Halloween last weekend made me think a lot about Halloween last year, when COVID-19 changed most everything about the holiday. So, the City of Yankton offered a fireworks display at Meridian Bridge on Oct. 31. After missing out on the Independence Day and Riverboat Days pyrotechnics, it was a nice, explosive gesture of normality, a needed break from our COVID anxieties as we waited for the arrival of a vaccine, which we were hearing was just weeks away.
But on that crisp All Hallow’s Eve, we were also on the eve of our darkest days of the pandemic.
What followed in November and most of December was a dramatic escalation of misery with the arrival of a fall surge that had already swept across much of the U.S. Cases spiked and COVID-related deaths escalated, with more than 1,000 South Dakotans dying in the final two months of 2020. By late November, the Yankton area was nearly overwhelmed by the coronavirus. It finally began easing in mid-December, just before the first vaccine arrived right before Christmas.
It was a harrowing time. The Press & Dakotan was bowled over with obituaries, just like newspapers everywhere. The daily updates from the South Dakota Department of Health (DOH) carefully chronicled what was unfolding, and each day seemed to deliver a shocking statistic or two. At one point, right after Thanksgiving, I wondered where all this would end. I will never forget that exhausted, anxious feeling.
But then the infection numbers, which began rising in late summer before exploding after Halloween, finally started falling, the vaccine arrived and the protocols for getting shots were established. By New Year’s Day, there was a wary hope in the air that had been missing for a long time …
A year later, things are mostly different — in good ways and in ways I never imagined, especially considering last fall’s surge.
However, this one-year anniversary of that dreadful COVID autumn did not begin auspiciously. On Monday, the day after Halloween, the daily DOH update reported two new COVID-related fatalities for Yankton County, which raised our pandemic death toll to 40. Early in the pandemic, I heard that 40 was a projected number of potential COVID deaths for Yankton County. At the time, that number jarred me, and I prayed that it was an overly high estimation. But that toll crept up on us slowly, gradually, which numbed us to its arrival. It’s still a stark milestone: 40 of us are gone, just as more than 2,200 South Dakotans are gone and more than 750,000 Americans are gone.
Even so, things are mostly different this fall.
Among other things, we are armed now with vaccines, and Yankton County is also doing well with booster shots. And as of this week, children as young as age 5 have access to pediatric vaccinations, which should further bolster our defenses ...
But, of course, that’s just a point of view, a controversial one at that. This is something I never saw coming a year ago.
Vaccinations have become a divisive social and political flashpoint, a battle over a particular sense of freedom. (In fact, vaccines were issues in the past, too, with things like smallpox and polio, but our internet age amplifies the doubts beyond precedented measure.) I’ve been criticized for advocating vaccines in editorials and columns. One person told me via email that I was, in effect, condoning murder by supporting vaccinations (or, more precisely, by not reporting the real “truth” about vaccines that lurks in some online corners). When I told this person that I based my knowledge on what I get from the CDC, the WHO, the DOH, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (back when it acknowledged COVID existed) and local doctors, the reply I received explained, “(Expletive) those groups.” At least the logic was to the point.
But that’s where we stand now. A year after the bleak autumn of 2020 — when it felt like we were in a race against the virus as we waited on a vaccine — many people are recasting reality as a conspiracy and dismissing the science as a threat. And some people still insist the virus itself is fiction.
Of course, the COVID dead can’t reason with these people.
But the rest of us can try; more than that, we can persevere in the face of that resistance.
Just as we now look back on last fall’s grim experience, we will likely look back one day on this pandemic and these debates over vaccines, masking and mandates and wonder how we ever survived it all. Today, we’re winning the COVID fight, even while we are again demonstrating our boundless capacity to be our own worst enemy.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.