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EDITORIAL: One Hell of a Year, Part Four

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According to Worldometer.info, the number of official COVID deaths in the US has passed 350,000, as of January 1, 2021. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are reporting 341,000 this morning. The New York Times is reporting 346,000 deaths.

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Somewhere around 12 million Americans have recovered from the official infection. Give or take a million or so.

Who would have guessed these numbers, back in April, 2020?

April, 2020

The change in Colorado’s mood, heading into the summer tourist season, was dramatically different from what we were thinking and feeling in February. 14 nursing homes had reported outbreaks at the end of March, and by mid-April 40% of Colorado’s COVID deaths had occurred in those facilities. US unemployment claims hit a record 6.6 million, while American businesses were busy applying for billion of dollars in federal subsidies.

Denver was preparing to use its Convention Center as an emergency hospital. City Market and other grocers started limiting the number of customers allowed in their stores. Liquor stores were doing great.

Improvised emergency room in Spain, March 2020.

Governor Jared Polis extended the school closure order through the end of April, while dozens of inmates were given early release from Colorado prisons as officials tried to create space in case of coronavirus outbreaks. On April 16, the federal government announced that the Paycheck Protection Program had run out of money, leaving thousands of loan applicants wondering about their future.

The makers of Lysol issued a press release. “We must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route)…”

Locally, radio station KSUT announced that the annual ‘Pagosa Folk & Bluegrass Fesitval’ had been cancelled. They would later scrap the September ‘Four Corners Folk Festival’. Pagosa’s professional theater company, Thingamajig Theatre, canceled its summer season. Live entertainment was quickly vanishing in Archuleta County.

On April 6 the Daily Post ran an open letter from Pagosa Mayor Don Volger, that began like this:

There’s no place I’d rather be during a crisis than Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County. We are blessed to live in a small community of people who care about others and have leaders who recognize the value of cooperation and collaboration. Our leaders listen to the opinions of others, even when we don’t agree, and we believe people possess great value, regardless of their views and actions.

On March 26, the Town Council held a work session to discuss ideas about ways to better serve during this time. Our town manager, Andrea Philips, briefed us on recent events and we shared ideas. I was asked to provide a public statement.

I left the meeting nagged by a key question, “What do people really need right now?” …

We would like to thrive, but right now survival has got to be the priority….

We will survive this season of challenge, and we can thrive in many ways, not necessarily economic. We will be a different community when this specific crisis ends, and we can be a better one. We have a wonderful opportunity to grow closer and work together more productively. It’s already happening…

The Town Council stepped up on April 2 to fund several COVID relief programs, allocating about $120,000 from its General Fund to the various efforts. (The contributions were later reimbursed by federal CARES Act, at which point the Council allocated even more money from the General Fund.)

Mayor Volger was partly correct in his assumption that Pagosa Springs would “survive this season of challenge” — but neither he, nor anyone else, could have guessed that 2020 would turn out to be one of Pagosa’s busiest, most profitable tourist seasons ever. No one suspected that our local governments would see record levels of sales tax collections all through the spring and summer.

His comment about working together may have missed the mark, however.

As the orders arrived from Governor Polis, requiring mask wearing, and reductions in the number of people who could be accommodated by restaurants and other service businesses… and urging people to simply “stay home”… we saw watched the Pagosa Springs community become polarized.

Half the town philosophically supported the Governor and the public health agency orders, believing that saving lives, through social distancing and other means, was the number one priority. “People before profit,” so to speak. That kind of thing.

The other half of the community questioned the seriousness of the pandemic and the authority of government to require masks and lockdowns, arguing that the economic and social damage from ever-changing government policies was ultimately more harmful than the medical effects of COVID.

I found myself, as a journalist, generally on the side of the public health agencies. “Generally”.

It was obvious that COVID was not nearly as dangerous, per capita, as many other infectious diseases. Most people who became infected were recovering with minimal residual effects. The mortality rate appeared to be similar to certain particularly dangerous influenza strains, and like influenza, it was hitting the elderly especially hard. The “testing program” taking place in the US seemed to be poorly distributed, poorly administered, and plagued by false positives and false negatives.

But some of the more colorful right-wing arguments and conspiracy theories — promoted in some cases by the Trump administration, but never by the Polis administration — struck me as absurd. In particular, I couldn’t buy the argument that our public health agencies were part of a conspiracy to destroy our American way of life.

As we experienced the steady rise in infections and fatalities in April, in spite of the social distancing efforts, it seemed pretty clear to me that we didn’t yet understand this disease… and from our position of ignorance, the only things we knew how to do, to lessen the number of people dying, was to keep our distance from one another.

This approach was going to cause a significant increase in mental health issues, and global economic distress as well. Essentially, we would be purposely bringing about the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression int eh 1930s.

Obviously, this was going to be a trade off. People were going to die, no matter what path we took. People were going to suffer.

But then, people in America had been suffering and dying long before COVID arrived. And the suffering had been unequally distributed, well before the pandemic.

Could a public health crisis actually help us blaze a path to a more equitable country, where “liberty and justice for all” was a reality?

What a crazy thought.

Read Part Five, on Monday…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 based on the belief that community leaders often tell only one side of the story… while the public deserves to hear all sides.

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