Hot spot or not, shrugging off the pandemic is popular — and potentially deadly

Posted 12/17/20

He was walking briskly as he talked — and agitated, and masked — so I had to lean in and listen hard, even though the volume on my cell phone was up about as high as it could go.

“I’m so …

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Hot spot or not, shrugging off the pandemic is popular — and potentially deadly

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He was walking briskly as he talked — and agitated, and masked — so I had to lean in and listen hard, even though the volume on my cell phone was up about as high as it could go.

“I’m so ticked off at some of our fans,” he said, “and I told my principal, ‘No more popcorn.’”

It was Saturday morning and Scott — my best friend of 40 years and an ultra-successful athletic director and basketball and golf coach for a mid-sized high school in northeast Kansas — was talking to me from his school’s gym, where a wrestling tournament was about to begin. As AD, he was responsible for the set-up of the event and its execution, and so far, things were off to an inauspicious start.

The night before wasn’t much better.

During a basketball game at which he coached, Scott said some fans in the stand were taking off their masks — in violation of the state’s high school athletic policy — after being seated, and others were flouting the mask order by purchasing popcorn from the concession stand and eating it e-v-e-r s-o S-L-O-W-L-Y, one kernel at a time, at a snail’s pace, to avoid wearing their face coverings.

Scott and I typically talk two or three times per week, and I’d called him to get the latest on what was happening with the coronavirus in Kansas. Not an hour before that call, my friend Chip in Chatham County texted me about a story from USA Today published just that morning, datelined from Quinter, Kansas — way out in the western part of the state, not exactly close to where Scott lives and works. But still, the lengthy piece told a horrific tale: in Gove County, home to Quinter, coronavirus has killed a higher percentage of residents than in any other county in the United States. One out of every 132 people living in Gove County has fallen victim to COVID-19 and died.

The story was headlined “Deadliest place in America: They shrugged off the pandemic, then their family and friends started dying.”

And even earlier in the morning I had seen one of those color-coded maps illustrating the “hot spots” for new U.S. cases. Kansas, where I used to live, is definitely a hot spot, its 100 counties represented by lots of dark shades on the COVID map, indicating ever-higher numbers of new infections.

The weekly newspaper I once worked for, and still subscribe to, used to carry headlines such as “No new COVID cases reported here” or “New COVID-19 case (note the singular “case”) reported.” When a local surgeon at the community hospital was diagnosed, it was major news.

There were just three cases reported there near the end of September; cases have now passed 700. One in 13 people in that county has been diagnosed positively. (In Chatham, it’s one out of every 29 people.)

Where Scott lives, in the next county over in northeast Kansas, average new daily cases are up to 91 per 100,000 people. (In Chatham, it’s 23.) One in eight people has tested positive. So in the part of the state where Scott lives, it’s a hotspot within a hotspot. That’s why I called him, to see how Scott and his family were.

His wife and kids and their families were fine. But Scott was incensed.

Too many people shrugging it off, he said, not taking it seriously, openly disregarding orders and mandates. He and his wife — a middle school teacher — were among many within the county’s school system forced to perform additional duties, some they’d never done before, as the school system dealt with positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines.

I told Scott about Gove County, where back in August, according to the USA Today story, local leaders mandated everyone wear masks in public as the wave of positive cases began growing. They were forced to remove the mandate two weeks later “after a series of angry confrontations with their constituents,” the story said. “Around the same time, someone anonymously reported the county’s COVID-19 information Facebook page as spam or fake news, and it was temporarily taken offline just as public officials were trying to warn residents of the danger.”

Even today, according to the story, as deaths mount, “mask-wearing remains controversial in Gove County, and friendships are being strained as authorities struggle to persuade their neighbors to follow basic public health guidelines, such as avoiding large gatherings.”

Scott was seeing that up close, forced to ask spectators at games to wear masks, only to have them disregard his request and pull their masks down once he and other coaches walked away.

So what are our headlines, here in Chatham? We’re not a hotspot now for diagnoses, but too many of us — like the folks in Gove County, and fans at sporting events at Scott’s school — are shrugging it off.

But here’s what you might read, “headlines” pulled directly from Chatham County, comments copied directly via a single social media post, this week:

• “BS....this is a big hoax ..virus ,yes,..hoax yes”

• “I am sorry to disappoint you libs. I’m talking about our guvnah whose relatives used to make hoops for barrels … NYC was the target for rapid spread - on the other side of the country. Stats no worse than an average to bad flu. But politicos are wrapping the whole country up. For what reason? What final goal? Smells to high heaven.” (This from a candidate for statewide office representing Chatham who narrowly lost.)

• “This plan-demic had a much greater purpose: to shut down small businesses, weaken the church, distance families, and dictate our lives. Sounds like COMMUNISM!!”

“Hoax,” say some. “Fake news,” say others. “Shrugged off,” says the USA Today headline. “No more,” says someone in the trenches in a hotspot.

What say the rest of us?


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