Next Monday marks two life-altering anniversaries for me, one of them being the second anniversary of my mother’s passing.
But today, I want to discuss the other one.
On March 29 of last year, the Press & Dakotan posted online the first daily coronavirus story labeled “COVID Update.” This roundup of the latest coronavirus statistics in this area has become a staple of our pandemic coverage, and it’s also provided me with a long statistical road map for my journey through this surreal time.
The P&D was already posting stories every day — often, multiple times a day — as we dealt with the continually breaking events of the pandemic. On March 29, 2020, Yankton County recorded three new cases after reporting its first positive test the day before, and Clay County saw its first two infections, so I posted something online with the “COVID Update” tag. (That label doesn’t always make it into the print edition, but the story does in some form.) I didn’t think then that this was the start of an exercise we would do practically every day since, first on our website and then also in print. It was simply a reaction to the moment on a day in which I was otherwise dwelling on the other anniversary. In an odd, ironic way, the update was a kind of escape.
Calling these daily stories a “COVID Update” had a practical motive behind it besides giving it a recognizable label. Neither South Dakota nor Nebraska archive their daily COVID information, so by giving it the same label each day, we could more easily run a search on it and pull up previous information. (We have since developed a spreadsheet that helps us keep a log of the voluminous statistical information — a running numerical timeline of the plague.)
For me, these updates have turned into far more than daily snapshots. They have kept me more closely attuned to what’s gone on with COVID-19 throughout our area and states. Each of the 11 counties in our coverage area has seen its own surges and lulls in positive tests, hospitalizations and even deaths. Frankly, this has turned into a religious experience for me sometimes, as there have been days when I’ve uttered the names of biblical figures in an exclamatory context while seeing some particularly stark new numbers. Those are not good days.
When all this began a year ago, I dreaded looking at the statewide statistics each day. In particular, scrolling down to the Yankton County numbers made me nervous about what I was about to find. But gradually, day after day after day, the inevitable occurred: I grew mostly numb to the surprises, as everything was reduced to a blur of cold, faceless statistics. Only the occasional sharp rises really registered.
Even so, there have been times of false hope. In particular, I remember Aug. 4 when Yankton County’s active cases got down to just six. After a lost spring and then a summer of canceled activities, I briefly thought that perhaps we were on the verge of having no active cases at all, which felt like an extraordinary prospect.
But shortly thereafter, things went the other direction and then some.
This led to some dark times. In the fall, things went from bad to worse, and then to terrible. November and early December were awful days for South Dakota and Nebraska, and the numbers I was writing about in the daily updates were staggering. We were seeing this translate into obituaries which consumed multiple pages in the print edition. You could see and feel that burden.
But that weight gradually lightened, and lately, the daily COVID updates have, for the most part, become far less heavy. Fewer cases have meant shorter summaries and practically no more religious exclamations. Also, the vaccination numbers now add a hopeful light to the gray statistics. It doesn’t mean we are out of the woods yet, but we are seeing more sunbeams between the trees. There is a general feeling when doing the updates that we may be closer to the end than the beginning.
All this brings me back to the two anniversaries I noted at the top of this piece. A year ago on March 29, I was thinking about my mother’s death 12 months before and how the year since had just zipped by like the blink of an eye — I couldn’t believe that much time had already passed. But this coming Monday, I will probably be looking back on a year that’s been one of the longest of my life — it’s only been ONE year — and I think a lot about the things I’ve written and what we’ve all endured every day.
But it all points to what will someday be the best day of the pandemic, which is the day the updates are no longer needed. It will be a great day indeed when all I’ll have to deal with on a daily basis are the dark, numb memories of all those numbers.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.