empty piazza navona
The emptiness of the Piazza Navona, typically one of the busiest and crowded squares in Rome, symbolizes the despair of Italy and the toll COVID-19 has taken on the Bel Paese — the beautiful country. Photo by Domenico Lomuto

COVID-19 Chronicles: Stories of the Virus Among Us

No one will deny that these recent days and weeks have had more the feel of a book from the Old Testament than the modern age.

The pestilence that is COVID-19 is equal parts virus, disease and fear. In its path, the pathogen has left a trail of sickness, death and economic plight.

From plague and pestilence, good Lord, deliver us.

“It’s only now that I realize that the situation is not ‘normal,’” said reiner Domenico Lomuto from a locked down Italy three weeks ago. “In the street only the army, and a few people with masks and gloves. The images of China on social media looked like movies, but they are real.”

Quarter Horse News reached out to a cross-section of the Western performance horse industry to see their perspective of our modern-day story of Exodus.

“ETERNAL BUT ABANDONED!

Domenico Lomuto was en route home from Texas on business when the pandemic swarmed his native Italy.

“I had my return ticket from Dallas to Rome, and I flew back with my ideas still confused, only my wife’s words — but she is always alarmist — so I didn’t give her too much weight.

“I was wrong.”

The symptoms there mimicked what become all too familiar here.

Schools, restaurants, bars and churches, including St. Peter’s Basilica, are all closed.

Except for grocery stores and pharmacies, everything is closed. People are encouraged, and in some cases mandated, to work from home.

“When the emergency started in Italy, I didn’t realize the situation well” from Texas, he said. “I am not an apprehensive person and at the beginning of this story, I was among those who took it very lightly. After all, it’s a simple flu, right?

“No, that is not true.”

The streets of Italy are empty and the hospitals’ resources are strained, particularly in Lombardy, the hardest-hit region in the north that includes Milan.

As of this writing — the data changes by the minute — the death toll sat at 17,127, more than anywhere else in the world. The total number of infections counted 135,568, according to numbers compiled by WorldOMeter.

Is it true that, like much of the world, the victims are mostly elderly?

“But do they count less than us?” Lomuto said. “I lost my father exactly one year ago, and I wonder if he was still here, with a respiratory deficit, what would he have risked?”

Lomuto owns 2015 National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Futurity Level 4 Open Reserve Champion Inferno SixtySix, a notable freshman sire in the industry. 

When he landed in Rome, Lomuto was immediately confronted by a police checkpoint.

To leave home since March 9, one needed an official notice of motivations. He jumped in his car and headed home, which is in the city center, just a few steps from the Vatican, he said.

“The heart of the Eternal City. Eternal but abandoned!”

His experience at the airport was not dissimilar to his stopover in Frankfurt, Germany. There, he was detained for 40 minutes by customs agents who wanted to know why he had three surgical masks he purchased at a CVS. In Italy, those are nowhere to be found.

“Stopped for smuggling!” Lomuto said. “Yes ‘smuggling’ because now the masks and the antibacterial gels are essential. You can’t take them out from one country to another. It’s like trafficking drugs! Thank goodness the German police understood that they were for personal use.”

Like in America, the virus and its disease have wreaked havoc in the Western performance horse industry in Europe. The NRHA European Futurity and the European Derby were postponed, as were all other regional activities. The National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) of Italy Challenge Futurity, set for late March, was canceled.

“The hope is that within the next month things will improve and we can all start again soon,” Lomuto said. “The objective now is [running] the Italian Maturity that we are organizing with IRHA [the Italian Reining Horse Association] at the end of June.”

Models suggest Italy hit its COVID-19 peak last week. It couldn’t have come soon enough.

“The only method we have to fight this ugly beast is through sacrifice. Stay at home, do not underestimate and avoid spreading. It is difficult, but we must do it, for everyone and for ourselves.”

AMERICA’S EPICENTER IS A CUTTER’S CONCERN

Jeff and Steph Lapp. Photo courtesy of Steph Lapp

New York City has been the epicenter of the U.S. fight against COVID-19.

As of April 9, 87,028 cases have been diagnosed in the city with more than 14,000 hospitalized. More than 4,260 have died. Statewide, the total numbers of infected were approaching 160,000, according to state officials.

Four hours north in Corning, between the city and Buffalo, Austin Shepard’s sister and brother-in-law — Stephanie and Jeff Lapp — are living in hell, victims of COVID-19.

“She seems to be improving,” said Shepard, a cutter with more than $8.4 million in lifetime earnings, according to Equi-Stat. “It’s not fun. She has definitely been really, really sick.”

Stephanie, a program coordinator for a non-profit, seems to be on the tail end of the disease’s typical two-week stay. Her husband, however, is only about a week in, Shepard said, and his symptoms have revealed COVID-19’s reality.

Jeff, a quality control manager for a glass bottle inspection company, was forced to go to the emergency room on Saturday because his symptoms became so grave. Luckily, he did not have to be admitted and was able to return home.

Steph was already working from home when her wrestling match began on the evening of March 24. She described her initial symptoms of a “hard” cough that sprung up out of the blue. She woke up the next morning with the persistent cough and feeling run down and tired. By Thursday, two days later, she had a low-grade fever around 100 and the “worst headache I have ever had in my life.”

“It felt like someone was beating my head with a hammer,” she said.

While at her doctor’s office for testing, she said almost passed out because her blood pressure crashed. She had a high fever and her pulse was very elevated. 

Steph said she spent the next nine days in bed essentially with “intense headaches, non-stop fever, aches, and coughing.”

“I am now on day 15 and starting to feel better,” she wrote to the Quarter Horse News on April 9. “I’m still coughing and have shortness of breath and don’t have a ton of energy, but feel that I’m on the upswing.”

Her husband’s experience has been more severe. Jeff has had to make two visits to the emergency room, the most recent on April 8 for low oxygen levels. Doctors diagnosed bacterial pneumonia. He is no on “heavy duty antibiotics.”

“He has endured non-stop fevers that have been as high as 103.8, which has been really scary. I had to take him to the hospital and drop him off and it was a very helpless feeling.”

April 9 was the first day since he began showing symptoms that his temperature lowered to below 100. 

“I’ve had the standard flu a few times in my life and that has never touched this,” Steph said.

In addition to the coughing, fever, lethargy, prescriptions, Gatorade and extra strength NyQuil, the disease also came with a court-ordered quarantine. Yes, court papers and all, mandating that the couple not leave their property or to come in contact with anyone.

“We get a visit from the Steuben County Sheriff’s department every day,” Step said. “We talk to them through a second story window and they document our symptoms and report them to the heath department. They also check to make sure that we don’t need any food or supplies. 

“They have been very kind and seem to care about our well-being. They also want to make sure we are staying put, I think, which of course we are.”

Everything is different about COVID-19.

SANITIZER: CHECK. TOILET PAPER: CHECK.

‘Once people can get out, they’re going to get out’

Much has been speculated about how COVID-19 and the measures taken to combat it will change the landscape of Americana and a culture of go, go, go.

Lisa Sykes, a member of the New York Reined Cow Horse Association (NYRCHA), believes she knows the answer.

“Once people can get out, they’re going to get out,” said Sykes, vice president of the organization, which was named the 2019 National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) Affiliate of the Year. 

That’s one reason the NYRCHA hasn’t “jumped the gun” on canceling upcoming events, though she knows those in April and May have a bull’s-eye on them.

Sykes and many others involved with the NYRCHA are upstate, though membership includes those in surrounding states and neighboring Canada.

Her son, however, was in Manhattan when the outbreak began.

Twenty-seven-year-old Wadsworth Sykes, who works in finance, and his girlfriend, Samantha, who works for a college, rented a car and split town as soon as they could for his parents’ house in Canandaigua, about five hours north of the city.

“He actually came into a nice situation because there was hand sanitizer there and toilet paper,” Lisa Sykes joked.

They’ll be staying at the house for the foreseeable future. When New York City will relax its lockdown is not on any itinerary yet.

“Waddy” and Samantha self-quarantined for 14 days, as recommended by medical professionals and health officials. Neither exhibited any symptoms, Sykes said.

JAY McLAUGHLIN SAYING “YES” TO QUARANTINE

It stands to reason that the biggest city in the United States would be the hardest hit by this virus.

But, Donley County in a remote part of the Texas Panhandle?

Well, it is so. With seven cases, according to the county judge, among its roughly 3,300 in population, it equates to the most per capita in Texas, as of the weekend.

“The risk is not as great here as it is in a densely populated area, but it should not minimize the risk of each of us,” said County Judge John Howard, who is also a medical doctor, during what was described as the first live news conference in the county’s history on Saturday night.

“It is in our community. We all have to assume that whenever we go out, everything you touch should be considered to be contaminated. You need to wash your hands frequently. If you knew a tool you were about to pick up was covered in anthrax, what would you do? Wash your hands.”

Jay McLaughlin, who earlier this year picked up his 14thWorld championship at the NRCHA Celebration of Champions, lives in Clarendon, the county’s seat, which is located about 60 miles southeast of Amarillo. He is actually about 20 miles from the town square.

McLaughlin and his family are living in compliance with national and now his county’s local guidelines of social distancing.

“I’ve been staying on the ranch,” McLaughlin said. “I go to the veterinarian on breeding days and I drive back. That’s all I do. And work horses, of course.”

Of course.

After the Celebration of Champions, McLaughlin traveled to the Arizona Sun Circuit followed by a cutting event in Amarillo. He has been on the ranch since early March. 

“We have not been leaving,” he said.

Why and how a virus that originated in Wuhan, China, found its way off the beaten track in the Texas Panhandle is anybody’s guess.

“It’s just like asking why horses get strangles. You just don’t know,” said McLaughlin, who is using the time off the road to enjoy time with his family.

No one is tiring of anybody just yet in the closer-than-usual quarters. McLaughlin reminded there’s 6,000 acres on the ranch.

“My wife stays on the other side of it,” he joked. “That’s a lot of distance; you can cool off by the time you get there.”

Kyle Manion with son Layne and wife Havey. Photo by Megan Parks Photography

SOCIAL DISTANCING: A WAY OF LIFE FOR BREEDER

Kyle Manion’s wife, Havey, and 4-year-old son, Layne, headed to see his in-laws in Oklahoma for a couple of days two weeks ago.

“They never came home,” Manion said. They are “out in the middle of nowhere and there weren’t any cases around them, and nobody going into to town. So, they’re up there and I’m here.”

“Here” is Manion Ranch in Pilot Point, Texas, home of 1999 chestnut stallion Smooth As A Cat (High Brow Cat x Shes Pretty Smooth x Wheeling Peppy).

The social distancing guidelines laid out to combat the spread of the virus are a way of life for the Manions.

The family has been strict in its adherence of social distancing recommendations because Layne has a compromised immune system as a result of issues that came along with being born three months premature. He arrived at 1 pound, 11 ounces, Manion said.

The family spent the first seven months of Layne’s life at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth for growth and healing from nine surgeries. Necrotizing enterocolitis cost Layne two-thirds of his small intestine, a critical piece of human anatomy where many immune responses occur.

Layne also has chronic lung disease, said his father, who added: “To see Layne, you wouldn’t think anything is wrong. He’s a normal-looking, happy, healthy beautiful baby.”

“We’re really lucky he’s still with us,” Manion said. “We’ve taken a lot of precautions day in and day out. Fast forward to right now, and we’re having to be extra cautious.

“But some of the things that doctors are saying [regarding social distancing and washing hands], we’re lucky that we’re a little more practiced at it. We’ve been doing a lot of things that other people are trying to learn right now, I guess.”

It was soon apparent after the novel coronavirus made landfall that business at Manion Ranch would also not be the same for the time being.

Manion sought out the opinion of several other breeders and how COVID was affecting the decisions they were making regardless of stud they were breeding to and their thoughts on the marketplace.

Smooth As A Cat, who has an Equi-Stat sire record of more than $29 million with 1,200-plus performers, mostly in cutting. The almost unanimous feeling among them, Manion said, was to “hit the brakes right now because we don’t know what the long-lasting effects of this will be.”

Faced with a crisis on top of a crisis, the brain trust at Manion Ranch found a solution that was good for both business and the industry. The Manions temporarily cut Smooth As A Cat’s breeding fee by 66% for the rest of this season. Prospective breeders can also get in on that price for next season if they purchase the breeding by the end of this season. There is also no limit per breeder.

Within 15 minutes of beginning a social media campaign for the offer, Manion Ranch booked four breedings.

In three days, it booked 100.

“We thought maybe we could give back to the industry that has been so good to us,” Manion said. “We said, ‘You know what, we need to do this.’ We think it’s important. We think it’s a good gesture.

“It’s really humbling and very special to hear from people who maybe didn’t have the chance to breed to him before. The response has been unreal, unbelievable.”

The Manions also created a clever way for Havey, who manages the business’ social media platforms, to promote the offer: A picture of Smooth As A Cat wearing a medical facemask by way of photo-editing software.

“We put our heads together on that,” Manion said. “We’re trying to maintain a sense of humor while understanding the gravity of the situation. 

“We definitely understand the seriousness of the virus.”

EMILY MEYER: ON THE FRONT LINES

Cutter Dylan Meyer lives near one of COVID-19’s initial frontlines, San Francisco. His wife, Emily, was prepared to be right in the middle of it.

Last week, Emily was on a stretch of 12 consecutive days of 12-hour days as a respiratory therapist at the University of California Davis, about an hour north and east of San Francisco.

In the War on Coronavirus, that is the frontline.

“They’ve only had a limited number of patients,” Meyer said last week, “but they’re preparing for what they’re expecting in the next two weeks.”

Respiratory therapists, or “RTs” as they’re called in hospital wards, “do a ton,” said one nurse. “They don’t get enough credit.”

Simply put, patients with COVID-19, which focuses on one’s lungs, would die without RTs.

Therapists manage life-support or life-giving ventilators, as well as other equipment related to cardiopulmonary issues. They analyze chest X-rays in addition to blood samples to gauge oxygen and other gases.

Emily and Dylan Meyer. Photo by Michelle DeWitt/Along4theridephotos

“If this thing gets bigger, it’s one of those things in their hands to deal with,” Meyer said.

While working long stretches, Emily is staying with her mother, a nurse at a local hospital.

“She’s being extra careful,” Meyer said. “Her biggest concern is when she comes back to the ranch, she’s not bringing anything back with her.”

The couple is bracing for a residual economic crunch that hasn’t fully manifested at the ranch, though Meyer vowed to do “whatever we need to do to make a living on horseback.”

“We’ve been through tough times before,” Meyer said, “and we’ll ride this one out, too.”