As a never-before-seen pathogen began cropping up in the region in March 2020, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and other leaders knew they would need to draw on input from experts if they hoped to guide citizens through an encroaching pandemic.
As COVID-19 became more prevalent, one of the organizations Coppinger was able to rely on was the Hamilton County Medical Society, a local group of administrators and physicians. County leaders were also part of a committee assembled by Gov. Bill Lee.
The first big obstacle was testing, Coppinger recalls. Local officials were able to get testing set up quickly thanks to the cooperative efforts of Baylor School instructors Elizabeth Forrester, a biochemist with a doctorate in cancer biology, and Dawn Richards, a molecular microbiologist.
"(They) had contacted me on a weekend and said, 'Hey, we can do this testing,'" Coppinger said by phone. "But it required help at the federal level and state level and local level to be able to break down some of the barriers so we could even administer COVID testing here."
Early in the pandemic, former President Donald Trump enacted a widespread shutdown for a few weeks in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, Coppinger notes. Officials soon realized the pandemic would have a lasting impact on the economy.
Coppinger says he looped tourism and business leaders into discussions so experts could factor their input into the decision-making process.
"We knew we wanted to keep the economy going," he says. "It was really important because small businesses were getting hurt. We had learned that from what had happened nationally."
By June, hospitals were getting overrun, and a shortage of personnel was straining capacity. Experts were telling him that there needed to be some sort of remediation; and in the second week of July, the county enacted a mask mandate.
"Not a popular thing to do at all," Coppinger remembers. "And for the record, I hated wearing a mask. But at the end of the day, the hospitals were so overcrowded that we were really afraid that we weren't going to be able to treat our own people."
As a result, Coppinger says, Hamilton County residents ended up making up less than 50% of the people occupying hospital beds.
"We saw that drop off, we saw it taper off, we saw it get better almost immediately," he says.
Once a COVID vaccine became more readily available, Coppinger ultimately opted to lift the mask mandate.
"People should know none of the decisions were made in a bubble," Coppinger says. "One of the best things about being in the position I was in was, you get a lot of advice. All you've got to do is ask for it."
* Role: Hamilton County mayor.
* Career: Hamilton County commissioner (2006-11); Hamilton County mayor (2011-2022).
* Personal: Married; two step-children; one grandchild.