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Reporter’s notebook: Being both concerned and unconcerned

In this day and age, it seems that it is frowned upon to have competing thoughts in one’s head. You either must think one way or the other, but Heaven forbid you see things both ways.

For example, I can believe the COVID-19 pandemic is serious, and it is, while also believing some people take it too seriously.

I’ve now been on the coronavirus beat in West Virginia since the legislative session ended on March 7. My friend and radio host Howard Monroe brought up recently when I was on the Watchdog Morning Show that he remembered I didn’t take the virus seriously at first. He’s absolutely right.

As I noted in this column space before, when asked by an editor to talk to officials about this the week of March 8, I rolled my eyes. I saw this as another SARS or bird flu, a virus that was getting a lot of breathless headlines, but would largely go away. But a few days later we canceled the high school basketball tournaments and by the end of that week we had canceled school without a single positive case.

A week after that we got our first case, and a week after that we shut down all non-essential businesses and ordered people to stay at home when possible.

Here we are, in month six of this terrible pandemic. In West Virginia, as I write this, the pandemic has claimed 127 lives with Aug. 4 claiming seven lives in one day, a record in the state. In my home county of Pleasants, there have been 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. The county saw its first death last week, an 81-year-old woman.

This is a serious virus. It may not be Spanish flu or polio, but it’s particularly serious for a society that hasn’t had to deal with major disease and pestilence in maybe 70 years. It primarily kills the elderly, with the average age of death being 76. That doesn’t mean the young are not susceptible. We’re now seeing the first deaths of people in their 40s. We had already lost two people in their 20s.

I do take the virus seriously, but I also look at the data, at a state level and nationally, and can see some positive signs. Bill Crouch, the secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, has accused us in the state media of being armchair epidemiologists. That’s true, but the circumstances have warranted that. I’ve kept a spreadsheet since the start of the crisis tracking all kinds of information. Again, that information points to the seriousness of the virus, while also poking holes in the panic of others.

We’re still in the first wave of the virus. During the spring it primarily hit the Pacific Northwest, Louisiana, and population-dense New York. It’s now hitting everywhere else. Polling shows the governors of states where there has been a drop in cases and deaths have seen an increase in their popularity for handling the virus, while governors of states that have seen cases and deaths increase have seen a decrease in popularity.

No kidding. The dirty secret is no one has handled this virus and I’m unsure you can. Keep in mind, the last few weeks the country has seen as many deaths as New York saw during the spring. New York didn’t handle this better, they simply got hit earlier. Florida didn’t drop the ball, they just got hit later. Numbers already show positive cases and deaths in Florida coming back down.

West Virginia’s COVID-19 numbers have been up the last couple of weeks too, but we’re still far below much of the country. Our hospitalizations are up far more than what they were during the lockdown, but still far below reaching critical capacity. The numbers of active cases and recovered cases is starting to spread out again, which is good. As high as our daily percent of positives have been the last few weeks, they were far higher in the spring.

If you look at the comparisons, West Virginia has tested more than 17 percent of the state population for COVID-19, with 2.30 percent of those tests coming back positive. Of 1.8 million West Virginians, only .41 percent have tested positive. Our case fatality rate is significantly lower than surrounding states at 1.7 percent. For the most part, our positive numbers are being driven by teenagers and young adults in the 20s.

None of this information means don’t take it seriously, but it does mean you need to use your head and best judgement. If you’re older, and especially if you have any kind of pre-existing medical condition, you need to watch yourself. If you’re someone who lives or has frequent contact with someone in the high-risk category, you might want to rethink what you do.

As for reopening schools, chew on this: we’ve now had daycares open since May. Grocery stores and big-box retailers have been open the entire time. Some enforce masks and social distancing. Most do temperature checks of their employees and some do testing. They all interact with large groups of people, including children.

I get that teachers kept working during the spring, including also packing food to send home to students. But the idea daycare workers and grocery employees have been working and interacting with customers with minimal outbreaks, yet some teachers are in a full-on panic about returning to school next month, is perplexing.

Again, be concerned. But don’t be concerned for the wrong reasons.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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