This week marked 100 days since the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in South Dakota, and it feels like a lifetime. Simply trying to grasp the physical, emotional and financial toll of this virus is an exhausting proposition.
As we step gingerly into a new stage of semi-normalcy, what have we learned during three months of confronting this once-in-a-century public health crisis? Here are a few lessons to ponder, with the understanding that there are many uncertain days ahead:
Expect the unexpected:
With each passing hour we get new information – or updated and clarifications from previous alerts. Remember when masks weren’t necessary, or that the virus couldn’t spread asymptomatically? Since infectious disease experts are still learning about the strengths and weaknesses of COVID-19, it’s a good bet that the rest of us don’t have it figured out. Be flexible and open-minded. It’s a good bet that more surprises are on the way.
Always be prepared:
From the White House on down, few governmental agencies were prepared to handle this public health emergency. How much time was wasted trying to line up testing supplies and establish lines of command between federal and state authorities? Even with ample warning that a global pandemic was possible and even likely, most of the official response seemed made up along the way. It’s imperative that the lessons of 2020 are used to ensure that such unpreparedness never occurs again.
In times of crisis, there are few things more important than a credible and consistent flow of information from government officials. That doesn’t just mean daily numbers and talking points. That means early warning of potential hot spots that the health department is aware of, whether they’re asked about them or not. With everything we’ve gone through over the past three months, brutal honesty won’t hurt us one bit.
Leave politics out of it:
America has become even more polarized along partisan lines during the pandemic, which is to say there’s a cavernous divide. Wearing masks is a political statement for some, while others make a point by leaving them off. Lockdowns are derided as a liberal tool to “control” people and ruin the economy, while fewer restrictions embraces the ideals of “freedom” and individual responsibility. To families who have seen the ravages of COVID-19, such vitriol on social media must seem childish indeed. There is nothing political about formulating the best response to a virus that has killed nearly 120,000 people in the United States and is still part of our daily lives.
Vulnerable among us:
Sometimes it takes a tragedy to look beyond our own neighborhood and see the entire community. The outbreak at Smithfield Foods shed light on the working and living conditions of those employed at the plant, with containment efforts complicated by cultural and language barriers. These challenges exist beyond the scope of the virus, which only served to magnify them, much as it did with the city’s homeless population. If the battle against COVID-19 helped increase understanding of the needs of vulnerable residents that are too easily forgotten, that will be a lesson well learned.
Passing the test:
The absence of reliable testing methods was a major hurdle in South Dakota’s response to the pandemic, leading to backbiting between state and federal authorities. Once it became clear that states needed to foster public-private partnerships with health systems to make inroads with testing, the situation improved. But the task is ongoing. Our “new normal” means identifying clusters or hot spots quickly and containing those situations with testing and contract tracing. Since South Dakota’s contract tracing app failed to get off the ground, renewed emphasis on building partnerships to perform those functions will help keep hospitalization numbers in check.
Sense of direction:
Personal responsibility is important, as we see every day in the adjusted routines of those who take social distancing seriously. But it’s tough to be personally vigilant when messaging from state and city leaders is inconsistent. Does it make sense for a business to be restricted in one city yet still operative just a few miles away? That’s the result when state directives are loose and optional, forcing municipalities to make their own way. That doesn’t mean treating each city the same; many states instituted tiered systems based on the data. It means being willing to make unpopular decisions to perform the most important and elemental of government functions: keeping citizens safe.
This isn’t over:
As Sioux Falls restaurants and other businesses open their doors and outdoor activities pick up, there’s a prevailing sense of turning the page on the coronavirus. Such notions are fueled by “mission accomplished”-type messages from state leadership, blasting other governors for imposing restrictions and proclaiming South Dakota’s triumph. Aside from the juvenile nature of such political rants, the message is dangerous. The virus is alive and well. Masks matter. Distancing is crucial. Make no mistake: We all want to go on with our lives and have an enjoyable summer and fall. The best way to do that is to remain vigilant, preventing the sort of setbacks that can take our much-awaited semi-normalcy and put us back on our heels.
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