This time a year ago, everything changed: 12 months of pandemic life and death in NC

Andrew Carter
·13 min read

This time a year ago, a pastor received a phone call from a man in need of prayer.

Before the call, it had been an ordinary Tuesday for Wolfgang Herz-Lane, the senior pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Cary. After it, he suspected that life would be different, that things might change quickly. The only question was by how much and how soon.

It was March 3, 2020 — a year ago Wednesday. Herz-Lane was at home, watching the news. The lead story was everywhere: North Carolina had reported its first case of COVID-19.

The man who’d tested positive was a Wake County resident. He’d returned from a trip to Washington state, officials said, where he’d visited a long-term care facility with an outbreak. The revelation felt urgent. A threat that once seemed far away had arrived.

Gov. Roy Cooper addressed the state during a news conference.

“We’ve been preparing for this,” he said then. “And we do expect to see more cases in North Carolina.” He tried to offer calm confidence: “I want to assure you the state of North Carolina is prepared.”

The person on the other end of Herz-Lane’s call was a member of his congregation who said: “The guy they are talking about on the news — that’s me.”

In those early days, before there became too many cases to track, public health officials tried to make connections and identify where the infected had been and who they’d encountered. The earliest cases arrived in North Carolina with people returning from somewhere else: from northern Italy and from Indiana and from a Biogen corporate conference in Boston.

A week and a half after the state’s first case, there were 31 more — eight of them in Wake County. About a month after that, by April 15, there were 5,123 people who’d tested positive, 117 of whom had died. By mid-May, 17,128 North Carolinians had tested positive, and 641 had died.

And now, a year after the state’s first case, there have been 863,409 more, as of Tuesday. Among those who’ve tested positive, 11,288 have died.

We can look back and understand the scale. We can remember a time when a socially-distant, virtual funeral was not yet a grim rite. A time before all the lost jobs and lost moments. When the people we’ve lost were still with us.

This time a year ago, no one had died of the virus in North Carolina. We had not yet stopped going into offices or schools or stadiums. We had not yet tested the limits of our tolerance for solitude. We had not yet made masks a part of our wardrobe. This time a year ago, the virus had only just arrived.

A church rallies around ‘Our Sibling in Christ’

The first North Carolinian who’d tested positive called his pastor. Together they prayed over the phone.

The man did not want anyone to know that he was the first case, and still does not. Through Herz-Lane, he has turned down repeated interview requests from news organizations, including one from The News & Observer and another from “60 Minutes.”

The day after Herz-Lane received the phone call, he emailed a letter to his congregation, informing members that one of their own had the virus. That was a Wednesday, and the night of the weekly church dinner. Soon, news vans were circling, reporters with cameras waiting outside.

“A little disconcerting,” Herz-Lane said. “Just because our TV friends just were very persistent.”

Inside the church, Herz-Lane helped members confront the surreal reality that “this pandemic came to us on day one,” he said. That of all the places it could’ve first arrived in North Carolina, it had come to Cary, and to Christ the King. Herz-Lane thought about things we all soon came to think about: cleaning and sterilizing and mitigating risk.

Most of all, he thought about someone he cared about, and feared for him. The man who tested positive quarantined before “quarantine” became a part of our vocabulary. Herz-Lane solicited prayers while protecting the man’s identity.

“We were able to put in place a process,” he said, “where we said if you would like to send a card to this person, please address it to Our Sibling in Christ, and send it to the church office, and we’ll make sure they get it.

“And that happened, and we had thousands of cards that people sent in.”

It was a time of shock and immediate change. The man first infected became sick and recovered. The news vans left. Other places became the story of the day.

For a while, Herz-Lane waited for normalcy. Maybe by Easter, he thought. And then: Maybe by fall.

“And now we’ve gotten careful with that,” he said, after learning that this is not a time for predictions.

The last full, in-person service Herz-Lane held was the Sunday after the first case. It was last March 8. At the time, he was talking every day with the infected man. Herz-Lane checked on him, prayed with him, offered comfort.

Yet that, too, represented change, for it was over the phone. In one way it was the first of perhaps the most significant change Herz-Lane experienced. Throughout his life as a pastor he’d always comforted the sick face-to-face. Even if his virtual services attracted larger audiences than any in person, “it’s not really the same,” he said.

“It’s a very, very strange world of caring as a pastor for your flock,” Herz-Lane said, “when you can’t meet with them and you can’t hug them.” A year later, he still missed delivering Communion, missed “raising the bread in somebody’s hand.”

There was no way to know when he’d be able to do that again.

Albert Robinson holds a photograph of himself together with his wife, who died of complications from COVID-19, on Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2021, in Raleigh, N.C.
Albert Robinson holds a photograph of himself together with his wife, who died of complications from COVID-19, on Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2021, in Raleigh, N.C.

A sad goodbye, made harder by a pandemic

This time a year ago, a husband of 59 years weighed a decision he did not want to make.

Albert Robinson and his wife, Claire, who preferred going by her middle name of Joanne, had been married since June 18, 1961. They’d known each other for much longer. They’d been a couple through college and since high school. They’d grown up together in the little town of Sherman, Maine, where in fourth grade their desks were just a few feet apart, a boy and a girl who didn’t know they’d spend their lives together.

Life had taken them from Maine to Baltimore, where Joanne was a nurse at Johns Hopkins, and then to upstate New York, where Albert, now 81, became the chair of the biology department at a state university. They loved big cities and music, and one of their most memorable concerts was Simon and Garfunkel, right after “The Graduate” came out in 1967.

Many years later and after some time in Texas, they wound up in Raleigh — “a compromise,” as Albert put it, to be closer to their grandchildren in Pennsylvania yet far enough south to avoid the worst of winter. And it was here in North Carolina where Joanne came to be diagnosed with what Albert described as “a mild cognitive impairment.” It was progressive.

One of the last great memories they shared, Albert said, was the Women’s March in early 2017. He and Joanne were among the thousands who gathered in downtown Raleigh that day “and that was very important, for both of us,” he said. Gradually, her mild cognitive impairment became something more insidious.

“I would guess three or four years ago, her psychiatrist started talking about dementia,” Albert said.

His wife’s decline coincided with a once-in-a-century pandemic. The virus complicated matters for Albert and his wife, as it complicated challenges for people everywhere. By the start of July, more than 66,500 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in North Carolina. About 1,400 of them had died.

By then, the indirect cost of the pandemic was coming more into focus: the loss of jobs, the failing businesses, the untold and incalculable cost of months of isolation, the intangible toll of navigating life in this moment, one unpredictable day at a time.

Throughout the late spring and summer, the country and state burned in a literal and figurative way following the death of George Floyd. Weeks of protests left city blocks boarded up in downtown Raleigh and a lot of other places.

Meanwhile, the pandemic stretched on without an end. It affected not just the sick or the dying or those in charge of their care. It affected us all, in our own ways. It exacerbated inequities in marginalized communities. It increased pain in those already suffering. For Albert Robinson, it made a difficult decision only more agonizing.

He’d known for a while there would come a time when he could no longer care for his wife. Yet because of the virus, he said, “I didn’t want to put her into memory care, because I knew we wouldn’t be able to visit because of the restrictions.”

He turned the question over in his mind:

“What’s better? Do I put her in there, or do I keep her at home and not be able to provide the care that she needed?”

In July, Joanne moved into a memory care facility. It was within walking distance of the apartment where she’d lived with Albert. Albert visited around 1 p.m. every day. At first he stood outside her window, but it was summer and hot, so soon the staff wheeled his wife to a common area, where Albert could stand outside in the shade of a covered porch.

“We would be about five feet apart,” he said, “separated by a window.”

During the visits a staff member held a phone to Joanne’s ear, and Albert talked to her. He was never sure how much of it got through, but once, he said, one of the staffers asked her if she knew who was on the other end of the phone.

“And she said, ‘That’s my husband,’” Albert recalled. “‘He’s a nice guy.’”

She liked pumpkin pie, so another time Albert asked if she wanted him to bring her some.

“And she said that she would, indeed,” he said.

So he often did, until she stopped eating and drinking. At the very end, Albert and Joanne’s two sons and a daughter-in-law were allowed inside, briefly, to say goodbye. It was Sept. 6. Everyone wore masks and protective equipment. The virus had spread inside the facility, too.

Albert held his wife’s hand for the final time. He told her he loved her. He cannot be sure that she heard.

It had been more than a month since they’d touched. After a 59-year marriage, it was not the kind of goodbye that felt appropriate. Yet it was the only kind that the times allowed.

Joanne died later that day, hours after Albert left. He returned home to a new kind of solitude.

Albert Robinson works on a puzzle in his apartment, on Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2021, in Raleigh, N.C.
Albert Robinson works on a puzzle in his apartment, on Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2021, in Raleigh, N.C.

A baby who has never known a world without COVID

This time a year ago, a mother held a newborn in her arms in the hospital.

Julia Casadonte gave birth to her second daughter, Lily, on March 2, 2020. It was “a very normal pregnancy,” she said, with the normal things that came after: visits from friends who brought takeout and a bottle of celebratory champagne. Then Casadonte and her husband, Chase, brought Lily back to their home in Cary just in time for life as we knew it to cease.

“It quickly changed from a feeling of kind of bliss and elation and joy,” Casadonte said, to a feeling of uncertainty and fear. “I just remember sitting down with my husband one night, a couple of days after we brought Lily home from the hospital, and he was like, ‘This is about to get really bad.’”

Lily was one day old when North Carolina publicized its first virus case. She wasn’t yet two weeks old when the state began shutting down on March 12. That was the day everything stopped, and almost all at once. In Greensboro, the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament was canceled minutes before the start of a game. Around the state, schools closed. Office buildings emptied.

Public spaces took on a quiet, eerie vibe. Once-busy roads became clear of traffic.

“It was just kind of this feeling of anxiety and terror, to be honest,” Casadonte said. She was speaking for herself, but she could’ve been speaking for anyone.

Her oldest daughter, Lucy, has adapted to a year of staying at home and tried to adapt to virtual kindergarten. She’s 5 and can remember a time before. Her younger sister, meanwhile, has never known a world outside of the virus. She has never been in public among a large group. She has never seen people outside her immediate family without masks.

She has yet to meet extended members of her family. When her oldest was born, Casadonte said, she and her husband took Lucy everywhere: to restaurants and Durham Bulls games and Hurricanes games and festivals. All things that, for the most part, have not existed within the past year.

“So her world is very small, compared to Lucy’s,” Casadonte, 35, said of the youngest. “And you can’t help but wonder how that’s going to shape her outlook of the world or her personality and how much that really is going to impact them as they get older.”

People born on Sept. 11 might feel a certain way about their birthdays, just as people born on Nov. 22, 1963 might feel about theirs. How will the children of 2020 feel one day about the year they entered the world? How will the pandemic and its aftermath shape them? Casadonte has thought about that broader question, how one day people will view March 2020 as a kind of dividing line between the before and the after.

Something that might have seemed mundane, like a trip to the grocery store, now feels more significant because “I know it’s really her only chance to kind of see different parts of the outside world,” Casadonte said.

She and her husband have been among the fortunate ones. They’ve kept their jobs and can work from home. They’ve maintained their health. And yet “it’s a pretty isolating time, as parents,” Casadonte said, “because you kind of don’t have your village, and that level of support from your circle, at least in person.”

Now, hopeful signs have emerged at last. The state has distributed more than 2.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. State officials have allowed for a slow reopening. Some businesses, like restaurants and bars, that have been closed for almost a year are welcoming a limited number of customers inside. A small number of spectators are allowed in stadiums.

For the first time in awhile, perhaps the other side is in sight. Maybe it will arrive by late summer. Maybe sooner. Inevitably, it seems, the state will surpass the million-case mark. Who knows how many more might die. The economic toll will take a long time to be calculated. Some costs will likely never be quantified.

One day, Casadonte said, she’ll tell Lily about her first year of life and “what a crazy time it was.”

On Tuesday, her family celebrated her first birthday, which coincided with the year anniversary of the last day North Carolina didn’t have a confirmed case of the virus.

After March 3, 2020 in North Carolina, nothing would ever be like it was before.