This is the inevitable sequel to the column I wrote last month after the South Dakota Department of Health (DOH) stopped holding regular press conferences, in whatever time intervals, to discuss all things COVID-19 with the media.
This week, the DOH has discontinued doing daily updates on its COVID-19 online dashboard, shifting instead to weekly summaries. This reflects the overall progress that has been made against the coronavirus through these many, many months.
For me, this will feel odd for a while. Going to that online portal every day to write a COVID update became so much a part of my work routine that it’s now almost hard to remember a time when it wasn’t there. This ritual awaited me every day when I came to the office, and I even used to do it at home on the weekends until those updates were halted a few months ago. Now, I face this weird vacuum. When I came into the office on Tuesday, it seemed like something was wrong. I still had plenty to do, mind you, but it simply felt like there was something ELSE I needed to do first.
I see the end of the daily COVID updates as both a good thing and a bad thing.
It’s good because it obviously shows great progress. When the pandemic started in March 2020, this became a very worrisome world, with COVID exploding everywhere and no effective way to deal with it. I dreaded looking at the numbers each day and seeing the upticks. These statistical updates commenced a journey through a dark, uncertain frontier.
The daily reports, coupled with me typing in the numbers for area counties onto a spreadsheet, eventually did something to me that I should have anticipated: It numbed me (at least to an extent) to what was going on. The rising numbers had less of an impact on me as the months and the uncertainty dragged on, at least for a while …
But then came the autumn, and that daily train of numbers gradually began taking on a harsh urgency as South Dakota’s cases started to surge. Infections mounted, then deaths spiked. This was the worst-case scenario that we had seen elsewhere now coming right at us. It became a grimly compelling spectacle as it unfolded day by day and death by death. It became an almost religious experience, in a way, as many days, I would see the new numbers and invoke the name of some religious figure in startled exclamation. Every morning, I wondered if it could get worse; for so many weeks, it did.
Our surge began subsiding just as the vaccines arrived, and with them came new, much more encouraging numbers in those daily updates. Things improved through the winter before sinking briefly in the spring, then it brightened again. Hope was everywhere, especially in those numbers.
And now, the need for daily updates has been deemed no longer necessary, and in that sense, I’m happy and relieved.
But — and here’s the part that bothers me — I’ve also come to realize that some of these changes in reporting are not necessarily driven solely by the state of the pandemic. As I noted in my previous column about the media briefings, the DOH enacted one of its reductions in the frequency of the briefings last fall just as the surge was beginning to pick up steam here. Now, the state has decided to reduce the daily briefings to just once a week at a seemingly quiet moment but just as the worries about the delta variant are growing. This also comes as vaccinations have slowed and we are nowhere near herd immunity. Things are better, but all is not completely well.
(South Dakota is offering at least weekly updates on the DOH’s online site, which is much different from Nebraska, which shut down its online portal altogether on July 1 with the end of the state COVID emergency. It’s still possible to get reports from regional health districts, but there is no centralized information from the state, or even a portal acknowledging a pandemic ever existed. An Associated Press story this week about rising case numbers in Nebraska cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not local sources.)
As for me, the daily ritual is over, for better and for worse, and while I am glad of it, I’m also not totally comforted by it. As I said previously, we can see the end of the pandemic in the not-too-far-off distance, but we can’t just glide toward the finish line. We still have work to do, whether we’re reminded of it with daily measures or not.
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