How I marked a year of changes after the plague came to my Kansas town

March 7, 2021 3:37 am

“The arrival of the pandemic was not unexpected, but it had a certain surreal quality, as if we were all living a Michael Crichton movie,” writes Max McCoy. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

A year and a day ago the pandemic came to town.

It was Friday, March 6, and Emporia State University suspended face-to-face classes at the end of the day. Ordinarily this would have been the start of spring break, but instead it was the beginning of a health crisis whose defining characteristic would be collective uncertainty. For many of us, it was the last day of normal.

Late that afternoon, my wife and I went to a favorite bar and restaurant. I don’t remember what we had to eat, but my guess is that it was our usual: oven-baked pizza and a pint of dark beer brewed on the premises. Or, perhaps Kim had salad. But I distinctly remember sitting in our usual spot in the front window and watching the mail trucks arrive across the street at our post office. It was always interesting to see the semis back through the cramped parking lot to kiss the dock. When our meal was finished and our glasses empty, I took the change — a five-dollar bill — and wrote the date on it.

The arrival of the pandemic was not unexpected, but it had a certain surreal quality, as if we were all living a Michael Crichton movie.

On Jan. 9, the World Health Organization had announced a mysterious, coronavirus-related pneumonia in Wuhan, China. COVID-19 was first confirmed in the United States on Jan. 21, and by the end of the month a global health emergency had been declared. The first U.S. death was reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb. 29, in Washington state. The total number of COVID patients detected so far nationwide was just 22.

Many shrugged and said it was just another flu, or an attempt to try to scare us, a hoax for some political reason. But those of us who were familiar with the history of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which began in Kansas, were alarmed. My wife, Kim, reached for her copy of John Barry’s “The Great Influenza.” She knew what to expect.

I was both naive and fatalistic. Half of me irrationally expected there would be some brilliant insight that would save us all — both the crying baby and the sterno-drinking old man survive because their blood is either too alkaline or too acidic! The other half of me expected that COVID might indeed kill me, and it made me even more morbid than my usual bent.

A scientifically minded friend who had good connections at top research institutions kept me posted on what his contacts were telling him about the new virus, and it wasn’t good. It appeared to spread through contact, by airborne transmission, and even floating “fecal blooms” from toilets. The nation’s supply of respirators would be taxed. A few essentials, including a digital thermometer and a pulse oximeter, should be on hand. And, oh yeah, masks. No matter what the public health officials were saying early on, it was clear that everybody would need masks to fight this thing.

As the days passed, I noted events on a free calendar I had picked up at the local credit union, one of those that have the holidays in red and the Norman Rockwell paintings. I kept tally of the weeks. I would sit and stare at a 1947 Rockwell of a young boy with his hands held carefully behind his back, watching an old man tune a piano. The old man’s head is cocked at an odd angle, the better to hear the notes.

The first COVID death in Kansas was announced by officials on March 12 (week 1). It was a nursing home patient in his 70s in Wyandotte County. On March 22, the first two cases were reported in Lyon County, where Emporia is the county seat. The first confirmed death in Lyon County, that of a woman in her 70s, was announced Sunday, April 19.

That semester, our students got a little extra time off for spring break — two weeks — while instructors scrambled to move classes online. My Advanced Reporting class, which had been meeting for a few hours twice a week to workshop news stories, went to meeting online, all of us staring at one another through computer screens. It left me wondering how in the world one could possibly teach journalism remotely. It was, I learned in the weeks and months to come, doable.

Then came the summer. In July the CDC announced that all Americans should wear masks, as well as observing the usual hand-washing and social distancing precautions. While the Legislature fought with the governor over emergency powers, Kim and I remained dutifully homebound, our lives spiraling inward. Kim would get up before dawn and take serious five-mile walks around town so she could avoid as many people as possible, while I waited until the middle of the afternoon to seek out some wooded spot at the edge of town to do a couple of easy miles. Then the civil unrest from the killing of George Floyd reached a boil, and one day in June (week 13) we decided it was worth the personal health risk to show our support when there was a march from campus to the police department.

Eventually the summer turned to fall. Then fall burned like a fuse to the presidential election (week 35), which added an extra shot of adrenaline into our already shell-shocked psyches. Then came winter and COVID declared total war. It had taken Kansas until the end of October to reach 1,000 deaths. By the end of the year, we were approaching 3,000.

Now, in week 53 by my calendar, we are closing in on 5,000 deaths. That’s more than the population of my hometown of Baxter Springs, and just about the size of Concordia. Nationally, we have passed half a million deaths. That’s just about the combined populations of Wichita and Topeka.

In the year that has passed, as we have gone to tracking COVID fatalities from single deaths to dozens and finally thousands, a predictable but frightening thing has happened. The numbers don’t scare us any longer. They have become the background noise to the new normal. We have become desensitized to a staggering loss of life, such numbers gone from our Kansas hometowns that it had taken world wars to do such damage.

We have become tired of waiting for the vaccine, for the return to school, for the normal. We are, understandably, weary of the masks and the handwashing and the social distancing. We are tired of being reminded we share the same fears and carry the same fragile human burdens as those who were caught in the 1665 plague of London, or at Camp Funston in 1918. There will be no Hollywood ending for us. There will be an end, but it will hard and long fought, with science and government and a shared sense of the public good.

Every human life that has been extinguished in the past year by the pandemic has diminished us as a community, as a state, as a nation. We must not relax our guard, at least not yet. We must not become numb to the numbers, or to give in to the fraudulent arithmetic of fatalism, or be seduced by the insidious conspiracies of the gullible.

I still have in my wallet that five-dollar bill with “March 6, 2020” written on it. Every now and then I take it out and look at it. One of these days, whether it is sooner or later, I intend to spend that money. I will sit and drink a dark beer and watch the mail trucks cut their wheels and back up to kiss the dock of the post office.

For some day, the pandemic will leave my town.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.