Leola Reeves is acutely aware of the absurdity.
“It’s bizarre — that’s the right word for it,” the mom of three says. “I’m trying to raise awareness about a pandemic, in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t know why this needs to be done. It’s baffling to me.”
Reeves, 37, lives in Yakima, which right now is one of the hottest zones for America’s patchwork coronavirus pandemic. How hot? At the current rate of disease spread, within about a week Yakima County is due to pass New York City for the percentage of its people known to have contracted COVID-19.
You’d think that’d be alarming enough, considering what happened to New York in the spring. Add to it that Yakima’s main hospital, Virginia Mason Memorial, has been sounding sirens that its intensive-care beds are overflowing from patients sick with COVID-19.
“It’s like Yakima refuses to believe there’s an actual issue,” Reeves says.
She’s concluded from personal experience that all the numbers, about rising infections and hospitalization rates, aren’t punching through.
It started when her 70-year-old stepfather, “who also did not think this virus is serious at all,” contracted COVID-19, she says. He was hospitalized for a time and has lung damage, to the point he’s expected to need an oxygen machine for the rest of his life.
But she had a strangely challenging time even talking about this in Yakima’s politically charged culture. If you brought it up, it felt like you were somehow “taking sides,” she says. So, feeling isolated, she put up a Facebook group called, defiantly, “I love someone with COVID-19.”
The page is filled with testimonials from other survivors or family members who feel as if they’ve been subtly diminished, because what they’re dealing with is either taboo or politically hyped.
One wrote, for instance, about a friend who had COVID-19, went septic and lost some toes, but has been asked not to speak about it by her employer in Yakima “for fear of losing business.”
Wrote another: “It’s so frustrating to read comments on news articles that treat it like it’s no big deal, that everyone is overreacting and it’s just like the flu. It isn’t. It’s a nightmare.”
Reeves says she’s noticed that of her group’s 75 members, many are like her stepfather — they beat the virus, but now are struggling with aftereffects of the disease.
Her next project has been raising funds to display signs along Yakima’s public roadways that feature the region’s coronavirus victims. It would be like one of those “Have you seen me?” milk-carton campaigns for missing children. Only the missing are community members felled by a virus that’s paradoxically the top story in the news every day.
More numbers: On Tuesday, the coronavirus passed the death-toll estimate for the 1957-58 “Asian flu.” So now it’s the third deadliest epidemic in U.S. history (after the 1918 Spanish flu and AIDS, which has lasted for decades).
Yet there’s a feeling it’s being shoved down a collective memory hole, even as in reality, it marches on.
“They’re either just over it, or they’ve come to believe it’s a phony pandemic because their own personal grandmother hasn’t been affected yet,” speculated an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine, to The Washington Post. “People just think this is a nothing burger. So they think the risk is exaggerated.”
There’s a range of possible explanations for this. It probably isn’t as deadly as first thought. It’s spreading so unevenly that many people haven’t felt it (yet). Maybe the lockdowns worked to quell the spread, leading us to conclude, illogically, that it isn’t that virulent. There’s also a limit to how much economic shutdown people can tolerate.
Finally, most important, there’s politics. These last three months have been a national case study in the debilitating power of mixed messages — starting at the top with Donald Trump’s random confabulations, and then lately with public health officials flip-flopping like docked halibut to say it was suddenly fine to mass-gather in the protests.
“Getting sick has gotten political,” Reeves says. “Even in Yakima, where we’re one of the worst zones in the country, people aren’t wearing masks solely because it’s a Republican-Democrat issue now. It’s embarrassing.”
What happened to us? How did we become a society where people get driven by anguish to try to put up highway road signs just to convince the rest of us that a pandemic’s hurt is real?
Could be essential human nature. Or it could be that when coronavirus hit, America suffered from a preexisting condition: the total politicization of everything. Suspect we’ll have a vaccine for COVID before we get a cure for that.