When the Numbers Stopped

by Joe Fitzgerald

The Virginia Department of Health began posting daily COVID numbers on March 17, 2020, and effectively quit Thursday. A press release on the VDH website explains the changes, but doesn’t include enough real information to make it worth the trouble of linking there.

For two years, though, VDH produced daily information that made it possible to produce snapshots of information about the history, current state, and projected trajectory of the pandemic down to the zip code level.

A math degree and journalistic experience made it fairly simple for me to figure out what was relevant to the central Shenandoah Valley every day so that Deb and I could make personal decisions based on more than our reading about national and worldwide trends and about efforts on the various medical fronts.

That daily look at the numbers showed that Harrisonburg and Rockingham County had COVID cases out of proportion to the rest of Virginia’s population, and not in a good way. In April 2020, I asked a city official why and got back an email blaming the disproportionate share of cases on the Accordius outbreak.
It mostly fit. Nursing homes were where many of the cases and deaths occurred in the early going. And the outbreak at Accordius in Harrisonburg was no exception. Two dozen people died.

The only problem with using that outbreak to explain the city’s high numbers was that the city official’s email came two weeks after Accordius, and the numbers were still rising.

That’s when, in early May, I put up the first numbers post to point out that there was no good local information. There are multiple reasons for that, one being the shrinkage of local journalism.

Karl is the only local journalist with long experience but only has five minutes at a time to tell what’s going on. WHSV has the largest news staff in the city but covers a wide area. The News-Record, like most newspapers, had been gutted by Craigslist long before the Byrd family abandoned it to a chain. The Citizen is filling a gap but not plugging the hole, with a semi-professional staff focusing on news features more than daily journalism.

In addition to the loss of local reporters, the city has hired a publicist. If three out of four houses burn on one block, a publicist’s job is to tell you that the fourth one survived, to celebrate that the lots were saved, and to find a picture of a firefighter with a rescued kitten. Information from the city is now curated and cleaned up. The city hasn’t quite gone corporate, but is more like JMU and RMH in its PR efforts than it was 20 years ago when reporters looked up city council members’ numbers in the phone book and called them at home. Worse? Certainly different.

I began posting the numbers every day because it was easy. I copied two numbers into a spreadsheet, let the spreadsheet crunch them, and posted the daily count of new cases and the one-week trend. It was mechanical, and enough loyal readers checked for typos and errors to keep them consistent and accurate. I found myself adding and changing factors as our understanding of what mattered changed. By Wednesday of this week, the final complete post, I was using three screens and taking half an hour every day. I kept doing it because I could, and because we all wanted to do something.

That first surge of cases in the city turned out to be driven by outbreaks in poultry plants, and the single group most affected was the Hispanic community. That was true statewide, as the plants, along with nursing homes, became the source of most cases. Operational changes and enhanced precautions reduced the cases in both by early summer 2020, but there was always one more outbreak, surge, or cluster to keep the pandemic alive.

Numbers in the city went down in early summer. There’s no way of telling how much Councilman Sal Romero’s Spanish language informational videos helped, but at least he was doing something. Numbers statewide began creeping back up after July 1, when businesses began reopening and the governor visited Virginia Beach without a mask. Only one of those things spurred the surge, but symbols matter too. By the end of July, it was obvious that more than half of JMU students would be returning to Harrisonburg from areas of the state where cases were surging.

The coming surge in local cases was apparent to many people, but that did not include the JMU senior leadership. The school treated COVID as an administrative and communication issue instead of a public health crisis. The results could be seen when cases began rising in late August. The school’s response might have been comedic if people weren’t getting sick.

Possibly my favorite moment with any humor in it was when a freshman, one of the slim, blonde, spoiled daughters of Northern Virginia, looked at one of JMU’s cartoon Duke Dog pawprint directional stickers and repeated what was written on it: “Walk this way.”

“It’s from an old rock song,” I told her.

She twirled to face me, put her hands on her hips, set her feet, and with what I assume was indignation, announced, “I know about Aerosmith.”

The pawprints were the literal cartoon response. The metaphorical one was hiring new highly paid non-academic administrators while volunteers conducted COVID tests and tried to enforce mask regulations.

I retired earlier than I had planned. I didn’t want to contract COVID and I didn’t want to be even a very minor part of the school’s COVID response.

Numbers shrank but never quite retreated to summer levels when JMU went on-line with its classes. There was a surge among downtown service workers that likely originated with students, but that’s mostly anecdotal. The next big surge visible on the charts was the Thanksgiving surge.

It had been eight months of precautions. Many people had foregone vacations. Business trips had been cancelled. Schools were online. People were tired of COVID. So a lot of them took a chance on holiday gatherings. The surge after that was the first not tied to institutions – nursing home, workplace, or university – but community-wide. The rise was equal among every zip code in the city and county, and in every social group. What had been whack-a-mole was now a field of tenacious weeds.

That surge, the worst one to that point, peaked around Inauguration Day. By then the only good thing to come out of the Trump administration was available. The vaccines were out and production was ramping up. And we probably could have made the July goal of vaccinating most of the country if various commentators national and local had not been willing to lie about COVID for political purposes or enable those who did.

There are people who believed a year ago and still believe now that the pandemic was created on purpose by the same people who promoted vaccines because they wanted to put a microchip in everyone. How much they can be blamed for a year of illness and death that could have been prevented is debatable. The culpability of those who made masks and vaccines an issue of freedom instead of health is less debatable, but can be viewed in the context that most people don’t recognize their own inconsistencies or hypocrisies.

What’s not debatable is the unforgiveable criminality of those who exploited COVID ignorance for political gain. Republican governors nationwide are not necessarily evil. I’m sure they love their children and walk the dog when it’s their turn. But almost anyone smart enough to be elected governor is smart enough to know how much of what they said was lies. Non-existent weapons of mass destruction 20 years ago led to a forever war that destroyed a sovereign nation and killed untold tens of thousands of people. Crying freedom over an injection and a paper mask killed half a million Americans.

That’s roughly how many deaths happened during the Delta and Omicron surges, both post-vaccine. And those were the surges that damaged local institutions in ways we may be years recovering from. Those deaths were preventable and fit the classic definition of tragedy, often inevitable for the victim, often caused by the failure of people in critical roles. The deaths before the vaccine were simply heart-breaking.

The wife of one of those who died during the Thanksgiving surge approached me and Deb about doing more to inform people locally. Her visit and encouragement, and the deep sorrow she shared, led us to create TSA Harrisonburg, with TSA standing for transparency, safety, and accountability. To the daily numbers and charts we added notices about testing and vaccine clinics and other information gathered by a small group of volunteers.

That effort reflected the desire and need of so many people to do something, anything, about the pandemic. That need was reflected twice in fundraising to send large orders or pizzas, subs, and cookies to the nurses and staff at RMH. There were two such drives. The first was during Delta, marked by the severity of its symptoms and the stress it placed on the medical systems. The purpose of the food deliveries wasn’t to feed nurses. It was to let them know that the community knew what they were going through and wanted to show appreciation. The second pizza drive was during Omicron, when symptoms were milder for most people but contagion was so great that every record for infection was broken in the weeks from Christmas to Valentine’s Day. The two efforts raised about $5,000 locally.

It was during the Omicron wave that a business/political flack on a right-wing blog dismissed something I’d written by saying that hospitals were only overwhelmed because people were going to emergency rooms for tests instead of getting them elsewhere. Patients were being intubated in hallways at the time. That flack, oddly enough, was my first boss in journalism 45 years ago.

He was among the actively harmful, but there were others who harmed through ineffective or wrong-headed responses. JMU’s handling of the 2020 fall semester was worse than most universities in Virginia, but not by much. Virginia’s General Assembly twice snatched control of schools away from local school boards, based more on business and political concerns than health concerns.

Local school boards had to work within constraints set in Richmond, with Harrisonburg having to make major changes just to give teachers time to go to the bathroom. Not the General Assembly’s problem, I’m sure they’d tell you. School board meetings nationwide, and especially in Augusta and Rockingham counties, became showcases for wrong-headed declarations of a presumed right to spread a deadly disease. The inflamed and ignorant speakers simply added COVID misinformation to their hateful attacks on children dealing with gender dysphoria.

It’s not that simple, but nothing about COVID was. Meeting it required a sense of cooperation and shared sacrifice that we simply weren’t capable of. If we’d dealt with World War II the way we dealt with COVID, it would have lasted years longer with an uncertain result. Community is fractured.

But city councils, boards of supervisors, and state legislatures were not where the damage happened. We can say at least that that’s where it wasn’t prevented, but then we’ll reelect the same people anyway. The real damage was in the critical professions such as nursing, policing, and teaching. People have left all three of those under the stress of COVID, and it will take years to educate and train enough replacements. That’s assuming the corporate and political entities have the will to try and repair the damage. It’s assuming those on the left have the will to reject slogans like Defund the Police and those on the right have the will not to blame teachers unions. That kind of restraint has not been obvious in either group.

One thing I’ve learned from the past two years are that anger, disappointment, and frustration of the magnitude COVID has caused never quite go away. The VDH decision to quit posting daily numbers proved that to me. In isolation, it could have been just an acknowledgement that we’re in another dip of COVID numbers and this one might last. In the context of the governor’s cold-hearted and cynical response to COVID and the General Assembly’s failure to make difficult decisions, the VDH numbers become part of a pattern of failure and betrayal.

I had already decided to discontinue my daily posts today, March 11. The VDH cut-off changed that by two days. What could have been a relief in an honest political context instead became one more reason to seethe. Our systems really do work that badly.

Much of what I’ve written is open to discussion. It was, after all, everybody’s first pandemic. But what’s not open to discussion is the numbers. The surges, outbreaks, and clusters are as visible on the charts as the pockmarks on a disease survivor. These illnesses and deaths happened, and even those damages that can be repaired will be with us for years. But as we move from this to the next existential crisis, we need to ask more of those who ask to lead us and those who attempt to inform us. We need to ask them what they did during the pandemic, and we need to hold them accountable.

This column has been republished with permission from Still Not Sleeping.