Karen Mead-Elford has noticed the number of death notices published in her small-town newspaper growing. They might not be all from COVID, she says, but that doesn’t make them any easier to fathom. “There’s a lot of coping going on.”
OWOSSO, Mich.—In her 24 years as a community journalist, Karen Mead-Elford had never seen the number of death notices she received last week.
The editor at The Owosso Independent, a weekly newspaper in the mid-Michigan community of Owosso, Mead-Elford said the sheer number of death notices from local funeral homes weighed heavily on her. While she admits they likely weren’t all related to COVID-19, the looming effects of the pandemic combined with the mourning she knows families across the Owosso and Shiawassee County communities felt after so many people were lost in one stretch of time.
“That’s a lot of people losing family members right here in the county area,” Mead-Elford, 53, told The ‘Gander. “There’s a lot of coping going on for people. It’s a lot of struggle, a lot of heartbreak.”
Mead-Elford thinks of herself as a positive person, for the most part. But that bubbly exterior has been a challenge to maintain over the past two years. The pandemic has loomed over her small-town community, and she says she has watched it affect the lives of her coworkers, all while still working to put out a paper.
“There’s been a lot of heartbreak related to co-workers who have struggled in so many different ways, and at a community newspaper, your coworkers very much become like a family,” she said.
A single mother of two, Mead-Elford said she’s had her own struggles during the pandemic. She described her experience during the pandemic as stressful. Her teenagers were in and out of school, she was working over 60 hours a week, and she said she was constantly trying to make herself available to anyone who needed her in the community.
“It was hard,” Mead-Elford said. “It takes a toll, you know?”
The veteran community journalist said she was practically sleeping with her phone under her pillow, never knowing when something was going to come up during the middle of the night—either related to work or family. Things were especially challenging in 2020 and early 2021, she said, before she realized she needed to take a step back.
“It was nonstop and I was trying very hard to be on top of all of it,” she said. “And the last two or three months, I have started to cut back a little bit because I have to. I realized I was taking a toll on my family and myself as well my health and I had to start figuring out when I could remove myself a little bit because I was really getting emotionally depressed about seeing so many people in the community in all the different various struggles.”
Community newspapers were struggling prior to 2020. The pandemic has only compounded things, Mead-Elford said. At the Independent, that has looked like people deciding to leave the profession.
But things during the pandemic became harder in different, unexpected ways, Mead-Elford said. People were suddenly hostile toward community reporters. She compared local newspapers to bridges, connecting people to information about their communities, from budget information to city council discussions and issues at school board meetings.
Though that became more difficult during the pandemic, she said she stuck with it because of the importance local media plays in every community.
“My passion as a journalist is for the community, I wouldn’t have stuck with it as long if that wasn’t my passion,” she said.
Michigan has seen more than 1 million people contract COVID-19. As of Friday, more than 25,000 people in the state had died from the virus—a number higher than the most recent population sizes for communities such as Okemos, Wyandotte, and Mount Pleasant.
When Mead-Elford looks at the number of Michiganders who have died from COVID-19, she said she feels a level of shock.
“I’m not sure some people take a moment to think, 25,000 people, you know, what that really entails and how many hundreds of thousands and probably millions were affected by that,” she said.