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OPINION: Mortality reality in the dog-food aisle as public health questions emerge

Bluefield Daily Telegraph - 3/22/2020

Mar. 22--The preferred dog food is on the top shelf, and I quickly realize my German shepherds' favorite brand must be liked by many hounds. The row is empty, save for one final bag.

It's out of reach of my short stature, and I wonder if I should call a clerk so that Pica and Cassie can have chicken instead of the less-popular lamb.

Five seconds into pondering my options, the cellphone rings and dings simultaneously. An in-the-know friend is texting as the newsroom calls.

Answering the phone, on-duty reporter Emily Coppola tells me succinctly, "There's a second case -- in Mercer County."

The texts share the same message.

There is no need to elaborate.

Cold chills run down my spine.

----I have not panicked in these days of coronavirus concern. We must be informed and educated. We must practice common-sense measures. We must know our enemy and work as a united team to stem the spread of a minuscule adversary that wields mighty power when attacking the weak and elderly.

It's a bug. And bugs can be crushed.

When West Virginia reported its first case I was not worried. It was in a panhandle -- an oft-foreign place for those who reside in the cozy comfort of the southern counties. Heck, I was once served cheese with french fries instead of ketchup in one of those northern regions.

Then the news. Case No. 2. In Mercer County.

----Bearing the attention span of a gnat, I was over COVID-19 three days after the headlines began.

News is a cycle. Breaking events overtake others. Life is not static, and neither are front-page stories.

But this bug refused to be squashed. It continued its spread, and we in West Virginia remained immune for a short time. The U.S. map on national news was red except for one lone beacon of hope.

The Mountain State. Home of the 'eers, moonshine and country roads

There were plenty of jokes on social media and quips on twitter. Maybe the coal dust and inbreeding made us immune, some posted.

I rolled my eyes at the old and tired attempts at humor.

Then, in the middle of the dog-food aisle on a late night after work, things changed.

It was here.

And it was no laughing matter.

----Like most businesses, our lives changed at the newspaper. We looked at staffing, schedules and production.

Some employees were able to work from home, others were not. Our third scenario involved rotating shifts for those who needed to be in, but could also be out -- a 50-50 split, of sorts, between the office and home.

I fall into the latter category, with my on-the-clock time now cycling between the newsroom, my kitchen and, on sunny days, my back porch.

The porch is the preferred venue for the German shepherds. My multi-tasking skills include throwing a tennis ball while interviewing sources.

And interviewing sources -- while maintaining constant phone, text and email contact with reporters -- was how I spent Day One at home.

It was illuminating.

----I have concerns.

Not Chicken Little "The sky is falling" worries, but, I believe, legitimate questions.

But, before that, let me point out that as a media source, we are in the age-old "damned if we do, damned if we don't" situation.

Many of our readers believe the pandemic is an over-hyped story fueled by media sensationalism. Others are gravely concerned and want as much news as they can get.

That said, it's important for us to get the facts from the folks best qualified to answer our questions.

So why haven't any of the Mercer CountyBoard of Health members we've reached out to answered our calls? Why haven't they responded to questions? Why haven't they attempted to provide information and allay fears?

Granted some calls have been placed after hours, but pandemics don't run on a 9-to-5 schedule.

I look at the backgrounds of our Board of Health members, and begin questioning their appointment by the Mercer County Commission.

Why are there no members with true expertise in public health emergencies? This illness is killing people. There's an honest-to-God mortality rate. Yet we at the Daily Telegraph are getting ... crickets.

This crisis should alert our county officials that public health goes far beyond whether smoking should be allowed at a bingo parlor.

It's life and death.

It should also be noted that the current Board of Health can be dissolved, and actual experts appointed. Perhaps it's something we should think about as we move forward from this crisis.

----Hours before writing this column I am quoted scripture in the check-out line at a store. The message does not trouble me, as I am not convinced it is the end of days.

But I do believe it's a teaching moment. One we can, and should, learn from.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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