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Researcher, widow say numbers alone don’t convey the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic

(KSL TV)

SALT LAKE CITY — On Tuesday, the death toll in Utah surpassed 3,600 deaths since the pandemic began with 11 newly announced COVID-19 related fatalities.

Numbers like those would have undoubtedly seemed staggering early on in the pandemic and yet, some now say they don’t register nearly enough.

The daily counts increasingly have less staying power when it comes to influencing people and their behaviors, noted Jakob Jensen, an associate dean for research at the University of Utah’s College of Humanities, who is engaged in current research on the topic of strategic communication in the pandemic.

“For people that were kind of in the middle, I would say — sometimes they were adherent, sometimes they weren’t — they were influenced actually by the daily counts,” Jensen told KSL TV. “That effect, though, in the state of Utah, vanished in July of 2020.”

Somewhere along the way, Jensen suggested, those circulating information to the public made a critical mistake and might be in need of a strategic shift.

“We don’t make the pandemic disgusting enough,” Jensen said. “We have fought with gloves on the entire time and I’ve been saying ever since the beginning a fundamental misstep we made in this pandemic that has cost us significantly is we started depicting the pandemic as this little ball of germs with antennas on it and it wasn’t disgusting. If you’ve spent any time in an ICU and I have, COVID is messy and gross and that’s why some of the imagery that came out early on where we would see the physical toll upon our frontline workers was so powerful — because we were kind of depicting it as a cartoon bad guy. It’s not a cartoon bad guy, and that’s also why that imagery frustrates our frontline workers so much — because they feel like the public gets a sanitized, cartoon version of the pandemic and then doesn’t really view it as it is, right? They’ve never seen somebody choke to death on blood.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the widow of 41-year-old Cory Horton, who died in October from a stroke and complications of COVID-19.

Jenny Horton said she and her children have suffered a toll many still do not fully comprehend or realize 20 months into the pandemic.

“I’ve been with Cory since I was 16 years old and, like I said, he was healthy and this is what’s happened,” the widow said. “This is my reality.”

Jenny Horton said her husband initially seemed to hold up well in the initial days of the illness back at the end of September but his health suddenly turned worse.

“I really wanted him to get the vaccine and he wanted to wait a little bit longer,” Horton said. “Oct. 3, I ended up taking him to the hospital. His oxygen was statting at about 87.”

Cory Horton was in the hospital for about five days before being released.

“When he got home, he was excited to be back,” Jenny Horton said. “He was on oxygen and was here.”

Horton said later that night, her husband was watching a baseball game when their daughter came up the stairs and said, ‘Dad can’t talk.’

“I knew he was having a stroke but I didn’t know how severe,” Horton said.

After multiple treatments and lengthy surgery, Cory Horton died 14 hours later on Oct. 10.

She and their children were left to contemplate many unforgiving realities.

“This is out there and if a vaccine shot could help, or if I have one hope — that he would have been vaccinated — that maybe that stroke would not have taken him,” Jenny Horton said, teary-eyed.

Horton also said she believed and hoped that sharing a more vivid picture of the horror stories of the ICU would sway those who haven’t felt the need to take precautions in the pandemic.

“People don’t know the kind of coughing and the fear in that hospital,” Horton said. “If Cory could say something, that’s what he would say. He would say that what he listened to and what he went through in that hospital and then coming home, being rushed out and not being able to speak, to say goodbye — he would have gotten any sort of vaccine to help that.”

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