On March 20, 2020 — exactly one year ago — the first COVID-19 case was reported in Kanawha County. The first case in West Virginia had been reported three days earlier.
So much has happened in the ensuing 365 days that it’s almost incomprehensible. Early hopes that this would alter normal life for a matter of weeks or months seem sorrowfully naive in hindsight. The coronavirus didn’t reach its peak of death and illness in West Virginia until December 2020 and the first part of the new year.
Although new cases and death rates have slowed considerably since then, thanks in large part to vaccines, West Virginia reached a grim milestone as the death toll for the state hit 2,600 on Friday.
Gov. Jim Justice and public health officials also confirmed that deaths haven’t been reported or recorded accurately in some instances, leaving West Virginians to question the true number of lives COVID-19 has claimed here, and whether due diligence is being earnestly applied.
It’s a small number, perhaps, considering COVID-19 has killed nearly 540,000 people across the country. But, when looking at West Virginia’s low population, the death rate is fairly similar to surrounding states. In any event, it doesn’t change the fact that 2,600 people are gone forever — 2,600 grandparents or parents, and, in rarer cases, younger sons and daughters.
As it has been with most of the rest of the country, there have been moments of courage and sacrifice — whether it be a health care worker battling through grueling conditions and long hours to help patients, emergency responders and National Guard members helping with testing and vaccine distribution or the simple act of a person putting on a mask and practicing social distancing.
There have also been moments of confusion, anger, hostility, baffling decisions and unnecessary political obfuscation.
Then there’s the collateral damage. The businesses shuttered or employees laid off because of economic stagnation. The lack of social activities and limitations on things like sports, all an unfortunate side effect of a virus fought by limiting crowds, gatherings and travel. At the beginning, along with masks and sanitation, relative isolation was the only weapon that worked against a virus that spread so easily.
Those who ignored public health guidelines might not have been affected directly, but they played a role in escalating the situation. In West Virginia, spikes in cases were seen after Memorial Day and Independence Day. The largest, sharpest increase occurred after Thanksgiving, as cases and deaths shot up and didn’t start coming down until nearly two months later, once vaccines were making their way through the community.
On March 20, 2020, there were things about this pandemic no one could have possibly known or guessed. There were things some knew but didn’t share because they thought that would somehow be advantageous. In the ensuing year, there have been those who followed all the rules, and still became sick or lost their life. There have been those who changed nothing and haven’t experienced any consequences.
But, by and large, West Virginians have stepped up and made sacrifices to protect themselves and each other.
Things like Friday’s death toll, the continuing confusion of navigating the vaccination system and news of variant strains show there are still more questions to be answered, and more to endure before this is over. But there also is hope, as West Virginians continue to get vaccinated while still following public health guidelines.
When looking back on March 20, 2021, from the same date next year, hopefully those 365 days will be viewed as a time of triumph, unity and precaution over underestimation. Likewise, hopefully it will be viewed as a time when West Virginians showed respect for one another’s well-being in banishing this public health crisis.