March 11, 2020: In Washington, D.C., Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, officially an independent, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, unofficially a screwball, vowed to remain in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination even though former Vice President Joe Biden, officially a Democrat, had won four primaries the day before, effectively becoming his party’s White House candidate. In New York City, a movie mogul named Harvey Weinstein was ordered to serve more than 20 years in prison for abusing women, most of them aspiring actresses. Nationwide, the price of regular unleaded gas was falling and would continue to fall until it bottomed at less than $2.00 per gallon, the cost of crude having been slashed by the Saudi petroleum sheiks in faraway Riyadh.
In Little Rock, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that Arkansas’s first case of that frightful new virus called COVID-19 had been confirmed at Pine Bluff.
So, two years later, the somber anniversary duly noted across the state last Friday. Two seasons of influenza of a more conventional form, by the accounting of the specialists at the state Department of Health, could be expected to cause about 250 deaths in Arkansas. In its 24 months here COVID had claimed almost 11,000 Arkansans.
The first of them was a suburban Little Rock man, his 60th birthday denied him by COVID and by chronic conditions including diabetes and related coronary complications that made him an easy target for the virus, that allowed it to torture him for days. It is impossible to forget how his widow and a son spoke about the agony of his closing days, the gasping for oxygen in the final hours; and about their own pain, they as powerlessness as the doctors to reverse the spiral.
As Arkansas enters its third year of COVID, the daily case counts ebb and flow, still in the hundreds although the trend lines give the state’s clinical community reason for optimism, some basis for extending to the public their sense that the worst may, just may, be behind us. As often as not in recent days the number of Arkansans considered actively infected or exposed has declined, as has the number hospitalized, including those in intensive care and those requiring ventilation – mechanical assistance in breathing. And the morbidity index, the number and the percentage of COVID victims whom medical science cannot rescue – it, too, is softening. That first diagnosed case, at Pine Bluff – that “Arkansas Patient No. 1” survived was something of a miracle. It took weeks of in-patient care and a team of physicians and technicians, drawing upon their training and skills in fighting an invisible foe no one in the world yet really understood.
There was no vaccine then, would not be a vaccine for many months. But it came, faster than believed possible – at “Warp Speed,” in fact. And then a new struggle began, one that continues to this day: The campaign by clinicians to convince huge swaths of suspicious Americans (and their counterparts in Europe and Africa) that the vaccines not only were effective, but safe, and that the odds of a serious reaction were infinitesimally small. That they did not alter the patient’s DNA. That they did not cause impotence, sterility or miscarriages. Or hair loss. And that, no, they did not contain microscopic computer chips, the mischief of Bill Gates or George Soros or Michael Bloomberg, or Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. After all, the vaccine came from Donald Trump’s administration, right? Right?
Along the way, even today, there were demands that cattle dewormer or other off-label pharmaceuticals be made more widely available to those for whom injecting bleach or ingesting ultraviolet electric bulbs are a cure too far. And the opposition to masking: Its critics have had, will continue to have, no difficulty in finding a physician here or there whose research “proves” that masks are worse than worthless – that they stunt the physical and emotional development of youngsters and drive their elders insane (true, in rather too many instances).
Pushed to the edge of the psychiatrist’s couch, or atop it, have been those in the mainstream healthcare professionals, and those political leaders who have urged their constituents to follow the very best science and not heed the gasbags of talk radio and the kooks of cable TV. With almost every public appeal they are at pains to note that the hospitalized and the deceased consist overwhelmingly of those who, for whatever reason, chose not to be immunized. “Beyond maddening,” says Dr. Shane Speights, dean of the school of osteopathic medicine at Arkansas State.
Only about 53% of eligible Arkansans have been fully vaccinated, a figure on par with much of the south but woefully behind the national average. We are tired of COVID, certainly. But as noted often and elsewhere, COVID is not tired of us.
Steve Barnes is the host of "Arkansas Week" on Arkansas PBS.