Notes From a COVID-19 Epicenter: Our Quarantine Begins

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COVID-19; image courtesy of state.gov.

This wasn’t the post I’d originally planned to publish. That one can wait for another time. This post is more timely. And since my story may become your story—if it hasn’t already—I thought I should tell it to you now.

I live in a medium-sized community in the eastern US. Yesterday, our mayor requested that we move beyond this new status we’ve just learned about: social distancing.

We’ve now been asked to self-quarantine, voluntarily at this point. We should stay at home, going out only to buy food or medications. We are suddenly activists in the effort to flatten the curve and slow the exponential increase in disease incidence. 

The community officials have been acting very responsibly—closing the municipal buildings and library and encouraging people to conduct their business online. (Woe to anyone without functioning computer and Internet connection, but that’s a story for another day.)

They’ve even stated the number of people who will be permitted to enter the food markets at one time: 50 for the largest; 25 for each of the smaller stores, with only one family member permitted per visit. I’m all for these restrictions, which seem well thought out to me.

As my husband and I are past 60, we are considered part of the vulnerable population. We don’t have the other conditions that would increase our odds of becoming severely ill—such as heart or lung disorders or diabetes—but our well-worn immune systems are better off not being called into combat against this particularly nasty bug.

I’ll note that we’re careful about our health and diet, don’t smoke, and are both gym rats. One of the hardest things about this quarantine is that even though we’d decided it was probably not a good idea to continue going to our gym, the gym announced today that it’s closed until further notice.

That deprives us of the most important man in my life: the personal trainer we work out with together once a week. (I’ve told the trainer that in my husband’s presence.) He has really strengthened us and made us feel we’re up to all sorts of challenges.

I had assumed that under the circumstances, even if I got the damn virus, I would be sick for a week or so and then recover. But I’ve since learned that it’s quite tricky, and even when people seem to be recovering, it can do a sneak attack that brings them to an ICU needing a ventilator.

My purpose in telling you this is not to create panic; I feel amazingly calm myself considering my basic catastrophizing nature. Mindfulness meditation works wonders for me: I don’t dwell on what may happen.

Similarly, I see no point in checking the balances on our rapidly crumbling retirement accounts—or spending more than a fleeting moment pondering potential breakdowns in our food supply chains and the availability of medicines I must take. 

But there are plenty of people who either aren’t getting or aren’t hearing the facts about COVID-19. The messages from the White House and the CDC are conflicting and confusing. Putting out a blanket limit on 50 people congregating in a single spot does not take into account the size of the spot (unlike my local regulations) and how much “social distancing” is possible therein. 

Such ambiguity may lead people to continue taking advantage of not having to be at work to meet with their friends in a bar; that’s definitely not smart. This is not your grandmother’s flu. It’s spreading more quickly than other viruses in the past. It’s also more lethal.

On March 14, our local hospital had 11 cases, and 6 of them (all younger than 60) were in the ICU. Another 40 patients were under observation. Those numbers are increasing rapidly, and they somehow haven’t made it into the state’s official count.

You know those N95 masks many people are talking about, which can be used only once and are essential to protect health care workers as they tend to infected patients? The hospital’s CEO said in an interview that those masks are running low statewide. His hospital had gone through 795 of them by 7 pm in a single day.

He described the past week as something he’d never before seen, even though he’d fought cholera in Haiti after the earthquake, when there were no medical supplies, and “even when we ramped up for Ebola.” He called this crisis “unprecedented.”

The CEO said a number of things that were quite concerning. One that disturbed me the most was that he’s given up on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had yet to confirm his hospital’s first case.

In his view—and this is something he wants people to know—testing is problematic. It’s more complicated than it’s been described. To be effective, it must be done under strict conditions with a sample taker appropriately outfitted with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and differing RNA assays make test sensitivity questionable. 

So at best, the tests are 90% accurate, whereas flu tests are 99.999% positive. He fears drive-through testing that shows someone is negative will give that person “a false sense of security.” He said he told the Governor his concerns. 

There are many experts with differing views; I’m noting his because he’s a highly regarded individual who’s working with labs—not to suggest that his opinions necessarily be used as guidance in individual decision-making. 

Testing in the US has certainly been botched, by nearly all accounts, but many point out, as this Atlantic article states, that knowing how many people have been tested would give us some sense of how far the disease has spread and “how forceful a response to it the United States is mustering.” Hmmmm….

Though our hospital CEO doesn’t want to incite panic, he does want people to take this disease seriously because in infected patients

“things can turn around very rapidly. We had a patient that we were thinking about releasing—he seemingly was recovering—and then, two days later, he was put in the ICU. The flu isn’t like that. People need to know this.” 

He encourages people to be responsible: stay home, avoid malls and theater and group activities for now.

“We need to sort of hunker down at home. Go outside if the weather’s nice in your backyard. That’s healthy and good. But we shouldn’t be out and about.”

That’s what we’re doing. Going into stores for food only when they’re not crowded. Avoiding situations where we’ll have to stand on line. Bringing our rapidly disappearing hand sanitizer with us when we’re out of the house, and swabbing our door knobs on the outside and inside with Lysol when we return.

(We’ve also made some hand sanitizer by mixing alcohol with aloe vera, but both ingredients are no longer available.) 

I heard one virologist say COVID-19 is most likely to linger for up to 9 days on metal and hard smooth surfaces. Clothing and porous surfaces seem not to be a concern. I haven’t found confirmation of this statement, however.

What else are we doing? Agonizing over whether to buy two or three small packages of tissues (8 each pack): they were going fast, and we felt we could use them to open doors once our hand sanitizer was gone. But was buying three packages selfish? 

We’re wiping down our cell phones (Apple said Chlorox wipes are OK) and other surfaces. Lifting weights and exercising at home, and taking walks in the late afternoon when few people are around. And yesterday we toured our small garden, buoyed by the sight of the first crocuses pushing their way through the mesh we’d placed over the hard soil to allow them to get a head start before the feeding faunas’ visits. So those back-aching hours planting bulbs last fall paid off! The appearance of those young green shoots couldn’t have come at a better time.

And we’re washing, washing, washing our hands. I find it so interesting that this devastating organism can be vanquished by plain old soap and water.

Finally, we’re still remembering to laugh. (See my previous post.)

My sister-in-law sent this cartoon today.

PHOTO-2020-03-14-07-32-36

My response was: “Gee, do you know where he got it? I could use some.” 

Do you have stories to tell about how you’re coping? I’d love to hear them. I hope you all stay safe.

Annie

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