Oxford’s city government has changed almost every operation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The scramble to find solutions and preventive measures range from sanitizing parking meters twice a day to plans for drive-thru testing at Baptist Memorial Hospital.
“It has changed how we do everything, truly,” Mayor Robyn Tannehill said. “This is the one thing that I’ve seen in my three years that literally affects every single person in our community. No one is immune to the problems that are caused by this pandemic.”
Changes have come to every department, and more are likely to be implemented in the near future, though Tannehill said there were not yet conversations of mass-quarantining or curfews in the city.
Baptist Memorial Hospital will take over the Oxford diagnostic center and the outpatient surgery facility to increase its total number of bedspaces. Some hotels have also offered for some of their rooms to be used as hospital rooms during the pandemic.
The plan for a drive-thru testing site at the hospital will be implemented when there are enough tests available, Tannehill said.
There are a limited number of testing kits available in the area, so only people hospitalized for their symptoms are being tested for the virus.
“We know that there are cases. We don’t have the testing ability to be able to say how many,” Tannehill said.
Some local doctors’ offices and clinics are now testing for the virus in their parking lots, with a doctor or nurse wearing many layers of protection.
Fewer people are being taken to jail to allow less crowding. Instead, people are given post-arrest citations. Citizens are now not allowed past the lobby of the police station.
City Hall is now locked, and if people must enter to do business, they are asked to sanitize their hands. Visitors are no longer allowed at fire stations.
People that work at parks or activity centers that have closed are now working in other places. Notably, some city employees have begun working at the Oxford Food Bank, which serves hundreds of families a week, so the mostly older adult volunteers can stay more isolated for more protection.
School bus drivers now distribute breakfast and lunch to children in the county five days a week.
The discussion of Oxford’s response to the virus started on Feb. 27, when city leaders met for the first time.
At the meeting, the city planned to create an infectious disease manual, which would include an outbreak plan for each of the city’s 17 departments. The plans include department-specific metrics of the severity of an infectious disease. Each department can list a disease’s severity as low, medium or high.
Currently all departments have listed the COVID-19 outbreak at a medium or high level of severity.
Each department has different criteria for changing severity levels. Some are based on school closures, others are based on the first case being reported in the county.
At the meeting, all department heads for the city considered how an outbreak would affect their operations, including which positions would be essential or nonessential. Even as some city employees are not working.
“We are committed to paying all of our employees, even when they are required to be at home,” Tannehill said.
She added that though the plan has been helpful, it has to be altered as the situation changes.
Oxford bars and restaurants are now limited to curbside takeout and drive-thru orders to encourage separation between people and lessen the spread of the virus—a decision informed by local physicians.
“That was one of the hardest things that we’ve had to do, or one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as mayor, because I know how many people’s livelihoods are affected, and it just makes me sick,” Tannehill said.
Tannehill said that “all bets are off” when it comes to what the city usually allows.
“You want to set up a Grove tent in a parking spot and hang cafe lights off of it so people know you’re doing curbside (pickup)? Do it. You want to put up a banner bigger than the Lyceum? Do it,” she said.
The city is working with United Way to create a fund to support people that have lost work amid Oxford’s economic state of emergency, announced on March 13.
The city will continue updating the community as more cases are announced. Though city officials are not given the names of infected individuals, the Mississippi State Department of Health conducts “contact investigations” to inform people that may have been exposed to the virus are aware of the risk.