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Man watches Covid-19 pandemic unfold from one of most remote places on Earth


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    PORTLAND, Maine (WMTW) — A Maine native found himself in one of the most remote places on Earth as the coronavirus pandemic hit last year.

U.S. Antarctic Program weather observer Jeff DeRosa spent much of 2020 at the South Pole. It wasn’t his first time spending time there.

“My first time wintering, I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I’m doing this again.’ And then time goes by and you process it a little more, and I made the decision to go back for winter number two,” DeRosa said.

In January of last year, DeRosa headed back to Antarctica.

“Five-hour flight from Christchurch to McMurdo and another three-hour flight from McMurdo to the South Pole,” DeRosa said.

With months of darkness at a time, Antarctica is one of the best places to research astronomy.

“On planet Earth, you are not going to find a place that is more dry and interferes less with the data. You are trying to collect through a telescope,” DeRosa said.

His weather observations, which are taken several times a day, supported the astronomers nearby, while also helping to feed the forecast models that are used by meteorologists around the world.

“My particular job was looking at the sky and telling people about it. Launching weather balloons and sending that data in for the global climate models,” DeRosa said.

DeRosa and the winter crew were settling in at the same time COVID-19 was spreading from continent to continent.

“In February, COVID was in the news, but no one down there was really thinking about it until we had a flight coming into the South Pole and someone on the flight was sick. It wasn’t COVID, but that was the first time we were thinking, ‘Is this that virus we keep hearing about in the news?’” DeRosa said. The medical team took their precautions, and none of us were worried about it because we weren’t really thinking about COVID at that point.”

Communication from Antarctica was limited to a 12-hour period each day.

“We’re talking to loved ones back home, and they’re going into these lockdowns,” DeRosa said. “I could not picture what it was like showing up to Shaw’s or Hannaford and having to stand in line before going inside. Everything was just so foreign at that point because you’re so disconnected and quite frankly concerned.”

DeRosa remained in Antarctica through December and watched the pandemic unfold from one of the most remote places in the world.

“We all knew we were in this rare position where typically when we go to the South Pole for a whole year you are the isolated one. You’re the one who is locked down essentially,” DeRosa said. “This year was so much different because we were all dialed into what was happening at home, and the conversation constantly, I mean constantly, was not necessarily about COVID and the lockdowns but just trying to figure out what is it like. Who have you talked to back home and what is your perspective on what’s happening?”

As 2020 came to a close, DeRosa and the other members of his crew prepared to come home.

“The anxiety running around the station, once the station opening started getting closer, about when we’d be able to get out and get to the next thing, what was it going to look like?” DeRosa said.

They had to prepare to return to a world that had changed dramatically due to the pandemic.

DeRosa left Antarctica in December after a new crew was in place, first stopping in New Zealand.

“When I got to New Zealand, on the way out we were wearing masks on the plane because we were on restrictions just for the Antarctic program, but the second they let us out of the hotel. Life is normal right now in Christchurch, New Zealand,” DeRosa said. “You walk into a restaurant, a pub, whatever you want to do, no one is wearing a mask. No one is social distancing. Even when you get to the airport, you don’t put on a mask until you get on a plane. It just blew my mind.”

DeRosa flew to Los Angeles and then back home to Portland where the reality of life with coronavirus began sinking in.

“I had been out of this world. I was two days into COVID. This is my second day living in this world with COVID, and so I was following other people’s leads,” DeRosa said. All of you are experts on this thing that I have, still really have, little experience with.”

Back in Maine, DeRosa said he is looking forward to spending time at home, enjoying the summer and temperatures well above zero.

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