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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

If You’ve Grown Numb To Kansas City’s Coronavirus Numbers, Try Thinking Of Them This Way

Julie Denesha
Carlton Logan reflects in a park near his home in Overland Park, Kansas. Logan has lost six friends to the coronavirus.

With case numbers at tens of thousands and number fatigue setting in, one Kansas Citian shares a smaller number to consider: six. The number of people he personally has lost.

Missouri has confirmed more than 57,000 cases of COVID-19, with more than 1,300 deaths so far.

In Kansas, those numbers are 30,000 and 365 respectively.

To put that in perspective, the number of people who have died in the two states combined could just about fill the Uptown Theater. Not quite, but almost. The number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Missouri alone is roughly equivalent to the population of Blue Springs. But for many of us, a disorienting kind of fatigue has settled in. These numbers have become a routine part of the day. We shake our heads, pour a cup of coffee and move on.

That doesn't surprise Brian Houston, a University of Missouri researcher who specializes in crisis communication. He says humans are wired to react more strongly to new risks than to old risks.

Consider the way we think about risks associated with driving. Over many decades, it's become very normal to go careening down highways in containers of steel at 70 miles per hour. We know it's risky, but we don't give it much thought, and we let information about car crash fatalities wash over us.

"It's just part of our understanding of how the world works," Houston says.

COVID-19 numbers are becoming a little like nightly news stories from accident scenes. We find them sad. We don't find them shocking.

"The longer this pandemic goes on, the more it's a constant drum beat of numbers," Houston explains. "Statistics like that are really easy to disengage from."

He says it's the singular story that resonates, not the statistic.

Which is why Carlton Logan's number, though smaller, is so poignant. His number is six. That's how many people in his life have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

"These are people that I have known, that I've spent time with, that are now gone on because of this virus," he says.

KS case numbers.jpg
Kansas Department of Health and Environment
Charts like this one, depicting case numbers by date from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, are becoming a familiar sight.

The first person he lost, back in April, was a childhood friend. Their mothers were friends. They went to church together. That friend, Marvin Jackson, became something of a local gospel celebrity in the 1970s.

"He wrote his own gospel music, which was unheard of at that time," Logan recalls. "A lot of us young people admired it. The older folks didn't quite know what to do with it."

Jackson was one of 51 people to contract the virus in March at a church conference in Kansas City, Kansas. Logan watched the simulcast of Jackson's funeral alone, from home, stepping away from the screen more than once because the grief was too much to bear.

"This is someone I've known all my life," says Logan. "Those first two or three weeks, I think I cried every day."

More recently, Logan heard from a friend he'd met while working at Worlds of Fun as a teenager. Both of her parents had gotten COVID-19 in an assisted living community. A couple weeks later, the friend posted her mom's obituary to Facebook. Logan's been remembering the delicious, oven-baked sandwiches his friend's mom made the first time he went to her house. Her death is the one that raised Logan's personal COVID number to six.

So when Logan sees the big numbers, he can't minimize them. His math works the other way.

"I always think about that ripple effect," he says.

By Logan's math, for every person who has died of COVID-19, at least 15 to 20 other people are profoundly affected — friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers. So to calculate the ripple effect, he multiplies the number you see in the death tolls by 15 or 20. That's the number of people whose lives will never be the same.

"That's what I consider when I hear those numbers," he says. "It's not just a life that has ended. It is another period that's started for those who survive. We are going to be sad. We are going to be grief-stricken. That's trauma."

But Logan, like the rest of us, hears the numbers differently than he used to. At first, his fear was overwhelming and debilitating. He could barely make himself go to the grocery store. That's changed. "I have to be able to rest, I need that self-care. I can't let it get to me too much," he says.

Brian Houston says this is something we're all left to grapple with in the absence of a clear plan of action for dealing with the pandemic.

"In many ways," says Houston, "the biggest challenge here is that when we have no sense that there are things that can be done, we've got to find another way to deal with the stress and anxiety that we're feeling."

MO case numbers.jpg
A COVID-19 dashboard can be accessed on the website for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, with tabs for case numbers, hospitalizations, deaths and more. For many, checking these numbers is part of a daily routine.

This is not unlike the way we've been coping with climate change, Houston says.

"It's bad temperatures and heat records and levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Numbers, numbers, numbers, you know? And nothing's being done collectively about it in real earnest," he says. "I can do my local thing, but it's sort of like, at some point you're just kinda like, 'Ah, I can't deal with this anymore.'"

He says there are three ways people deal with that type of anxiety, and most of us dabble in all of them to some degree or another. You've got monitoring (hyper-vigilance and constant information gathering), magical thinking (susceptibility to theories that make the problem not-real), and then this other thing, which is what allows us to calmly drink our coffee over grim case counts.

"It's not exactly fatalistic, but it's like, well, the disease is just going on. Hopefully I won't get it. I have to get on with my life."

Meanwhile, the numbers continue to climb, and Carlton Logan has just gotten word that two cousins in Mississippi have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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