When McLennan County’s first six COVID-19 cases were reported March 18, the news came as a shock despite weeks of early warnings.
The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic the week before, and in short order, much of daily life was turned on its head.
The changes and frustrations have come in different doses for different people. For some frustration means glasses that fog up above a mask, missing drinks with friends after work or “Zoom fatigue” from too many online meetups.
It means something else for those waiting for months behind bars with fading hope of a day in court, or for caregivers making daily rounds to elderly patients, getting test swabs up their noses twice a week, still worried about infecting their clients.
For teachers it may mean trying to navigate half a classroom of masked students and half a classroom at home trying to follow along on their computers. For a small business owner, it may mean grappling with weeks of closure and a case of the disease in her own family.
To mark this unhappy anniversary, Tribune-Herald journalists spoke to a variety of people about how the pandemic has upended their lives, including a defense attorney, a home health worker, a performing musician, a middle school teacher, a stylist and a single retiree. We talked to the family who prayed on the lawn of the hospital where Moses and Julia Resendez lay on ventilators in their fatal struggles with the disease. They were added to a county death toll that has grown to 97. But their family’s story is one statistics cannot tell.
A daughter watches her parents struggle from afar
Marissa Resendez, 29, a convenience store worker, learned in late June that she could no longer visit her parents, Julia and Moses Resendez Sr.
Of four grown siblings, she was the designated caregiver for her disabled 74-year-old father, longtime pastor of Templo La Hermosa, a tiny South Waco church.
Her parents were quarantined at home in June after Moses tested positive for COVID-19. Julia’s test came back positive July 1. Marissa had to settle for glimpses of them as she dropped off food on their porch. It gnaws on her that she could not be with them for their final struggle with the deadly coronavirus.
He had pastored for 11 years then finally gave it up because he couldn’t do all the things. … He got in a bad accident when he was 20 and had both legs amputated. He was 100% disabled. He was a diabetic. He had two heart attacks and two strokes. He had it rough, but he was a strong man. He believed so much in God that none of those things bothered him.
They were both healthy as could be. This hit them out of nowhere. He was still trying to help everybody out, and he refused to wear his mask. He thought his faith in God was so strong he didn’t need a mask. I said, “Dad, wear a mask.” He said, “If it’s my time, it’s my time.”
After he was diagnosed (in June), they made him quarantine 14 days. My mom was the only one in the house to take care of him. He was so weak, he couldn’t even talk on the phone. My mom texted me and said, “Can you please call 911 for me? Me and dad are not feeling good.”
My husband called the ambulance. The hospital kept my dad and sent her back home. A day later she couldn’t even take a bath. We called the ambulance again. They found out she had pneumonia on top of COVID.
We got the news my father died July 16. Mom couldn’t eat, wasn’t sleeping right. Her blood pressure was rising.
The last phone call I had with Mom, she said, “Hey, baby, the nurse wants to talk to you.” (The nurse) said, “We’re going to put your mom on a ventilator.” My mom knew my dad had been put on a ventilator before he died. You could hear Mom’s voice, she was very scared. She said, “Baby, if anything happens, I love each and every one of you.” I said, “We love you, and we’re praying for you.”
Julia was hooked to a ventilator July 20, and laid face-down on her bed. Near the end, one son was allowed in briefly to say goodbye. Others had been gathering on the lawn of Ascension Providence to pray, not knowing where their parents’ rooms were. After Julia died Aug. 2., at age 61, Marissa found on a photo on her mom’s phone: an image of the family gathered below her window.
My 5-year-old, Jordan, was really close to my parents. To this day, he asks, “Are Grandma and Grandpa coming back?” I have to say they’re in heaven, they’re angels.
I would say it has affected us pretty bad. At first I didn’t take it that seriously, until they put my dad in the hospital. I never thought it would hit home like this. It took the two most important people away from me. I know God will heal in time, but we have to stay together. Me and my siblings is all I have now. I would say it has brought us closer together, made us stronger as a family.
I just wish everyone would take this seriously. A lot of people think this is a joke and don’t take it seriously.
Attorney fights for her clients while they fight the virus in jail
Waco attorney Jessi Freud, 34, is a defense attorney known for zealously fighting for her clients, many of whom are disadvantaged. While a Baylor Law School student in 2013, Freud thrust herself headlong into a yearslong effort with the Innocence Project of Texas to exonerate former Clifton High School principal Joe Bryan, believing he was wrongfully convicted of killing his wife, Mickey, in 1985. While not cleared, Bryan was paroled in March.
The pandemic, which has shut down much of society, including the criminal justice system, has frustrated Freud’s efforts to represent her clients, especially those in the county jail waiting for their cases to be resolved. Four of her clients tested positive for COVID-19 while in jail. One of those missed the funeral of his brother, who was murdered in Waco.
The cases of my most vulnerable clients, my clients with mental health issues who are typically housed in segregation, have been languishing during the pandemic. Consequently, they have inhumanely little interaction with others. They live in human-size boxes. I’ve pushed in every way I can think of to get them out of jail and move their cases when getting them out failed, and we’re still waiting to go to court.
One is a veteran who suffers from schizophrenia and has been found in the past to be not guilty by reason of insanity and spent time in treatment, where he belongs.
One has a long history of trauma that’s been compounded by the symptoms of his mental health condition. He’s been ready to go to court since he’s been back from the hospital. We wanted bench trials on both these cases to get to court faster but the state is insisting on a jury trial, making their wait for court longer than it needs to be.
For the veteran, who is in his 60s, a jury trial isn’t only a longer wait but is actually potentially dangerous because he is in a population vulnerable to COVID.
It’s incredibly frustrating when there really isn’t anything I can do. But it is equally frustrating when there is something I can try to do and I don’t get any cooperation, whether it is from the courts or the DA’s office. I think it is frustrating for my clients who are awaiting trial to assert an insanity defense based on a court examiner’s opinion.
A bench trial would avoid an excessive wait, and so it is very frustrating that I can’t get any cooperation from the DA’s office to waive their right to a jury trial so we can get these cases taken care of the way they are supposed to and also avoid members of our community having to risk their health coming to court for a jury trial that the accused person doesn’t even want.
Also, I’ve had four clients test positive for COVID. Having four of my clients, who are already at their most vulnerable by being in custody, battle the virus was tough. I felt like I screamed loud before anyone got sick to try to prevent it, and nobody in power paid any attention until after people got sick.
I’ve got another client who is innocent of the serious accusation against him. We’ve never negotiated a plea bargain. We’ve wanted a trial from Day One to clear his name. As of Oct. 30, he’ll have been in jail two years. I have no idea when I can tell him to expect the trial he’s demanded for almost 730 days. It feels wrong that I can’t tell him that, and that I also can’t get him a PR bond because no one will give me one due to the nature of the accusation against him. So he’s stuck in jail with no court date in sight. It’s just wrong.
Teacher, school find unity in task at hand
Jeremy Jackson, 28, is in his fourth year teaching in Waco and his third teaching seventh grade math at G.W. Carver Middle School.
Jackson returned to Carver last school year after moving to Tennyson Middle School for 2018-19, partly because he wanted to be under Principal Phillip Perry’s leadership. Jackson had taught at Carver for a year before moving to Tennyson.
But Perry died March 31 from COVID-19 complications, marking McLennan County’s first death connected to the novel coronavirus. Jackson chose to remain at Carver to continue helping the students he and Perry both want to succeed. Isaac Carrier, who has more 25 years of experience as an educator, has filled Perry’s position at Carver.
Anytime you lose someone who is important to you personally and professionally, it definitely has its way of changing you. When I really thought about Mr. Perry passing, first I thought he didn’t pass doing something that he hated. He didn’t pass being scared.
For those who believe in the afterlife, I know for a fact he is smiling down on us and has given us his blessing.
We’re six months post the initial March break that lasted for teachers anyway, and as far as how that has affected me, it really has made me realize that if you’re here at this time, it’s for a reason. Because COVID is non-discriminatory. Seeing that brings a different appreciation to my life.
Professionally, we go back to school, and it’s a lot of lingering questions. Who comes in next? How does it look? We go back to every question lingering. But G.W. Carver, right here on the East Riverside, could be no more proud, no more secure in its leadership right now. We have someone who is super competent, super qualified and also called to be exactly where he is for us in this moment.
The atmosphere is really positive, which is all you can ever ask for, right? We were in a situation where Carver was IR already, so improvement required (by the state). Students keep falling through the cracks for, you name a reason, that’s why. And then understanding that these kids did not finish the second semester grade years, so there are going to be a lot of gaps in a situation where there already were gaps to fill. So, understandably, there is a battle ahead of every teacher in that building and there’s a battle for every student in that building. But in some way, this year really feels like it’s all getting better.
Everybody’s pulling together to do what they can for the better. It’s really empowering, right from the leadership doing what they have to do to everybody else falling in line and doing their time.
G.W. Carver has become a total learning center. Teachers are learning new programming, virtual learning, and students are learning. As the teachers are learning to a certain level, they understand what it’s like to want somebody to be patient with them right now, so that has placed another level of patience we will lay on these students. And that patience is felt. Patience is understood as love because that’s what it is. So when you walk in that building, you feel learning, you feel patience, you feel love, and that’s just such a blessing.
I can’t say safety has been on the forefront of everybody’s mind, mainly because there’s a job to do right now. Everybody’s focused. It’s almost like playing football in the rain. Yeah, it’s wet and it’s muddy, and it’s kind of icky. But we got a task at hand. And I think everybody’s focused, so yes we are remaining safe, but fear is not in that building right now.
Musician finds new rhythm, day job to fill gaps
Axtell resident Michael Saldana, 33, is a Texas country singer and guitarist, who performs frequently at Central Texas venues and heads the band the Midnight Riders.
Before all this, I stayed pretty busy and played about five nights a week. I hosted an open mic at a little place in downtown Waco, the Backyard Saloon, that I made a platform for (musicians) to come and play, and I invited business owners to come and check out up-and-coming talent. For the younger generation, it’s hard for them to come out and show their talent. … Sometimes I would get double-booked and I’d try to get the owner to give someone else a chance to play.
Starting March 17, local and state shelter-in-place orders to curb COVID-19 spread shut down bars and restaurants, closing many of the places Saldana played. While venues started to reopen on a limited basis by late May, a statewide COVID-19 surge in June led Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to close bars again. Saldana had to find a job outside of music, assisting a local independent building contractor.
Two months ago was when it really started hitting, I had to get a job to get back on my feet. Some venues were kind enough they wanted us (musicians) to have some kind of work, but I went from five nights a week to one or two nights. I’ve played music about 15 years and (for) about seven, it’s been my job. Luckily, I have good friends who had a job.
It was difficult for awhile, being so tired. I’d be working in the sun four or five hours, come home, eat and then go out to play with no rest. I would usually play until 1 o’clock in the morning, and it might be 3 or 4 o’clock depending on the drive home. On stage, I feel like I want to be energetic, but some parts of me would think I want to sit down. I would tell the audience, I’m a working man and come here to do this, and some people would tell me after the show, I know the feeling. But once I’m on the stage, everything goes away.
Saldana found himself picking up gigs as far away as Tomball, Corsicana, Dallas and Fort Worth, but found a silver lining in a difficult time and says things are slowly rebounding.
It opened my eyes why I got into doing music. Being shut down, I missed the music. I had a passion for it and I love music. I had a fan come up to me after a show who said he saw my show two years ago and can now see how much fun I’m having now.
I’m doing a lot of private venues — birthday parties, weddings, a private pool party two weeks ago. I have four shows this weekend. I was shocked when I read it.
I’m getting back in it, have some new venues, new places to play. I’ve been waiting three months to do this and (fans) have been waiting as well. My crowd — they love to dance at places nobody thought to dance at, places like a coffeehouse.
When my people walk in, they know it’s about to get fun. I know I’m not always going to get a big, clappy audience, but when I see people bobbing their heads up and down and tapping their feet, I know they’re listening. That’s all I need.
Home health worker's testing regimen reduces risks
Cindy Shepherd, 59, a home health care provider with Visiting Angels in Waco, has been tested for COVID-19 about 40 times in the past six months so she could make trips to visit clients in both private homes and long-term care facilities. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the field she has worked in for 18 years.
It feels like this has been a long time. But it really seems like it’s been longer than six months.
I really love helping people, blessing people and working with the elderly. I enjoy my job, and I really believe if you’ve been at a job for a long time, you have to love what you’re doing. I feel if I reach out to others, in the middle of a pandemic or not, one day I will be blessed back because I never know when I will need help or when my family will need help.
Every time you go into a facility, you have to get your temperature checked, and some facilities were giving all caregivers the COVID-19 test once a week. When I go into a facility that I might not go into every day, I have to keep my guard up. I never know when Visiting Angels might need to me go to a different facility, so I was being tested twice a week a few months ago.
It is a good thing to go and get tested, because safety is the biggest priority for everyone.
Visiting Angels, a senior care provider serving clients in McLennan and Bell counties, also provides personal protective equipment to caregivers whose clients have varying health needs.
This really has been a lot to juggle, but others really need the help. Visiting Angels makes sure we have everything we need and as a caregiver. You need to make sure you have everything in your car or with you and make sure you have it because you never know when you are going to get called out for an assignment.
I have my gloves in my bag. I have my sanitizer. I now take paper towels and hand soap, just in case the clients don’t have it. Some of them have it and some of them don’t, but you have to be ready to step in and do your job to make sure we are all safe.
With the virus, every day I get up and pray about the situation and thank God for waking me up and being able to go do the job I need to do and care for people who really need help, no matter what circumstance, whether its helping them go to the beauty shop or help them when they are sick and with their everyday needs.
I make sure I have the equipment that I need, the gloves, a face mask, and we make sure we wash our hands all through the day. It is just an everyday thing that we do now.
Sometimes I think about what if I have to be quarantined for 14 days, and that is a lot to think about. I just feel like God is going to be there, for all of us, and he is going to work this all out.
Waco stylist shifts from shutdown to slowdown
For seven weeks, stylist Vicky Humphries, 49, shut down her space at the Hair Studio, 6501 Sanger Ave., in response to the state’s COVID-19 orders. She has been styling hair since 2003.
My last official day was March 23rd, and I went back on May 8. I rent my space, which is the arrangement most stylists have. You are your own mini-business within a business. There are eight stylists at my salon, and everybody had to shut down, to leave. Some of them do not have husbands. I was lucky. I have a husband. A couple of girls, their income is their only source.
Humphries said she received her first unemployment check after she had been back at work a week. She would receive four more, a total of five.
It took forever, was crazy. I was compensated for five of the seven weeks I was unemployed. For some reason, they don’t pay for the first week. I had worked two days the week we closed, so I was told I would not get unemployment compensation for that period.
My husband, Aaron, and I used credit cards to buy groceries and dipped into our savings. We have two grown sons. One became very sick with COVID-19.
Though I did not have an income, I still had to pay $155 a week to keep my space at the shop. As I said, we were more fortunate than those trying to get by on a single income, but when you’re a two-income family, you budget accordingly. When one income disappears, there is a time of adjustment.
I never seriously considered styling hair in my home or going somewhere else. I was really scared, hearing all the rumors about people being turned in and facing massive fines and losing their licenses. I was petrified, so it was not an option for me, just too frightening.
Business is still very much down. I wish I could say it’s improving, but that’s not the case. It’s slow not only for me but my co-workers. A lot of people are working at home, so they’re waiting longer between appointments to get their hair done. All the clippers are sold out around town. People are cutting their husbands’ hair and their children’s hair. It’s terrible right now.
There was no back-to-school rush. Nothing really happened, as students and teachers were involved in online learning. That was money we could count on. August makes up for July. It was very disappointing.
I could count on booking five appointments a day before the pandemic. I charge $35 for a women’s shampoo, cut and style. Men pay $25.
These days I’m lucky to book five appointments a week.
I’m not going up in price, and I’m definitely not going down. Our prices remain competitive in this market.
I have thought about changing careers. I like my job, and I don’t want to change, but I may have to ponder it a little more.
I believe the situation statewide could have been handled better. I think everything would have been fine had the client and myself each worn a mask, had we created distancing between chairs, constantly wiped down everything and stepped up cleaning and sanitizing.
Missing her veteran ceremonies, praying across the distance
Shirley Sims is a 76-year-old a retiree who ministers out of her house and organizes ceremonies for local veterans. She was married to her husband, Marine Sgt. Louis Sims, for 42 years before he died from cancer five years ago.
Sims said it has been lonelier now that her friend group cannot visit and worship with her like usual. Now, they visit her by driving up to her curb, keeping their distance.
When this virus started and we had to distance from one another, the ladies had to stop coming. We had to start wearing masks. It hurt me, and it saddens me because we’re so used to getting together. We worship and minister to one another. I’ll have about three or four cars parked by the gate, and we’ll do a little hour or hour-and-a-half sermon.
We keep in touch, we talk, and I ask how they’re doing. Most of them are up in age and they’re going through illnesses already. I pray for them, and I tell them, “I’ll keep in touch with you.” It doesn’t have to keep us away from one another. You can still park in front of their yard, just to wave and say hi.
It hurts me to see this happening all over the world.
People in stores don’t talk like they used to, they’re distanced from one another.
I used to go to (Veterans One Stop) and eat with the veterans … but this (virus) is so strong that I had to stop going. I love to see my veterans, but I had to stop.
Sims holds a biannual ceremony honoring veterans from all military branches, an event that started out in her home, then moved to the Heart of Texas Federal Credit Union building on Imperial Drive.
I feel like crying and hollering. I had to cancel my ceremony for the veterans this year. I normally do it in October, but with the virus I can’t even invite my veterans here.
It’s so sad. I can’t believe this world is going through this.
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