SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Meet Linda and Jim.
At first, nobody looked to them for health information as COVID-19 swept into the US in early 2020. Yet over a pandemic year filled with swirling uncertainty and confusing statistics, they emerged as unlikely heroes.
Armed with spreadsheets and databases, their dedication and accuracy quickly elevated them into trusted, go-to sources of pandemic information for a growing number of online fans.
Linda and Jim aren't journalists or public health professionals. They don't get paid for what they do. Still, they took it upon themselves to daily gather COVID-19 information and publish reports about new cases, hospitalizations, breakdowns of media briefings and summaries of pandemic news reports.
Linda is state Rep. Linda Duba, an elementary school educator and Democrat who represents a district in Sioux Falls. Jim is Dr. Jim Buchanan. He's a retired physician who lives in Rapid City.
Duba started posting her first reports to Facebook on March 10, the day state officials announced the state's first COVID-19 cases and first fatality. She first meant to simply provide information to her constituents, but her approach to her reports compelled people to share them with others.
"My thought was, provide summaries of what the information is. Disseminate the information to the populace — straight up, nonpartisan, here’s what we know,” she said. "I got deeper and deeper into it as people demanded it. What I discovered was, the demand found me.”
She'd gather her information on a yellow legal pad, hand calculate data, then put up her daily post, carefully bulleting her information with numbers and letters. Later, her son helped build a database that would output data into a Word document.
At first she just reported top-line summaries and analysis of data made available by the state Department of Health. Soon she added bite-sized distillations of COVID-19 news she labeled "news you can use."
"Please know that each positive number is a person. Let's not lose sight of this fact," she wrote near the top of each of her posts. Later she began posting submitted memorials for those killed in the pandemic.
"I felt it was my responsibility to the state of South Dakota and my constituents to keep a daily record of how the pandemic was affecting our daily lives," she said. "It gives people a sense of transparency, and even though some of the numbers are disturbing, it lets people know what’s going on and lets them decide how they want to react."
Buchanan had originally turned to his Twitter account to opine on politics. Then COVID-19 arrived. He enjoyed working with numbers, statistics and spreadsheets. So he decided to merge his skills and background to become a source of COVID-19 information and analysis.
"I saw people misinterpreting data and asking questions, so I really shut down any political commentary and decided, you know what, I’m going to try to become a credible source of information, to answer questions people have, to repackage the data so it’s visual and it made more sense," he said "It’s taken on a life of its own."
Buchanan's approach was much the same as Duba's — straight-up, no-nonsense, easily accessible. It grew him an audience of fans and followers he calls his "corona club." He enters data into a spiral notebook, checks the data and enters into a spreadsheet.
"Generally speaking, I try to do just the facts, and maybe, if I can call it an expert opinion or an educated opinion about what a data point might mean, then I comment on that," he said. "That was my goal — to be informative, much less opinion.”
Duba and Buchanan's reports quickly became popular, and regularly shared, on a Facebook group created by Brenda Moss, a neuroscience research scientist who transitioned to scientific/language editing. Moss says she founded the "South Dakota COVID-19 Discussion Group" as a place for people interested in data tracking and analysis to talk to each other, and as a home for accurate reporting and insights amid a sea of misinformation.
The group quickly grew into a central hub of news and information in the state, and as of January 2021 has 7,200 followers.
"I think many people (myself included) often look at the graphs and tables on the South Dakota DOH website and wonder what it means. What is our current situation? Is the pandemic getting better or worse? What does this mean for me, my family, and my community?" Moss wrote in response to emailed questions from Forum News Service. "Both Dr. Buchanan and Rep. Duba help us answer these questions by providing clear, unbiased summaries of the data that reveal trends not always readily apparent on the DOH website."
Asked about the work of Moss, Duba and Buchanan, site members were effusive.
Duba "looks through all of the news and press conferences. She gives honest facts not pulling you to one side or the other," wrote Karmen Groos. "Many times I have stopped listening to it in the news and just review her recaps. It gives me the information I need and none of the drama. If anyone questions her data she recheck(s) it or shares how she got it.