On June 16, 2020, Christian County had its first resident die of the COVID-19 virus.

Her name was Joyce Gammon.

Her husband, Tom Gammon of Highlandville, spoke at a press conference July 17, at the Ozark Community Center. He joined with civic leaders from across Christian County in supporting a call for everyone to wear face coverings over the mouth and nose when in public places.

“I wear a mask out of prayer that your family does not have to endure the heartbreak that mine is experiencing now,” Tom Gammon said. “I wear a mask out of the hope and prayer that you don’t have to make a phone call to your children and say, ‘Your mother is not going to make it, and they’re removing her from the ventilator today.””

Joyce Gammon was 69 years old, and according to her husband, was a healthy woman who had no underlying medical issues before she contracted COVID-19. The Gammons regularly used masks and hand sanitizer, and tried to take precautions, but Joyce contracted the virus through community spread. It’s uncertain where she was when she was exposed, or how she caught the virus.

“There was no known contact with a COVID-positive person. Somewhere, Joyce came into contact with a positive person who transmitted the disease to her,” Tom Gammon said.

Joyce Gammon became sick, then Tom, and then their 7-month-old great-grandson contracted COVID-19. Joyce Gammon was hospitalized for 16 days, 14 of them in an intensive care unit, and 13 of those days on a ventilator that helped her breathe.

“Once your loved one is on a ventilator, you can no longer talk to them, you can no longer pray with them over the phone, you can no longer comfort them, and you can no longer hear their voice. They are alone with the doctors and nurses,” Gammon said.

Tom and Joyce Gammon were married for more than 32 years.

“I ask you to put aside the fact that masks are uncomfortable and inconvenient. I ask you to think about your community, think about your neighbors, think about your family, I ask you to put others first and wear a mask,” Gammon said.

No orders, just requests

There are no standing orders from the Christian County Commission, nor orders from city governments in Ozark, Nixa, Highlandville, Clever, Sparta or Billings, but there are requests for Christian County residents to use face coverings in public as a layer of defense against the spread of COVID-19.

Christian County Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips announced the launch of the Christian County Pandemic Response Task Force. The group will run a public relations and information campaign directed at sharing suggested ways Christian County residents can slow the spread of COVID-19.

“This has been and continues to be a very fluid situation,” Phillips said. “As your community leaders, we have a responsibility to keep our citizens informed with the most accurate information we have available. The situation is fluid, so that changes.”

Officials from Christian County’s municipal governments, school districts, fire protection districts, ambulance districts and others joined in backing the task force’s efforts at the press conference July 17. 

“The task force includes all of our county municipalities, government leaders, our school districts throughout the county and our health department,” Phillips said. “Our health department is overwhelmed, and I think it’s our responsibility, collectively, to bring our resources together to help minimize that.”

Dr. Karen Peak, the administrator of the Christian County Health Department, said that there were 66 active cases of COVID-19 under monitoring at the time of the press conference. There have been 142 total cases of COVID-19 documented in Christian County since March 18, and 88 of those have been documented between July 2 and July 16.

“Those 88 cases are from just a 16-day time period, and that’s caused a tremendous challenge for our health department. While our staff is doing an excellent job as they work to keep you safe, the number of cases and the number of hours that they are working are overwhelming,” Peak said.

To reduce the spread of COVID-19, Peak recommends several actions consistent with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. They include proper hand washing and sanitization, social distancing at least 6 feet from persons from outside households, and in situations where social distancing can’t be accomplished, face mask use.

“It’s evidenced that preventative measures such as socially distancing through the stay-at-home orders were working. Rather than move backwards and close our businesses again, our best option is to keep our businesses open and take only a small sacrifice by wearing a face mask while you are out in the public and you cannot properly socially distance at least 6 feet,” Peak said.

Mayors back masking request

Masks have become a topic of debate in city hall buildings across Christian County. The Nixa City Council will consider a bill that would establish a public mask mandate on July 20. In Ozark, masks are also up for discussion, but a masking requirement has not yet appeared in official legislation.

Peak said that masks shouldn’t be thought of as an effort to stop the coronavirus cold, but should be thought of as one layer of defense among many.

“We do understand that wearing a face mask alone with no other preventative measure will not fully protect you from exposure, but if used correctly, meaning consistently over your mouth and your nose, then it can be used as an additional layer of protection,” Peak said.

Nixa Mayor Brian Steele said he is aware of the challenges businesses owners face when it comes to public health mandates, but that many businesses are installing masking policies on an individual basis.

“Wearing a mask is also the easiest way we can protect our business community. The city, along with our partners through the Nixa Chamber, have worked to provide as many resources as possible to help our businesses respond to and thrive during this challenging time,” Steele said. 

Steele added that many Nixa businesses suffered from economic hardships during stau-at-home orders in the spring, and that he would like to avoid issuing stay-at-home orders in the future.

“Our local and national health leaders have all told us that wearing a mask is the simplest, easiest thing we can do to keep us out of that position where we have to do something like that again,” Steele said.

Ozark Mayor Rick Gardner encouraged everyone to take the request for mask use in public seriously.

“This has been a really difficult time for most people with their businesses, some have lost their jobs, families have had health issues and it’s been a difficult thing to navigate,” Gardner said. “We in the city of Ozark are gravely concerned when we see so many people not taking that seriously, not wearing their masks.”

Masks aren’t 100-percent effective, the Ozark mayor said, but they can help.

“We know they are not the cure, but we know that they are a significant deterrent to the spread of the coronavirus,” Gardner said.

Gardner and Steele both acknowledged questions of civil liberties as they relate to mask use in public places.

“There are people on both sides that have very strong opinions. From our health officials, we believe that masking is the most beneficial thing that we can do to stop the spread, and so we will listen to that. For even one person to die is too many,” Steele said.

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