COVID-19 made its first appearance in Boone County six months ago. Since then, the community has endured quarantine and economic shocks and watched with alarm as the number of cases has risen in Columbia and elsewhere in the state and country.
What have these six months meant for the community, and what are the next six likely to bring?
On Jan. 20 the first confirmed case of COVID-19 appeared in the United States, and by March 13 the virus had made its way to Boone County, according to the COVID-19 information hub.
When asked in the first week of March what he thought would happen, Stevan Whitt, an infectious disease specialist at MU Health Care, said Missouri residents were not at an elevated risk and recommended now seemingly quaint precautions, such as coughing into your elbow. This was at a time when there were reportedly 105 COVID-19 cases nationwide and none in the state.
A week later, March 13, Gov. Mike Parson declared a state of emergency. On the same day, the UM System suspended in-person classes for the rest of the semester.
“The primary purpose of this emergency declaration is to provide greater flexibility in allocating our state resources,” Parson said at the time, “not because the local health providers feel they are overwhelmed.”
The Missourian reported the first confirmed case in Boone County on March 17, but the information hub shows now that the virus had confirmed presence as early as the March 13. The first novel coronavirus death in the county was March 18. It was also the first COVID-19 death in the state.
As spring progressed, people began to adjust to life in quarantine, after a fashion. TikTok, Tiger King and at-home concert broadcasts from the likes of Elton John and Lady Gaga attempted to calm public tensions over the “new normal.” These cultural artifacts, though, seemed tiny in comparison to the enormity of joblessness and the growing understanding that the most vulnerable communities — the elderly, the incarcerated and the essential — were at tremendous risk.
Boone County stay-at-home orders eased May 3 as spring gave way to summer. Salons, shops and gyms cautiously welcomed returning patrons. Hopes that the warm weather would somehow help eradicate the virus evaporated in the summer sun, as outdoor recreation resumed and COVID-19 continued to spread.
On May 11, business owners filed a lawsuit against Health Director Stephanie Browning, who had ordered a slow reopening of commercial life in the city. The suit was later dropped.
With this new chapter in coronavirus history, virulent debates emerged about mask protocols, social distancing and how to proceed with school. On July 7, after heated dialogue, the Columbia City Council voted to make masks mandatory in Columbia.
MU announced it would resume in the fall with blended instruction. Returning students who were veterans of “Zoom U” now adapted to another change — sitting in socially distant classrooms and packing masks along other school supplies.
CPS students chose between online or in-person instruction. The decision, for many families, was fraught with difficulty. Cases in Columbia and Boone County swelled with the return of university students, and by the end of August, CPS announced that fall instruction would be completely virtual.
“By keeping the bars open, we have shut down the schools,” said council member Ian Thomas in a meeting Sept. 8. If City Council had been stricter about interactions in the community, schools might not have been pushed online, he contended.
Now, with advances like saliva test strips on the near horizon and a widely available vaccine predicted for mid-2021, cases continue an upward trend in Boone County and responses to COVID-19 are a mix of stringent discipline and wishful thinking. MU recently suspended three students and expelled two others for violating social distance rules at the same time that Boone County health officials eased restrictions on bars.
As the nation nears 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, flu season approaches and communities brace for the next set of challenges the virus may bring.
One thing is clear: We’re in it for the long haul.