Sgt. Kenley Reaves was the first to get sick.
The Starkville police officer started feeling like he might have the flu on Oct. 1. Over the next nine days he experienced a range of symptoms, from chills and a 102-degree fever to dizziness and sore eyes. He was briefly admitted to North Mississippi Medical Center in West Point.
“I don’t know where I got it from,” Reaves said. “I’m a mask-wearer, I socially distance and I don’t want to be around a lot of people.”
Starkville Police Department immediately administered rapid COVID-19 tests for employees and started ramping up its safety protocols. But within a week of Reaves’ symptoms beginning, six more officers had contracted the novel coronavirus, with four in high-ranking positions. All seven showed symptoms, including Chief Mark Ballard.
“By the time we were notified that we tested positive and tried to get our (safety) protocols in place, we had already been infected,” Ballard said.
The department had to adjust on the fly with seven of its 63 members testing positive for the illness despite rigid safety measures in the building, especially with top-ranked officers temporarily out of commission. However, thanks to a combination of isolation, increased sanitation and the ability to work from home, SPD continued to run smoothly during the outbreak, which was limited to those seven people — Ballard, two captains and a lieutenant, as well as Reaves, a dispatcher and a records clerk.
SPD’s safety measures had been in place long enough for the department to adjust quickly, Ballard said. When the pandemic began in March, SPD implemented more than just social distancing, temperature checks and required protective face coverings. The department placed bleach-infused mats that clean people’s shoes at the entrances and at certain checkpoints throughout the building to prevent the transmission of any infectious material from outside. Officers also had to sanitize their hands and belts, and SPD provided extra masks and gloves as well.
SPD had slightly relaxed its safety protocols after several months but returned them to their initial level due to the outbreak. The entire building was deep-cleaned twice, and the dispatch area “probably became the cleanest spot in the United States,” Ballard said.
Patrols were unaffected by the outbreak, and officers could do most of their work remotely, such as conducting briefings via Google Meets, Ballard said.
“We were able to operate mostly without actually coming to the office,” he said.
Several officers in administrative positions stepped up to fill in the gaps when the high-ranking officers were sick, Ballard said. Assistant Chief Henry Stewart fulfilled the role of acting chief in Ballard’s absence. Stewart was fortunate enough not to contract COVID-19 after he had been in contact with some of his colleagues who had it, Ballard said.
Ballard implemented the position of assistant chief at the start of the year, when he restructured the police department with the city’s approval just after being appointed successor to former chief Frank Nichols. The restructure made the chain of command clearer, which Ballard saw as a necessity before anyone had heard of COVID-19.
“Nothing demonstrated that quicker than this pandemic,” he said.
Symptoms and severity
The virus affects people differently — Ballard and records clerk Lee Upchurch both had a fever for just a few days, Reaves was ill for more than a week and Operations Capt. Tom Roberson and Lt. Shane Kelly both experienced debilitating symptoms for at least a month. Kelly is still recovering at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and he is the only officer who has not been able to return to work since the outbreak.
Roberson said he initially thought his symptoms were a cold, a sinus infection or just exhaustion after a busy two weeks.
“I went from thinking it was a simple cold to (having) a fever, shivers and shakes and struggling to get up and walk to the bathroom and back,” he said.
The illness hit Kelly, 38, with similar force. Ballard said he remembers the lieutenant telling jokes in the officers’ group text channel and mentioning that he was feeling tired one afternoon. That night as he struggled to breathe, Kelly’s wife called an ambulance that took him to OCH Regional Medical Center, which later sent him to Jackson for further treatment.
Ballard said Kelly’s status fluctuates, better one day and worse the next, also similar to Roberson’s experience, though Roberson was never hospitalized.
“I thought I was getting past it, and that’s when it actually got worse,” Roberson said.
However, Kelly is on the mend overall, Ballard said, and hospital resources are scarcer now than they were a month ago as positive COVID-19 cases continue to rise locally, statewide and nationally.
“I’m not sure he would have access (to a ventilator) now if he were to contract it now with the same level of severity,” Ballard said.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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