Editor's Note: The following article is a collaborative effort between the Iberia Chamber of Commerce's Positively Iberia and the Daily Iberian. Positively Iberia Program Manager Marti Harrell and the Daily Iberian's Ellen Fucich conducted an interview with Chamber award recipients who showed extraordinary resilience in the COVID crisis. Positively Iberia airs on KANE-AM and FM every Thursday during Teche Matters at 10 a.m. Look for the frequent collaboration between Positively Iberia and the Daily Iberian to continue in August.

2020. An extraordinary year. Not in a good way. With the crisis, the unknown factors of COVID-19 loomed large in everyone’s minds — What is it? Where did it come from? Will I come down with it? How do we effectively treat it? When will it go away? There were the stark reminders of people stricken down, shortages, businesses forced to shutter.

But there were also heroes who arose and fought, researched, lifted 2020 up as their year to help, to accomplish, to comfort, to find the answers to help us heal. The Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce has chosen to honor some local heroes for their contribution to our lives and livelihoods. This past Thursday’s “Positively Iberia” featured interviews with some of the award recipients.

Special award to Dr. Kitakule

Dr. Moses Kitakule will receive special recognition for his contribution to the Iberia Medical Center Covid-19 response. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette New Iberia Research Center will be presented with the Business Impact Award for its critical and universal contribution to the development of an effective vaccine against the virus. The Small Business Impact Award will be presented to Southern Sass Boutique, a local retail shop excelling during COVID.

Dr. Moses Kitakule (Dr. Moses to his patients) is a pulmonologist, critical care specialist and Iberia Medical Center’s COVID-19 Medical Director. Originally, IMC CEO Dionne Viator nominated Dr. Moses for the Outstanding Civic Service Award, but after reviewing the nomination, the Chamber opted to set it aside for special recognition. 

“We nominated Dr. Kitakule not only because of his diverse knowledge and expertise, but also for his ability to pivot with all the conditions and information that seemed to change daily during the crisis,” Viator said. “He was dedicated to ensuring that the team was trained in the latest protocols and ready to provide the best care for our patients. Most of all, because of his great compassion for the patients and their families. He helped the patients, their families and our staff overcome their fearfulness. He was a good steady hand and a wise man. We call him our 4-star general.”

Kitakule was inspired during the crisis by his drive to provide good care for critically ill patients, who understandably were scared and frustrated. “I also called upon my Christianity. I believe to do unto others is the greatest human motivation. The greatest protocols must be accompanied by love and compassion,” he said.

Kitakule found that the local environment surrounding the pandemic response was in some ways more preferable to larger cities. “In Iberia Parish there is less bureaucracy than in bigger metro areas,” he said. “We had less red tape to get through to implement treatment. Plus we act as family here, both as staff and as patients.”

His involvement with the Mayo Clinic trials of monoclonal plasma infusion brought an important aspect early in the crisis. “It gave us hope, when we were still learning about the virus and its effects,” he said. “As we went along, we made more discoveries about the effectiveness of the therapy. For instance, the more antibodies in the plasma, the better the outcomes. But this was the first glimmer of hope for critical COVID patients.”

With the long hours he puts in and the important work he does, Kitakule does find some time to decompress. “I enjoy music, like country singer Don Williams. Many times on the way to work, I listen to ‘Lord, I Hope this Day is Good,’ and it keeps my spirits up,” he said. “I also like comedy. Reba is a favorite.”

He also has some words of caution concerning the COVID situation currently in Iberia Parish. “Cases here have doubled recently. This can be traced to the Delta variant,” he said. “The good news is that we are not seeing as many seniors as in the beginning. Most have been vaccinated. There are more young and middle-aged patients, the majority of whom are not vaccinated.” His advice: get vaccinated. So-called breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals are milder and infrequent, with fewer patients requiring intensive care or ventilators, even with the more virulent Delta strain.

Business Impact Award to New Iberia Research Center

The University of Louisiana New Iberia Research Center has been instrumental in the fight against COVID-19. Dr. Francois Villinger, center director, talked with us Thursday. The center helped with the rapid introduction of the Pfizer vaccine by conducting tests with primates at the center. “Our work is the last step before human clinical trials, so it was very important,” Villinger said. “We are a vital component in determining if the vaccine is safe, what side effects it may have and how generally effective it would be against the virus.”

This project was easily the most urgent taken on by the center, however other testing involving HIV and other infectious diseases is just as important. 

The center houses 9,200 primates, up from 3,000 five years ago. With the pandemic, the work at the Center has expanded, with more staff hired. Personal protection equipment is routinely used at the Center, so increased protocols during the pandemic had little effect. “Because of the expansion both before and now during the COVID crisis, we will continue to see more research being done here,” Villinger said.

“After COVID, we will not run out of work,” he said, citing several new projects in the wings. 

When the Center was notified that they were to be honored as the Business Impact Award recipient for contributing to Iberia Parish’s resiliency, an NIRC team member reminded the Chamber that because of this work, the world is now more resilient in its fight against the pandemic.

The Small Business Impact Award to Southern Sass Boutique

Mother and daughter team Tammy White and Breigh White Breaux own Southern Sass Boutique, which originally was meant to be a brick and mortar trendy apparel shop. With the pandemic, they quickly pivoted to becoming an online source of gifts including local delivery as well as subscription boxes.

“Breigh focused attention on our monthly subscription boxes. We personalize each box based on the requests and needs of our customers. We also realized that several customers fell in the at risk category and venturing out was almost impossible for them. We spent hours disinfecting the boutique and offered after hours or by appointment shopping,” Tammy White said. 

“What we originally felt would be a loss for our business has been the complete opposite. While we did have growth in our sales, more importantly our Southern Sass family has expanded now to include those customers that let us into their lives and celebrations, which in turn let us have a little normalcy during a not-so-normal time in our country. God richly blessed us,” White said.

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