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Covid-19 puts Crittenden County exec, Marion police chief in hospital

by Neal Earley | December 10, 2020 at 7:05 a.m.
This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19. - Photo by NIAID-RML via AP

Two Sundays ago, Crittenden County Judge Woody Wheeless woke up at around 5 a.m. in his Memphis hospital bed fighting to breathe.

He called for a nurse and a chest X-ray revealed pneumonia in his lungs. After 17 days in the hospital, Wheeless is home, recovering from covid-19, one of two top officials in Crittenden County to have been hospitalized with covid-19 in recent weeks.

The other official, Marion Police Chief Gary Kelley, also tested positive for covid-19 and is being treated at a Memphis hospital, Marion police detective Paul Turney said. An assistant police chief and several officers have also tested positive for the virus Turney said.

"Our chief is sick right now, and we're just hoping for the best and want him to get better," Turney said.

Wheeless is also Marion's fire chief, meaning the city has had its top police and fire officials hospitalized with covid-19. Despite that, Wheeless said he doesn't think his or Kelley's absence will negatively affect normal operations of the city's emergency services.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

While the department is down several officers, Turney said it has not needed to call on sheriff's deputies to assist with policing the city, he said.

"Right now, we're trying to maintain the services of the police department through covid, but with precautions, of course," Turney said.

For Wheeless, 61, the experience with coronavirus was a trying one. Originally thinking he had the flu, Wheeless woke up on Nov. 14 and said his blood pressure dropped, causing him to pass out, break two ribs and collapse a lung. It was the beginning of a 17-day hospital stint.

After being admitted to a local hospital in the county, Wheeless was transferred to Methodist University Hospital in Memphis where he waited in an emergency room bed for three days awaiting room in the intensive care unit.

One morning, he woke up and was fighting to breathe. He said doctors discussed putting him on a ventilator, but they chose to put him on high flow oxygen.

"That's an eye-opener for anybody when you start having a discussion about that," Wheeless said.

As of Wednesday, there are 253 active cases of covid-19 in Crittenden County, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Wheeless said he is keeping up with the daily statistics each day and hopes people reconsider their plans to gather for Christmas.

"You're always going to have a group because it hasn't really affected them or a family member or somebody to the nature, really doesn't think there is much to the virus," Wheeless said. "But once it actually hits home and you're dealing with a loved one that is either very sick, fighting for their life or just lost their life related to it -- then it's a whole different story."

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