Dr. Karen Chapman was a community stalwart in 2020 battle against COVID-19
FORT WALTON BEACH — A calm, quiet presence, yet a force to be reckoned with, Dr. Karen Chapman spent 2020 trying to alert Okaloosa County residents to the dangers of COVID-19 while at the same time leading the charge to contain the deadly disease as it spread across the community.
Hers could be a thankless job in a community whose members often resisted inconveniences like mask wearing as impositions on their personal freedoms.
Chapman, who for more than two decades has served as the director of the county's Department of Health, stoically persisted.
In commemoration of and in gratitude for the countless hours she has put in behind the scenes, the many times she stood before the public to deliver words of warning people didn't want to hear and her steadfast championing of personal responsibility, the Northwest Florida Daily News has named Chapman its 2020 Person of the Year.
"I can't think of a finer person to give this award to," said County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel. "Without a doubt Dr. Chapman had the toughest year of her entire career, but she was up to it. She brought her experience and knowledge to bear."
It was some time around the third week of January, Chapman said, that Florida public health experts, reading about the unfolding health crisis in China, began to wonder if the pandemic they had feared for years might have arrived.
The next week a rare meeting of county Health Department officials, hospital administrators, public safety staff, first responders and law enforcement was convened.
"We wanted to get on the same page, update our communication lists, things like that," Chapman said.
The Health Department also had to evaluate its existing inventory to ascertain the state of its stockpiled personal protection equipment and other items it would need to face a medical emergency.
Initial preparations began without any real knowledge about what the future might hold, but the Okaloosa County Health Department could rely, at least partly, on a pandemic plan that had been in place since 2000. Chapman said she sat in on weekly conference calls from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "to get as much information as I possibly could."
"At that time there was no clear picture of what was going on in China, and we didn't even know about Europe," she said. "We were pretty diligent about preparation in Okaloosa County, though in retrospect maybe we could have brought in more equipment. We thought we were in pretty good shape, pretty well stocked, and had no real knowledge at that time of the magnitude of the lack of supplies coming to us."
What eventually became clear was that the United States, and indeed the world, was facing a brand new virus, one of seven in nature that impact mankind and just the third novel coronavirus to emerge this century. The other two, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), were not highly transmittable, Chapman said. COVID-19 differed in that important regard.
"Everything changed, became dangerous, when we learned people could have COVID-19, be asymptomatic and spread it," she said.
Testing was just getting underway when the first case of COVID-19 arrived in Okaloosa County. There were no county test kits available at that time, and the Health Department had to enlist the help of local physician Patrick Anastasio to collect initial specimens.
"It was a really chaotic time," Chapman said. "Things were shifting all the time. Information was coming in all the time. I was personally working seven days a week, and taking phone calls from county and elected officials and doctors. I used to say 'I hope I can find time to eat.' "
One of those working alongside Chapman and struggling with her to find time to grab dinner, or breakfast, was Patrick Maddox, Okaloosa County's public safety director.
"There are few people I have conferred with more during this extended battle than Dr. Chapman, often having pre-dawn or late-evening conversations while we were trying to squeeze in a quick meal," Maddox said. "Okaloosa County Public Safety has enjoyed a productive, mutually beneficial relationship with the Department of Health Okaloosa directly due to Dr. Chapman’s passion for engaging threats to this community."
Chapman was not the only Health Department worker putting in long hours during the spring as COVID-19 slowly spread in Northwest Florida. Contact tracers, investigators and nurses were among those working seven days a week, and agency leadership was on call 24-7.
"I can't ever express enough appreciation for our staff. They have worked tirelessly, both the permanent staff who stepped up well beyond what they were hired to do and those we brought in that jumped in and did what needed to be done," Chapman said. "They worked weekends and holidays, in heat and bad weather, and there was just no complaining."
She called her team "hidden heroes" who don't get the same recognition as frontline health care workers.
"Very rarely do we talk about public health care workers. I'm very proud of them. They deserve to be considered heroes, too," she said.
Chapman's role took her before the Okaloosa County Commission and the city councils of most of the county's municipalities. After receiving her guidance and learning that the virus had begun to spread in the community, Okaloosa County and Destin issued emergency orders in March to close beaches just as spring break was getting underway.
Okaloosa County's School Board also sought Chapman's counsel as it considered closing schools in March and reopening them in August.
“Dr. Chapman has been an ever-present source of subject matter expertise and best-practice guidelines, not only for the citizens of Okaloosa County, but for our county employees as well," Maddox said. "She has openly provided us the benefit of her three decades of experience on matters ranging from staff-level inquiries to County Commission-level expert advice."
Chapman said she has striven to present facts and offer guidance without stepping into the realm of politics.
"I was never hindered in what I said, not by the governor's office or any state entity," she said. "I can't say I felt hindered."
Ketchel said Chapman's ability to navigate bureaucratic channels has been inspiring.
"With the experience and all the knowledge she brings to our community ... she is a blessing," Ketchel said.
After Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a stay-at-home order in April, the Health Department's strategy of quarantining those who were exposed to COVID-19 and isolating those infected by the virus began to pay dividends.
"Then we started reopening," Chapman said. "And as we began reopening, we saw the numbers go up."
With testing expanding and short-term rentals reopening, COVID-19 cases began escalating around Memorial Day.
"At that point there was no incentive to scale back on reopening, and it became more and more difficult to contain the virus," Chapman said.
As spring turned to fall and the coronavirus continued to spread unabated in the county, Chapman turned to a weekly newsletter she said provided her "an avenue to express the facts" about COVID-19 to local officials.
Her report addressed concerns about the spread of the virus in the community, within the School District and in long-term care facilities. She warned of local hospitals being inundated with COVID-19 patients and of the possibility that the county's limited number of ICU beds could be overwhelmed.
And always, Chapman urged the community and its leaders to practice personal protection, particularly the wearing of cloth face masks and social distancing.
"My biggest disappointment is the inability to get out the message about the importance of masking," she said. "We have a very high case rate. The virus is not contained. It's circulating freely."
Chapman said it saddens her, and sometimes makes her angry, to watch people ignore the simple, easy and inexpensive means available to them to halt the spread of COVID-19.
"In general, we have not had a lot of cooperation with those basic tenets," she said. "If we could all just work together following those simple guidelines, we could reduce the impact."
She said she's equally inspired by those she sees, particularly within the faith community and among the elderly, who are doing what they can to contain the spread of the virus.
"I know there are many people trying very hard to follow CDC guidelines by wearing masks, distancing and avoiding groups of people," she said.
As vaccines become available, Chapman promised to continue advocating mask wearing and social distancing.
And as Ketchel noted, it will be Chapman, again behind the scenes, overseeing Okaloosa County's vaccination program.
"A lot of people think it's the county distributing the vaccine. It's the Health Department," she said.
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