what? How is this happening? This is not making sense.’ So he’s home, quarantined again and he’s getting worse,” Jamie said. Things snowballed after that.

From 2020:What was a day like in Lee Health hospitals during a COVID-19 surge? Surprisingly reassuring

And:'It takes a lot of courage': Naples nurse spends time in NYC responding to COVID-19

“As soon as a I got back from the urgent care, I just went downhill. I couldn’t function,” Jacob said. In the small hours of the following morning, his fever spiked. He felt awful.

What to do? Jamie agonized. “Because you know they didn’t want COVID people coming into the ER, but he didn’t have the respiratory issues – during all this, never a cough, never shortness of breath – but finally I was like, ‘We need to go to the emergency room, so let’s go now,’ and he’s like, ‘No, we’ve already been to two doctors,’ but at 2 o'clock in the morning he came down – thank God, because had he not,” she said, voice breaking, ‘We don’t know if he’d – I’m sorry – they said it’s a good thing they didn’t wait til morning."

By the time he’d been bundled into an ambulance headed for HealthPark, his kidneys were failing, he was septic and doctors were saying if he recovered – if – he’d have a long road ahead of him

”We were in shock,” Jamie said. “It just happened so quickly.

Once Jacob was admitted, ‘We just sat in the parking lot the entire time he was there. I wouldn’t leave. And we couldn’t see him, so we were in the parking lot looking up at his window. I was thankful for nighttime because I could see the nurses in there working with him all night when it was dark out and they had the light on.”

After six days in intensive care, he was better, but still “So very sick,” Jamie said. “He had the hiccoughs for like two and a half days straight. His system was just a mess, but he wanted to be home and he kept begging them to let him go home.

More:Send more vaccines to hospitals rather than entities like Publix, Lee Health's elected board says in letter to Gov. DeSantis

No knock to LeeHealth, she hastens to add, but, “He’s 19 and he just wanted to be in his own bed. “The front-line staff were just amazing, they were so great to him and all of us. They are definitely angels.”

One of those angel front-liners was RN Sherri Parmar. The Clinical Practice Council Chair for Lee Health & Gulf Coast Medical Center Medical Progressive Care Unit, she was also a bedside nurse during the early days of the pandemic, when she told The News-Press her work was an honor.

“I have to expose myself to my dying COVID-19 patients longer because it's the right thing to do, the human thing to do – because no matter what, I am a nurse first and my calling is to be with my patient through the good and the bad, to hold their hand, to cry with them, to laugh with them, to pray with them, to motivate them and to find peace with them.”

The pandemic only strengthened her passion for her career, she said. “My team and I have gone through blood, sweat and tears. I work on a unit which has been one of the most frequently modified units of our hospital, so change has been one of our strengths as a team.

The constant changes spurred innovation Antonucci said, plus a sense of humility.

“You realize that you just don’t know everything. Sometimes you’re going to be confronted with things you won’t know the answer to … you have to work through it and you have to learn from it. And I think this virus taught us that lesson.”

Some see little change, others major shifts

There are those for whom life has gone on largely as usual.

“I am one of the few people whose life did not drastically change,” Fort Myers resident Joanne Iwinski Miller posted on Facebook in response to a reporter’s question. "Wearing the mask is the only drastic change in my life.”

Alva’s Denise Eberle’s life also has stayed normal as well. “I continue to do everything as before,” she wrote. “In beginning my daughters lost their jobs but within a few weeks went back to work. We all live ‘normal’ lives. None of us have gotten sick.”

But for others, like the hundreds of people with developmental disabilities in Lee and Collier counties served by the nonprofit LARC, everything changed.

“Last March, LARC was celebrating its 66th birthday with its largest event of the season,” said interim director Angela Katz, “never thinking that three days later the world would shut down. We went from the ultimate high in momentum to a screeching halt.”

Because LARC’s facilities fall into the same category as nursing homes, they were closed by executive order. “People had to stay at home and staff had to pivot on the fly,” Katz said.

Explaining the pandemic was a challenge, said soon-to-retire Director Kevin Lewis, but LARC’s clients were all-in with safety measures. “On one hand these individuals were puzzled and confused, but on the other hand, this is a group that they trust and when you tell them they have to do something, they have a high degree of adherence to protocols, which has really served them and our community very well.”

Remembering the lives we've lost:'He was just a happy person': Lehigh Acres father, entrepreneur dies of COVID-19

And:'My father was always there for me': Bonita Springs family man Bud Bullock dies of COVID-19

Also:'We had a crazy, magical life together': Member of Naples charitable community dies from COVID-19

For schools, change was inevitable

But students in Lee and Collier schools couldn’t avoid change, as school doors closed and educators scrambled to keep educating, even after students returned after the initial lock-outs.

Some of what night seem like minor changes reverberate in her kids’ lives, points out Principal Zulaika Quintero of Immokalee Charter School, the rural Collier community with the county’s highest COVID numbers. Many of the school’s parents are farmworkers whose days in the field begin before dawn.

Principal Zulaika Quintero, who is the daughter of migrant farmworkers and grew up in Immokalee, poses for a portrait at RCMA Immokalee Community School on Wednesday, November 18, 2020. Quintero says the school focuses on reaching out to and supporting the parents of their students because, "their parents are their first teachers at home."

“We have parents who need to bring their kids earlier to get on the bus to get to the fields,” she said. But without staff to cover before-school social distancing, start time is now later, which means families have had to struggle to find early morning childcare.

And then there are the changes that sound little but feel big, she said. “No hugs, handshakes or high fives. Now when we see each other, you kind of just have to wave … and we’re missing that contact. It’s been a big change personally for me,” she said.

Graduation rates:Collier and Lee counties make gains despite pandemic

From August:Back to school in Collier County: A look inside an atypical first day back

More:Collier's students with disabilities face changes, uprooted due to coronavirus

Carl Burnside, the principal of Dunbar High School in Fort Myers is seen with the masked tiger statue mascot of the school on Monday, March 1, 2021.

Quintero regularly coaches her staff about safety. “A lot of friendly reminders. Right before people are off on breaks, we meet to say, ‘Guys, we’re almost there. Just remember who we’re working for.’ They’re our most vulnerable, so we want to make sure we take care of ourselves to make sure we’re here to support our students and our families.”

What’s kept Dunbar High School Principal Carl Burnside going is the same thing that’s energized him his whole career: his students.

He said the hardest part of the year was being apart from them. “People think, ‘Oh, its so much easier for the staff without the kids,’ but that was the hardest time,” he said. That the Class of 2020 lost the homestretch of senior year is a loss he’s still grappling with.

“That was one of the more heartbreaking experiences that we had,” he said. “It’s still something that I know hurt my staff and educators all over. It’s like a void you know you can’t ever really fill. That’s tough.”

Carl Burnside, the principal of Dunbar High School in Fort Myers is seen with the masked tiger statue mascot of the school on Monday, March 1, 2021.

On the bright side, he says, echoing Antonucci, is the innovation that the pandemic required.

“Teachers have been challenged to push their creativity more than ever before,” he said. “A lot of them now have more tools they’ll be able to utilize when everyone’s back face-to-face. And I believe we will end up being better than we ever have been.”

In Lee County:Analysis: The latest on COVID-19 cases at Lee County schools

In Collier County:Analysis: The latest on COVID-19 cases at Collier schools

That that innovation happened amid so much uncertainty and stress among educators is a huge point of pride.

“I don’t think there’s a single (staffer) who didn’t have to deal with the COVID crisis. And that’s where that emotional drain comes in,” he said. “But as a school, we all focused on dealing with the challenges on a personal level while also making sure we’re there for our kids … When you put all that together, I don’t recall a time as an educator in my almost 36 years, that we have faced such a … what’s the word I’m looking for? Such a challenging situation.”

The specter of school grades and evaluations looms large for school administrators, but for now, Burnside has other priorities.

“Our focus has not been on test scores; it’s been on kids learning as much as possible,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic. Teachers are working harder in our district than they ever have and my only concern is that – assuming the state goes through with the school grade piece – these teachers and schools won’t receive the credit they deserve for taking care of more than just the curriculum needs, but the emotional needs of their kids. There is no measurement for that …

“And when it comes down to it, that’s really what education is all about.”

Graduation 2021:Graduation 'No. 1 priority' for Collier schools as district plans on-campus ceremonies

And in Lee:Lee County school officials 'absolutely committed' to in-person graduations

Into a brighter day

After coming out on the other side of COVID, Jacob Cairo is eager to resume his schooling.

“Going into this, I had all As,” he said. Once he got sick and missed so much, teachers started urging him to drop his classes. Even after he was out of the woods, he felt lousy – stomach-achey and brain foggy – while trying to keep up with his classes virtually. Finally, after reaching individual teachers. he got some extensions, "But it was definitely a fight … I was constantly emailing them.”

Jacob persevered. He's continuing his studies remotely while working as a server at Wildcat Run, with a family who's grateful every day that he's thriving.

“Do we have doctor bills? Yeah, but it’s all worth it ," his mother Jamie said. "It was the toughest thing I’ve ever, ever been through, and Jacob’s the one who went through it, but to see your kid suffer like that …,” she said, trailing off. “We don’t want to invoke fear,” Jamie said, “because what he had is very rare. We want people to know this can happen."

As for day-to-day life, "We kind of choose faith over fear, but at the same time, we’re cautious. We use our masks, we use sanitizer, we stay out of large groups – just doing what we can.”

What has Jacob learned from all this?

“I want to go out and do things with my life, but I don’t want to take it for granted. I don’t want to go through this ever again,” Jacob said, "So I try my best to be as safe as possible. Live your life to the fullest, but you’re not invincible.”

In their own words

"I've seen it impact many things; our tourism community, attractions and hotels staffing, our nursing home residents, isolated and alone, our students and all of the emotional challenges and increases in anxiety – and the mind-blowing loss of life. I lost my father to COVID complications ... I'm not sure how anyone could say that life has gone on as usual. Just stepping into the world with a mask on and trying to navigate this new world is profoundly different. There is nothing normal about it."

–Francesca Donlan, Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau

"I always think back to the families in 1954 who charted unknown waters for LARC. Their children weren’t allowed in public school and they were told to institutionalize their kids. So six families from Lee County went to the school board and said, ‘That’s not OK’ and I think about that and I feel almost like, going into Year 2 of the pandemic, that we’re pioneering again, in what we do today and how we grow through this.”

– Angela Katz, interim director of LARC, a nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities in Lee and Collier counties

"Early on, we didn’t know very much about the virus. We didn’t know how it behaved, we really didn’t know how to treat it. We were getting changing guidance from the CDC almost daily. We were faced with PPE shortages and had to use makeshift processes to protect our patients and our staff.

On communication: "I think you just have to be open. You have to be transparent and you have to discuss the information as it’s evolving and not be dogmatic ... The biggest challenge we’ve had has been in interpreting the data and the studies.

Through it all, everyone just stepped up and did incredible, incredible work, really at their own risk. It was truly remarkable. And it shows you what you can do when you’re together, rowing in the same direction.

– Larry Antonucci, President of Lee Health