Mayor John Hamilton and his wife, Dawn Johnsen. Photo by Richardson Studio


When the coronavirus hit, everyone in Bloomington felt the impact. Students were forced to finish the semester online and parents had to adapt to working from home. Some people became ill. Some were hospitalized. Most tragic of all, some died from the disease. Mayor John Hamilton and his wife, Dawn Johnsen, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, faced all of those scenarios. Yet through it all, Hamilton carried on leading the City government and its response to the pandemic.

When the mayor gave his State of the City address in mid-February, the coronavirus wasn’t part of it. “But when March began, we became aware of the challenges,” he says. As the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and Indiana was put under a stay-at-home order, the City of Bloomington adopted a work-from-home plan for those City employees who could do so. The mayor was one of them.

“My job is different today than it was at the beginning of the year because of COVID,” he says. He and other City officials spend time assessing and addressing risk in the face of the pandemic, on top of regular City business. “A lot of what I do is help make decisions and set priorities.”

During those early weeks, the mayor also had to take a few days to be a parent. “I drove out to get Eric [one of their two sons] when they closed his college in Massachusetts,” he says. “I was super careful and we were quarantining from Dawn when we got back.”

But in early April, Johnsen, 58, became ill, and on April 9 she tested positive for COVID-19. Two days later, her doctor suggested she go to the hospital for a chest X-ray.

“I was sick for nine days [before that] with fevers over 103,” she says. “I was feeling lousy, but I had no real trouble breathing. Now we know the pneumonia can get really bad really fast.” When she went for the X-ray, she didn’t expect to stay in the hospital. “But as soon as they saw COVID pneumonia, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.”

During her 11-day hospital stay, Johnsen says there were times she felt like she was drowning. “I would try to stay relaxed so I could breathe,” she says. “It was hard, but I was determined not to go on a ventilator.”

On April 16, while she was hospitalized, Johnsen’s mother, Carolyn Johnsen died from pneumonia caused by COVID-19. The two did get a few final moments to talk by phone and video.

The Hamilton-Johnsen family was hit hard by the coronavirus. Eric, 21, tested positive, as did Johnsen’s brother, her sister, and sister-in-law, and a cousin, who subsequently died. The mayor had two negative coronavirus tests in April after being exposed to the virus and experiencing flu-like symptoms; he received a positive antibody test in July.

Johnsen says she saw true pandemic heroes during her hospital stay. “They were risking their lives every time they came into my hospital room,” she says. The mayor says their experience is reflective of more than 140,000 other families in this country who have lost loved ones to the virus.

“It’s important that we remember every one of those numbers represents a real family that has gone through a very difficult challenge,” he says.