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'No number for the hugs I wish I could have given': 11Alive reporter reflects on covering COVID, 1 year later

It's been one year since Georgia reported its first COVID-19 case. Investigator Rebecca Lindstrom looks back on the data and impact.

ATLANTA — When I left my desk in February last year to work from home, I thought I’d be back in the newsroom a few weeks later. 

Instead, my closet has become an audio tracking booth, and my bedroom a makeshift studio. 

I had no idea at the time words like PCR, quarantine, intubate, and antibodies would become household terms. But I did know, data would be essential to accountability as we tried to navigate our way through the virus. 

That’s my niche. Numbers. 

Early on, 11Alive set up its own databases to track dozens of metrics. It’s hard to put an exact number on it since some are updated daily, others monthly. But when I counted last, there were 173 different metrics being tracked.

Life has taught me it’s not the numbers that matter. It’s the stories and lessons we learn through them.

For a year now, I’ve watched as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and time with friends and family at Christmas have all led to new record numbers in positive cases - and eventually deaths. Our highest one-day count for new Georgia cases reported, was Jan. 8, 2021, with 10,379 positive PCR test (the kinds that detect the virus's genetic material) results.

Heading into March, 56,000 total people in Georgia have gone to the hospital seriously ill with COVID-19. More than 15,000 people had died. 

RELATED: White House report: Georgia's COVID indicators remain high compared to other states

Credit: WXIA

I worried the protests this summer would also impact spread, but knew the voices of those marching for police reform and racial equality needed to be heard. Just as those heading to the polls needed to cast their ballot.

I also remember the sense of community last spring. Hospital staff celebrated as patients – once sick with COVID-19 – were well enough to go home. 

People bought out craft stores to sew masks and gowns when supplies were nowhere to be found. Others found ways to print more than 1,100 3-D masks for healthcare workers. Dr. Mark Causey, who spearheaded one effort, said the template they created was downloaded nearly 10,000 times in 22 countries.

When we believed COVID-19 only impacted the elderly or those with chronic health conditions, children stepped up - demanding they not be forgotten. Maybe they didn’t pose as much of a threat to the spread of the virus, but they could still get it. As of March 1, 90,795 Georgia children have tested positive for COVID-19, 1,092 have been hospitalized and 10 have died.

Our youth have also reminded us, they are not immune from the isolation and loneliness that came from quarantine. The Child Fatality Task Force believes 62 children, ages 17 and under, committed suicide last year; they’re still waiting on the investigations around their deaths to be completed to finalize the number. The CDC reports drug related deaths are also up 18%.

RELATED: Children's Atlanta warns about increase in cases of of MIS-C COVID complication in children

Credit: WXIA

This past year, I’ve learned COVID-19 isn’t just about those that are hospitalized. About 10% of those who test positive, will still battle long-term health effects months later. 

I’m still haunted by the words of one avid runners who now struggles to walk upstairs. She told me she hates waking up in the morning because the pain is still there.

RELATED: 'I hate the mornings when I have to wake up': Mom describes long-term health effects of COVID-19

While last spring the lack of test kits led to long lines and frustration, this spring it's vaccine availability that’s creating the panic. While the Governor has increased eligibility, we can only vaccinate people as fast as the federal government and vaccine manufacturers can supply the doses. 

For some, the past year has been an inconvenience. But for others, COVID-19 represents a lost job - even a lost dream as their small business closes its doors for good. There are families still fighting to pay their rent or mortgage worried COVID-19 will also mean losing their home.

In April, unemployment peaked at 12.6%. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly a third of all Georgians say they’re still behind on their mortgage or rent.

As the number of new COVID-19 cases start to slow, exhausted frontline workers wonder if they’ll soon be able to pack up the makeshift hospital tents and mobile buildings that have flanked their front doors. This week’s White House COVID Task Force says 23% of all hospitals are trying to meet patient needs despite staffing shortages.

RELATED: 'Numb', 'grief', 'fatigued': Health care workers sum up COVID-19 in one word. What's yours?

But of all the data points I could share, I can’t even count how many hugs I wish I could have given.

It seemed unnatural, even inhumane, to sit so far away as I listened to Felicia Selkirk share the story of her father’s life and death, to push back at those who claimed COVID-19 wasn’t real. The CDC reports Georgia experienced 11,565 more deaths this past year than were expected.

I want to go and hug all of the residents in nursing homes that feel forgotten or just want to be touched. 

And I wish I could comfort the nurses and doctors that shared what it was really like inside the ICU in hopes people would wear a mask or stay home.

Sure it would be great to again sit at my desk. But it would matter so much more to hug and hold. 

I hope that’s the story I’m telling next year – when we talk about COVID-19.