Eric Thomas: January ushers in COVID-19 turning points year after year in Kansas (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has crafted many of its dark landmarks during recent Januarys. The last three installments have brought perhaps the most significant events related to the virus: the month that introduced COVID-19 to Kansas, two months that contained the two most deadly and contagious surges, and also a month that introduced widespread vaccination.

So it is that we arrive in January 2023.

Three years into the pandemic, it’s tempting to think that we know everything about this cataclysm that interrupted our lives — and then gave our lives back to us. Looking back, as my history teachers have instructed me, revealed what I couldn’t remember, and what I never knew.

In writing this column, some of what I learned (or relearned) came from scrolling back through the YouTube channel of the University of Kansas Health System, featuring chief medical officer Steven Stites. The updates that he, his colleagues and his staff posted so dutifully are like dispatches from the pandemic past, complete with the emotions of the moment and vital statistics from people who worked the front lines.

The last three years tested us as Kansans in dramatic ways. January provided the decisive moments.

Enrollment at the public universities, community colleges and technical colleges under direction of the Kansas Board of Regents increased overall enrollment 1% in the fall semester following a massive decline in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
A Jayhawk statue at the University of Kansas in Lawrence sports a face mask in the later months of 2020. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

January 2020: The start

Many of us think of March 2020 as the beginning of the pandemic in Kansas, because that is when we heard about the first cases of COVID-19 in the state, followed rapidly by the dramatic closures of almost all public institutions, notably schools.

However, two months earlier, in January 2020, the first Kansan died from COVID-19, according to a death certificate that was publicized more than a year later.

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News, Lovell “Cookie” Brown, a grandmother from Leavenworth County, was the first Kansan whose death was attributed to the virus. The Mercury News also reported how Brown’s death appeared “to turn the clock back on the virus’ arrival in the U.S. but also suggest that it had surfaced much sooner in America’s heartland, far beyond the country’s early coastal hotspots.”

Anecdotally, many of us knew this to be true: The virus was present long before medical experts could prove it. For instance, one of my friends was devastated by fever, chills and coughing fits after traveling with me in January 2020. Months later, he tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, with no other sickness to explain them. He likely had COVID-19 during that first January.

COVID-19 was lurking, undetected, in Kansas well before we were aware.

Also during January 2020: The Chinese city of Wuhan was locked down by the Chinese government. The virus was confirmed — for the first time contemporaneously — in the United States. 

A participant looks away at the moment a COVID-19 vaccination needle makes contact Monday during a temporary clinic at Topeka High School. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector0
Rebecca Zarazan Dunn/Contributed Image A participant looks away at the moment a COVID-19 vaccine needle makes contact during a temporary clinic at Topeka High School in 2021. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

January 2021: The battle

The deadliest time for Kansans fighting the COVID-19 virus ran right through January two years ago. Buttressed by a surge in December on one side and a frantic peak in February on the other, four weeks in January witnessed the death of 949 Kansans, according to the CDC. A deadly January fed an even more lethal February.

According to the CDC, about 100,000 tests were being performed each week, one of the most active times of testing for the entire pandemic.

However, January 2021 was distinct because of the battle beginning between virus and vaccine. More than four times as many Kansans were vaccinated during that month (more than 214,000) than had been vaccinated during the previous month. The recovery had already begun.

Those January days were a clear turning point. The virus would kill almost 6,000 additional Kansans (and counting) in the following years, but vaccination slowed the infections. It was dazzling how much happened in 12 months.

“A year ago, we were just hearing the rumblings about what was going on across the ocean, and now look where we are at,” Stites said on a January episode of his YouTube series. That month, Stites happily rolled up his sleeve for a vaccination.

Seeing that reminded me of the urgency of those vaccinations. At that point, we asked ourselves, “Can I continue social distancing, masking and quarantine for just a bit longer, until I get the vaccine? Can I stay safe for a few more weeks?”

I recall how eager I was to get the vaccine, both to safeguard myself and to feel like I was helping slow the infection rate that was so deadly and so steadily climbing.

Also in January 2021: The CDC required face masks on public transportation and inside transportation hubs.

January 2022: The peak

After Omicron was confirmed in Kansas in December 2021, the new year was a viral extravaganza. During the week that started Jan. 19, 2022, more than 79,000 people in Kansas tested positive. The state had not seen that many positive cases — in total — during the first six months of the pandemic.

If you search for the top four weeks of positive infections in Kansas, three of those weeks were in January 2022. We struggled to locate enough tests, staking out pharmacies and trading tips with friends about where to get tested.

The number of resulting deaths was both infuriating and heartbreaking. Many Kansans died in hospital ICUs after refusing vaccination out of stubbornness or misinformation. Others died from underlying conditions that doomed them, once combined with the virus.

The conference call of regional medical experts that month was partially and ominously titled, “From Bad to Worse.”

Stites’ guests sighed and dispatched the latest news from their hospitals, where blood supplies were low, morgues were full and ventilators were tenuous.

“I would start by saying that the COVID blizzard continues.”

“This has been a difficult time.”

“I wish we could paint a different picture, but it’s not here.”

“Even when we try to prepare, it hits us pretty hard, and that’s where we are right now.”

Reacting to 17 recent deaths at the Kansas Medical Center and staring at a nationwide map of COVID-19 cases, Stites observed: “This is really a difficult map to see right now. I’ve never seen the country all be so purple at the same time. If you look at Kansas and Missouri, that’s really difficult.”

Also in January 2022: Nationwide, the news was similar; the U.S. had almost 1 million new infections, more than any other nation.

January 2023: The hope

This January, however, we Kansans largely find ourselves less wondering what will happen next and more confident that the pandemic is simply over. That’s not to say that we are free from risk.

On his most recent COVID-19 update, Stites said: “I think that surge that we are going to see with everyone inside, with the Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties and get togethers, we will see how that plays out.”

Jennifer Schrimsher of Lawrence Memorial Hospital and Douglas County said: “COVID is still here. It still kills people.”  

However, the conversations between the medical officers on Stites’ conference call sound more reflective than their previous urgency.

“I’m brought to a focus on how chronic this disease has become,” said Kevin Dishman, chief medical and quality officer at Stormont Vail Health in Topeka. “And we are all starting to use that word, which I think we are hearing both from doctors at academic centers and also across the state, and also now nationally, that the chronicity of this disease is going to be a challenge going forward.”

Dishman said on the conference call that the Topeka media center had consistently cared for 15 to 17 COVID-19 patients recently.

“If you think that, a few years ago we didn’t have anyone in the hospital like this,” Stites added. “And now 10 to 15 percent of our hospital beds are taken up with one disease entity — one viral entity.”

— Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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