The last time Eddie Hawkins spoke at the Columbus Rotary Club was in 2019. At the time, Hawkins was campaigning for Lowndes County sheriff.
On Tuesday, Hawkins returned to address the Rotarians during their luncheon using it as an opportunity to review his tenure as sheriff since being sworn into the position in January 2020.
“I think the last time I was here was during the campaign and the talk was about Kratom,” Hawkins said. “A lot of things have changed since then.”
Upon his arrival as sheriff, Hawkins said there were a lot of issues and challenges he knew he would have to face. But it was an unexpected challenge that has dominated much of his first 15 months as sheriff, he said.
“COVID-19 changed how we do just about everything,” Hawkins said. “Since last March, it’s something we’ve had to adjust to, especially at our jail. We’ve been very fortunate there. We’ve had three (inmates) test positive, all of them asymptomatic. We were able to quarantine them and keep it from spreading all through jail.”
But the effects of COVID proved to be a bigger challenge in other ways, Hawkins said.
“It did take a toll on our staff, with positive cases in the department or with spouses and family members, just like everybody else,” he said. “We deal with the public every day, so there was always the potential for getting the virus and, along with it, the problems that presented.”
If there were people who downplayed the threat of COVID, Hawkins was not among then.
“I’m a true believer,” he said. “I got COVID and was in the hospital for six days. It’s the real deal.”
Hawkins said one of the biggest challenges presented by the virus was its effect on staffing, especially when the virus was at its height.
“It meant our overtime went through the roof because staff had to be quarantined if they had been exposed,” Hawkins said. “The cost wasn’t the problem, though, because we were being reimbursed for the overtime with CARES Act money. The problem was more about having the staffing we needed. We had to call people in on their days off, working overtime. It put a lot of strain on our manpower.”
While COVID presented its challenges, Hawkins said he was pleased his department has seen improvements in many areas — including the purchase of new computers that allow deputies to write and file reports from the field rather than returning to the sheriff’s office, new protective vests paid for with matching grant funds and the continued progress of the joint narcotics task force with the city of Columbus.
“We’ve definitely made a lot of progress in some areas, a lot of it because of the support we’ve had from the board of supervisors,” he said. “We still have some things we would like to do. I’d like to have more staff, especially at the jail. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that at some point as we go forward.”