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Our pandemic year: On anniversary of first case, COVID-19 still dominates Upper Valley discourse

  • Maggie Cassidy. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Editor
Published: 3/1/2021 8:31:08 PM
Modified: 3/1/2021 8:31:05 PM

In the coming days and weeks, the Valley News will reflect on the Upper Valley’s pandemic year.

Yes, it’s true: We’ve made a full trip around the sun beneath the weight of this pandemic. The first case of COVID-19 in the Upper Valley was confirmed one year ago, on March 2, 2020. Discovered in a Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical provider who lived in Grafton County and had recently traveled to Italy, an early outbreak hotspot, the case also marked the arrival of the virus to the Twin States at large.

It was a jolt, for sure. “Illness arrives in Upper Valley” read the March 3 headline atop the Valley News, above a picture of a Cornish resident arranging a haul of paper towels and other supplies in the back of his pickup truck in the parking lot of a West Lebanon big box store. Another photo showed a woman who had driven to five stores looking for hand sanitizer and masks, without luck. Anxiety was high.

For the most part, though, life continued. Scientists were still learning about the novel coronavirus in those early days, and the prevailing belief among health officials was that a person had to be showing symptoms of illness in order to pass the virus to another person. Mask use was not yet encouraged, except among health care providers, and you could go to the grocery store without seeing a single face covering.

It would be another week before the routines of life in the Upper Valley rapidly fell apart.

By that point, a second patient had contracted the virus, but only after coming into contact with the first patient when he was showing symptoms. Then, early on Sunday, March 8, we found out that there was a third case in the Upper Valley. The virus had been passed from the second patient to the third during a West Lebanon church service.

The important distinction: The second patient was feeling well when he passed the virus on to the third, marking clear evidence of asymptomatic spread. The idea that staying home when we felt sick was enough to quash the virus soon collapsed.

The headlines of the week — “Officials work to contain cases” (March 9), “NH health officials: Do not panic” (March 12), “Trump declares emergency” (March 14), to cite but a few — culminated in a large-font headline stripped across the top of the Monday, March 16, edition: “NH, Vermont close all public schools.” Life was far from normal. The Twin States all but shut down. And over the next year, so much was lost, and so much changed.

Why do anniversaries matter? Do we as humans — and especially we in the news business — care about them too much?

Fair questions. Perhaps 365 days is an arbitrary measurement, making more or less sense depending on what you’re trying to calculate.

But I think many would agree that anniversaries, with their familiar pacing across the calendar, help us mark the passage of time and the scope of change, help us to try to measure what feels immeasurable.

For many, the series of anniversaries coming up this month — the virus’s arrival; the first shutdowns; the loss of a job; the last time we traveled, or in some cases, the last time we left our neighborhoods or homes — are painful. That’s perhaps never more true than for the millions of people worldwide who lost loved ones in March 2020 and the 11 months since. New Hampshire has reported 1,170 deaths; Vermont, 205; each one of them a person with a story.

For our part, we turned to both our newsroom staff and to our readers to mark one year in the pandemic, in a series of stories we’re calling “Our Pandemic Year.” Together, over email, messaging apps and video meetings, the news staff brainstormed ideas that coalesced around two broad topics: looking back and looking forward. What did this past year look like? Who and what did we lose? What will we carry forward? What may be changed forever?

We also put versions of these questions to readers, who came through in droves contributing stories, photographs, paintings and even a song. Many of their stories, told in their own words and ways, will also be shared under the “Our Pandemic Year” moniker, starting this week through Sunday, March 14.

Some of these stories are hopeful, and some of them reflect the grief we have all felt in one form or another over the past 12 months. I hope that they offer a sense of shared connection for what we could hardly have imagined a little more than a year ago, but which we have experienced together.

Valley News editor Maggie Cassidy can be reached at

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