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Editorial: A year ago, we were naive about the virus

Editorial: A year ago, we were naive about the virus

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Va. Gov. Ralph Northam speaks a press conference in Richmond, Va. on Monday, March 23, 2020. The governor said Monday he was closing Virginia schools for the rest of the school year. (Dean Hoffmeyer/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

We were naïve.

One year ago today, the newly declared pandemic started hitting us. On March 12, 2020, the NCAA shocked the sports world by cancelling its remaining winter and spring sports — including the lucrative March Madness tournament. On that same date, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency. At that date, Virginia had 17 presumptive cases of COVID-19, nearly double what it had the day before, which seemed a shocking increase at the time. Later accounting would show that on March 12, we really had 101 cases, which would have freaked us out even more had we known.

But we were naïve — both naïve as a society and we were personally naïve as commentators on that society. Then again since none of us had lived through anything like this before, how could we have known what lay ahead?

In early April 2020, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projected that virus counts would peak in April and May and that seemed such an unreasonably long time off. President Donald Trump talked of packing churches for Easter, although the models showed most states wouldn’t peak until well after that. Virginia was shown as one of the latest-peaking states — May 28 before Northam issued his stay-at-home order; May 20 after he did. That model proved right on the nose. Virginia peaked on May 20 with 1,184 cases. What we didn’t know is that we’d keep peaking until we finally hit 5,538 cases record on Jan. 7, a figure that seemed unfathomable a year ago this time.

Northam’s original stay-at-home order ran through June 10, which some thought excessive at the time, but which was then thought to be sufficient to break the back of the contagion. The IHME model showed the virus should run its course by mid-July. At that time July 16 was projected as the last date on which case a Virginian would die from the virus. That model estimated that 3,152 would die, which seemed a ghastly toll. What we didn’t know is that the virus wouldn’t go away — all those people who insisted on big Memorial Day parties or their annual trip to Myrtle Beach made sure of that. As of Thursday, Virginia has recorded 9,902 deaths due to the virus — and, of course, the national toll is at 542,274 and climbing. The virus has claimed more than World War II did and in far less time.

We were naïve to think the virus could be beaten that easily. When the Virginia High School League canceled spring sports, we still entertained hopes that those games could be staged in the summer. When high schools canceled proms, we still entertained hopes those rites of passage could be held in late June or early July. They never happened. A whole spring and summer of events never happened. So did a whole fall and winter. Now we’re approaching another spring and we’re still not sure when things will be back to something we’ll recognize as “normal.”

Last May, we wrote about how Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had decreed “no large gatherings” in her state through September, which put into peril the highly anticipated college football game between Ohio State and Oregon. We wrote then, slack-jawed, that it might have to be played in an empty stadium. What we didn’t know is that the game wouldn’t be played at all — and that empty stadiums would become the norm for games that did get played. We didn’t foresee last year this time that some sports simply wouldn’t be played at all. There was no fall high school football for Virginia’s public schools. Even later in the year, when the VHSL announced a revised schedule for sports seasons, we didn’t foresee that many schools wouldn’t even wind up playing basketball or other winter sports. Even spring football is proving problematic for some schools.

We were naïve in lots of other ways. Initially, the virus hit New York City the hardest and some speculated that it would never become a big deal in the South because warm weather would kill the virus. Florida proved that very wrong. In Virginia, the virus was initially the worst in urban areas — particularly Northern Virginia and Richmond — which led many of us to think that rural, Western Virginia would be able to stand apart. We emphatically made the case that different rules should apply to different parts of the state. Why should we be saddled with onerous restrictions when we had some localities that didn’t have any virus cases at all? Bath, Bland and Dickenson were the final holdouts. Once the virus arrived, though, we didn’t handle it very well — and that’s on us. Instead, rural Virginia came to have the highest infection rates in the state — rates that were actually some of the highest in the world (and still are). The locality with the highest infection rate in the state is Galax, which as of Thursday stood at 15,615 per 100,000. By contrast, the statewide rate is 6,905 and the national rate is 8,724. In Roanoke, it’s 7,718, so between the two.

We were naïve to think that our rural character would somehow set us apart, and we were also naïve to think that people would listen to medical advice. In some of those rural counties — principally Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell counties — we’ve seen crowds demanding those localities go on the record opposing the state’s restrictions. That shouldn’t have surprised us — in the 1918 flu pandemic there were people who agitated against masks and other rules designed to slow the spread of the virus — but we still expected better behavior. We were naïve to think that simply because we’re supposedly the world’s most advanced nation that we’d deal with the virus better than anyplace else. We didn’t. We’ve handled it worse. That national rate we cited above? It’s one of the highest in the world. By contrast, Canada — a country next door and very much like us — has a rate of only 2,367 per 100,000. Trump was obviously naïve to think by downplaying the virus that it would help him politically; his pollster’s post-election analysis found that Trump’s handling of the virus was the main reason why many voters flipped to Joe Biden. Had he taken the virus more seriously, he might well have been reelected, according to what his own pollsters found. Of course, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci was naïve, too, because he initially said we wouldn’t need masks.

We all underestimated the severity of this virus and the havoc that it would wreak on society. So now, a year later, as we line up for vaccines, how certain are we that we’re correctly estimating what the future will look like?

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