Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on COVID-19’s current impact in Southwest Virginia. As in many rural parts of the country, the area has lower vaccination rates than more urban parts of the state. The delta variant has produced case rates double those in the state as a whole, with even more disproportionate death rates. News Channel spent a day in Wise County — one of nine Southwest Virginia counties in our market area, with a total population of just 289,000. We spoke to half a dozen people — from an ICU nurse to a small business owner, an elected attorney to a respiratory therapist. We gained a firsthand look at life in an area where, as one local business owner whose mother died of COVID last year, put it, “a lot of people … will wear a gun in Walmart to protect you from a robber but they won’t get a vaccine to protect the community from the virus.”

BIG STONE GAP, Va. (WJHL) — If you walk into Bobby Bloomer’s bicycle shop on Wood Avenue in this small Appalachian town, you’re not likely to learn about how COVID-19 has impacted his life.

Bobby Bloomer

The entrepreneur and town council member is soft-spoken, treating anyone who walks in the door equally — masked or not even as COVID-19’s delta variant wreaks disproportionate havoc on Wise County and Southwest Virginia.

“I like to eat out, so I wear a mask when I walk in most of the time, and I sit down and take it off,” Bloomer said of his own approach to the current high case rates.

“But I’ve been in some places that, just too many people, I just didn’t feel comfortable, you know, so I’ve left a few times.”

Talk a little further with Bloomer and his reasons for discomfort become clear. No left-winger — there aren’t many in the region — Bloomer said he’s got personal reasons for his belief in the prevailing science about COVID.

“A lot of sickness and death in the area, and in my family,” Bloomer told News Channel 11. “My mother died of COVID. I’ve had a nephew who was a day from dying and was lucky.”

Sometimes, Bloomer walks just down the street and spends a few minutes in Litton’s Uptown Bridal and Formalwear, a shop his mother, Carolyn Litton Bloomer, operated from 1991 right up to the point she entered the hospital last November.

A photo of the late Carolyn Bloomer still graces the front window of Litton’s Uptown, her dress shop on Wood Avenue in Big Stone Gap, Va. Bloomer died of COVID-19 complications on Christmas Eve 2020.

An iconic location that drew prom and wedding dress seekers from across the region, Litton’s is now open by appointment only. Bloomer’s sister operates it as she’s able.

Witnessing his mother’s long struggle with COVID, one that included some ups and downs before she died Christmas Eve at Kingsport, Tenn.’s Holston Valley Medical Center, was heart-wrenching, Bloomer said.

“It’s a sad situation. We weren’t able to visit her from the time she went into the hospital until the day they were going to take her off life support.

“You don’t want to watch a family member smother to death, and it’s really sad.”

Carolyn Bloomer was 76. Prior to running the store, she had been a substitute teacher, librarian, pool manager and aerobics instructor while she raised Bloomer and his sisters, Felicia Dalton and Marisha Roberts.

Missing a mentor

Several miles up U.S. Highway 23 in Wise, Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp was remembering his early days in the law. As a young lawyer, he wound up forging a special connection with then-Virginia Delegate Ben Chafin.

Chafin shared Slemp’s interest in trying to prevent elder abuse, and Slemp said he bounced many ideas off him to the point that Chafin became an important mentor in his life.

Virginia State Senator Ben Chafin, shown here at right with a constituent on Chafin’s farm, was one of Chuck Slemp’s mentors. Chafin died of COVID-19 on New Year’s Day. (Photo: Sophie Chafin Vance)

“That commitment to that particular issue is something we kind of bonded over,” Slemp said.

He remembers walking in parades and attending festivals together promoting the cause, and traveling to the state capitol in Richmond where he would see Chafin “push these bills I was trying to advocate for.”

“I was this young guy from Southwest Virginia, trying to get started in my career, and here was this seasoned legislator treating me with respect and showing an interest,” Slemp said.

Chafin was older, but he wasn’t that much older. A state senator by the time he contracted COVID, Chafin was just 60 when he lost his battle to the virus on New Year’s Day.

Chuck Slemp

“We look at folks like my mentor who meant … so much to me personally, and politically,” Slemp said. “And then his life is cut short by this awful disease. It’s sad to see that happen, and it’s sad to see family members die prematurely.”

Slemp said that’s happened far more than it’s needed to in his community.

“It’s unfortunate because some of those deaths could have been prevented,” he said.

“I think if we look around our community, we all probably have somebody in our families that we love, that we care deeply, about who’ve passed or been very, very, very sick because of this disease.”

Respecting others’ opinions – despite the frustration

Bloomer said he hasn’t let the vocal opinions of some COVID and vaccine-skeptical friends and family members strain his relationships with them.

“I try not to get into that too much,” he said. “I’ll express my opinion but I’ll leave it at that usually. I try not to argue with anybody about it.”

But he admits to frustration over the low vaccination rates and cavalier attitude some people have about the virus.

“Protect your grandparents, protect your kids, the Delta variant is affecting kids, you know, just, it’s not a situation that anybody wants to go through,” Bloomer said.

“Being young doesn’t assure that you’re not going to get it and the long-term effects we don’t know yet,” Bloomer said. “I mean, people 10 years from now are still going to be struggling from this. I know people that have long-haul symptoms that are struggling every day that wish they had been vaccinated.”

Slemp said like many of his fellow Southwest Virginians, he’s a staunch advocate of personal freedoms. But he’s seen the havoc wrought by a virus that has killed Wise Countians at the eighth-highest population-adjusted rate of the commonwealth’s 95 counties.

That rate of 326 per 100,000 population as of Wednesday was more than double Virginia’s rate of 152. Nearby Smyth and Scott counties are also in the top 10.

“That’s a sad reality, we hope and pray that as this pandemic continues and hopefully ends soon, that we can rally together and do what’s right for each other and our neighbors, our family members, our community,” Slemp said.