As we sat here one year ago, bidding farewell to 2019 and envisioning what 2020 would bring, few could have imagined what was in store — not just for Scott County and East Tennessee, but for the world.
Locally, the unemployment rate was just 3.7%, and just about every Scott Countian who wanted a job had one. Seasonal flu was circulating, of course, but not terribly so; it was a fairly average flu season. High school basketball teams were enjoying unprecedented success as a group; Scott High was off to a school-best 18-0 start, and both Oneida teams were on their way to region championships and state tournament berths. Just about everyone approached 2020 with abundant positivity.
Things changed quickly in mid March, when novel coronavirus finally reached Tennessee and the emerging pandemic officially touched home. And 2020 became anything but normal.
Covid-19 was circulating in Wuhan even before 2019 ended, of course, and alarm bells were sounded by the World Health Organization as early as Jan. 9. But few people envisioned what that would eventually mean for the United States and the rest of the world, and coronavirus was the furthest thing from all our minds last New Year’s Eve.
The year began on a sour note for the entire western world when a helicopter carrying American basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his budding superstar daughter and others crashed in California on Jan. 26, killing everyone on board. Locally, a four-alarm four days later destroyed four medical businesses on Underpass Drive — including Doctors Coffey and Mark’s Family Pharmacy — in a foreshadowing of what was in store for 2020.
Less than two weeks after the Coffey medical complex blaze, all of the employees at the former Armstrong wood flooring plant in Oneida arrived for work as if it were a normal day, only to learn that their jobs were being terminated as the plant closed for good. There were only about four dozen workers still employed at the flooring plant, but the symbolism was as important as anything else. While Armstrong had been a skeleton of its former self since a massive scaleback in 2010 that eliminated hundreds of jobs, the former Hartco and Tibbals plant dated all the way back to just after World War II and was Scott County’s leading manufacturing employer for decades.
By April, Scott County’s unemployment rate had skyrocketed to 17.5%, businesses were involuntarily forced to close by order of the governor, and coronavirus fears had taken hold. Oneida’s boys basketball team, perhaps a contender to win a state championship, saw their first state tournament appearance in more than 20 years axed, as sports were canceled. Spring sports didn’t happen at all. Schools were shuttered. And although both school and sports would resume in the fall, the year ends with schools once again closed (though they’re scheduled to reopen in early January) and basketball season at a virtual standstill. The former is bad news for students; emerging studies are showing that kids’ academic progress has slowed dramatically amid fledgling virtual learning programs. The latter is bad news for student-athletes, especially Oneida’s boys basketball team, which is certainly a contender to win this season’s state championship, but also for individual players who are chasing scholarships in their senior seasons, and for Scott High’s Trey Morrow, who was on pace to break Rusty Yaden’s all-time school scoring record, before games began to be canceled.
Along the way, Scott County has suffered crippling tragedies. The coronavirus wasn’t particularly bad locally until the end of the year. But when it exploded, it did so with a vengeance. Sixteen of this community’s residents died of Covid-19 in the month of December alone — about one every other day, a somewhat alarming number for a county of just 22,000 people. In early December, Coalfield football coach Keith “Rock” Henry — an Oneida native and former coach here who still had many friends and family members within the local community — died of the virus. Just days before Christmas, Scott County lost its assessor of property, Tony Sexton, to the virus.
It wasn’t just coronavirus. December had tragedy aplenty to go around. At what is supposed to be the most joyous time of year, many Scott Countians were grieving. Every day seemed to bring new stories of sadness. The community was rocked by the death of Oneida Middle School special education teacher Houston Byrd, who died suddenly just one week shy of his 26th birthday. It was his father, Mark Byrd, whose pharmacy was among the businesses destroyed by the fire that began the year.
A 36-year-old Oneida mother of seven, Mindy Harness, was killed in a tragic accident in Winfield that also injured three children. Just weeks before the family celebrated Christmas, her father-in-law was preaching her funeral.
Beloved attorney and former judge Charlie Sexton died, as did Scott County Schools’ well-respected former technology director Mike Lay, who had battled pancreatic cancer.
Later in the month, the community again mourned as another young life was ended unexpectedly: 40-year-old Jaclyn Laxton, the daughter of former Scott County Commissioner Alan Reed and a mother of two, died just five days before Christmas.
Brenda Henry, the mother of Coach Keith Henry, died of coronavirus two days later. Her son, Henry’s younger brother Jared “Peb” Henry, is still battling the virus in a Kentucky hospital.
The year ended with news of former Oneida softball coach Lisa Delk had died.
It seemed like everywhere you turned in 2020, there was bad news and heartache. Kellie Walker, executive director of the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands, and her husband, Dustin, lost their newborn son, Kip, in the summer. She bravely leaned on her faith in God and turned tragedy into purpose, establishing Kip’s Kloset to help collect donated clothing to benefit the abused and neglected children who are clients of the Children’s Center — only to be slapped with news that she would have to fight for her life after a cancer diagnosis, just months after losing her son. The community has rallied around her, because that’s what Scott County does — and Walker’s fight against cancer gave rise to one of the year’s most triumphant stories, when an out-of-county benefactor teamed up with Oneida’s Soul Sisters Southern Market for a charity auction that raised $12,000 for the Children’s Center’s Angel Bears program that helps make Christmas better for children that desperately need a good Christmas.
There were other good stories, too. But in this dreadful year, the bad seemed to far out-weigh the good. All over Scott County, people are hurting. Small businesses are still struggling from the impacts of Covid-19. Some have not survived. Others might still close. Neighbors have become enemy as society has bickered over wearing masks, and as America’s political divide continued to deepen amid a bitter presidential election.
The year ends with hospitals near a breaking point. Across Tennessee, 3,200 people are hospitalized with coronavirus today, and the number is going up a little each day. Closer to home, only 15 of the nearly 300 ICU beds at hospitals in and around Knoxville are available. Patients going to the ER with serious illness caused by coronavirus are being sent home with care instructions when they might’ve otherwise been admitted under the care of teams of nurses and doctors, simply because there is no room. Patients who are so sick they can’t be sent home are waiting for hours at times — including right here at Big South Fork Medical Center in Oneida — before hospital beds become available for them at other facilities.
That leads to one of the year’s few inspiring stories: The swift development of a vaccine for the virus. Teams of scientists worked round the clock and tirelessly to produce a vaccine. Not only did they produce one much sooner than expected, but early results indicate that it will be massively successful. The vaccine for seasonal flu is typically only around 35% effective, give or take. The vaccine for Covid-19 might be as much as 90% effective. But, even amid that news, as many as 4 in 10 Americans have said they will reject the vaccine, stoking fears that there might not be enough people to take it to squelch the pandemic and allow life to return to normal. And there are fears that the virus will mutate and render the vaccine ineffective. Already, the so-called “super covid” that was first discovered in the UK (no more deadly but much more infectious) has been confirmed in Colorado and California. The nation’s top infectious diseases experts think the vaccine will work against it too … but they’re conducting tests just to be sure. And in 2020, society has become conditioned to expect the worst.
Reasonable people know that the turning of a page on a calendar doesn’t necessarily mean instant change for the better. It’s going to be a while before we shower off the stink of 2020. But for the human psyche, moving on is a good thing, and suffice to say that just about every Scott Countian, every American, and every human being who shares this globe, is more than ready to bid farewell to 2020 and welcome 2021.
It may be merely symbolic, but a new year offers a blank slate and an opportunity for new beginnings. It represents the very thing we cling to in both the best of times and the worst of times, the emotion that fuels the soul: Hope. From resolutions to improve our health, enrich our spiritual lives, rekindle relationships or revive our professional careers, millions of Americans embrace and relish the opportunity to turn the page to a new chapter.
None of us, of course, will feel any different when we wake up Friday morning. Coronavirus will still dominate headlines. Hope isn’t tangible. But, as human beings, our nature thrives on structure. And with our days and nights tidily structured into 365 24-hour increments, the arrival of a new year represents something real that we can pin our hopes to.
As Knoxville radio host Hallerin Hilton Hill says as he begins his show each and every morning: “Welcome to a brand new day. This day has never been lived before. It’s a blank canvas. If you will it so, it can be your masterpiece.”
That’s all a new year is, except on a grander scale. It’s an opportunity for a fresh start, a new beginning. As long as there is hope — and if Alexander Pope was correct, hope will spring eternal from the human breast — we will aspire to paint that blank canvas in brilliant hues and make it our own. It is that hope that will cause Americans to look forward to 2021 with hope, as we close the book on what has been, for more than a few of us, the worst year of our lives.
Good riddance, 2020. You can’t leave a moment too soon.