March 11, 2020.
The Thurston County health department reports the county’s first case of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
At the time, we all saw it coming — especially as the news grew grimmer in the Nisqually Valley. But the ongoing months of social distancing, mask wearing, and general financial uncertainty? Not so much.
We’d hoped that somehow Washington’s battle with the deadly virus would blessedly pass us by, COVID-19’s microscopically detailed sea-creature globes floating away on a tide of mercy. But, of course, that didn’t happen and we knew we were in for a wild ride, both as reporters and susceptible human beings.
Like many in our community and those reading the news headlines, we’d feared for the worst.
Three of us had stood in assistant editor Eric Rosane’s office one day in late February when our boss Eric Schwartz uttered the prescient words we knew to be true: “Man, when the first case shows up in Thurston County, the shit’s gonna hit the fan.”
And it did. From that day forward almost every story we wrote would be touched by the virus, affected either directly or indirectly.
Washington, as everyone knew by then, was the country’s epicenter of the first infection. The case was reported on Jan. 21 in a man who had visited the central China city of Wuhan, where the virus was first discovered.
Over the next couple of months, state officials would issue proclamations shuttering schools, businesses, places of worship and generally upending any normal semblance of pre-COVID life.
In addition, public service messages urged people to stay at home if possible, frequently wash their hands, and distance themselves from others if they had to leave home. Face masks — and recently, doubled-up masking — would eventually become another mainstay in the arsenal against COVID-19.
It was all just so bitterly surreal, and inconvenient — and horribly, shockingly sad.
The virus, moreover, didn’t play fair. It had its own set of rules and seemed to pick and choose its victims.
And many, thank goodness, survived, though some — the widows, widowers and others left to pick up the pieces — perhaps wished they hadn’t.
They were the heartbroken souls who took their COVID-infected loved ones to the hospital and weren’t allowed in themselves. They were the ones who returned home sobbing until they couldn’t sob anymore — their anguish, their terror beyond human expression.
They were the ones who would never see their loved ones again, until they identified them in the morgue.
More than 500,000 Americans perished in less than a year, and an even greater number ococcupied beds in an American health care system already terrifyingly overwhelmed.
Hell hath no better description.
But you don’t need us to tell you about it. After all, you’ve lived through it and maybe even contracted the virus. Perhaps, by some horrid stroke of chance, you’ve also lost someone you loved to the virus. For that, there is no combination of words to convey the deep sorrow and intangible guilt we know many are living with on a day-to-day basis. Death is real, and unflinching.
We’ve all lost something in this lost year: Loved ones, time with friends and family, memories made, vacations taken, new job opportunities, and investments. The list goes on.
But there is reason to smile and find hope in the little things. We were reminded recently of the story of Mike and Karen Conley, a married couple from Yelm who fought tooth and nail through their own personal confrontation with the virus.
Although Mike spent 36 days on a ventilator in the hospital, and has spent the better part of the last year recovering, he’s rather chipper. “One tough Irishman” is what his family calls him, and though both Karen and Mike contracted the virus and no longer have it, they continue to wear masks and remain socially distanced.
They could have lost it all. They could have lost each other, but they didn’t.
It’s easy to say the Conley’s situation was “one in a million,” but that would downplay the millions of Americans who have lost someone close to them over the last year from the virus.
We believe Yelm Mayor JW Foster was right when he said during his state of the city address earlier this year that we’ve failed as a community to follow even the simplest of guidelines, including wearing a mask.
“Some people wouldn’t take the advice just because of who was giving it, or because some other self-certified expert friend of theirs told them what they wanted to hear: that it wasn’t necessary, that we should just ignore it and that it would go away. Well, it didn’t. And, so, we’ve failed,” Foster previously said.
“We’ve failed as a community to hold our friends and family members accountable. We gathered, we traveled, we frequented places that didn’t enforce the sensible, reasonable hygiene guidelines, and so we’re complicit in inadvertent silent spread of a disease that went on to kill others in our community,”
It’s true: We are complacent in the spread of this virus, and we are equally as responsible for the well-being of our neighbors and fellow community members. (Think, perhaps, of the Golden Rule.)
And the truth is that this pandemic is not behind us. A total of 28 new cases have arisen in the Yelm-Rainier ZIP codes this last week, and transmission is steadily on the rise with fears of an imminent “fourth wave.” Hospitalizations and deaths could increase due to this, though the impact of vaccination efforts has yet to be tested.
We will get through this. Please — for the sake of your loved ones, family, co-workers and friends — wear a mask, wash your hands, and socially distance.
Time pending, the normal ways will return to the Nisqually Valley once again.