“Here’s your mask! I’d like you to drive. I love you.” My girlfriend handed me an N95 with her medical-gloved hands. No kiss hello tonight.
I loaded my luggage in the trunk, put on my mask, and got behind the wheel. This was Sunday evening, March 1st, and I was returning to Utah from a few days in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a dark and stormy night, but the scary part wouldn’t come until later.
“I love you too, and I’m fine. I’m just really tired and a bit of a headache from all the vitamins I’ve been pounding lately. Nobody coughing or sneezing on this flight, unlike my flight out.” I had been vigilant about watching for sick people as my Southwest Airlines flight loaded up. Due to some research a pilot friend sent my way that morning, I now knew I didn’t want to pick a seat within two rows of a sick person as there’s a much better chance that you too will get what they have if you’re that close on such a flight. Too bad I didn’t know this earlier.
“And your throat? Your voice doesn’t sound so good.” She knows me well.
“Yeah, I definitely strained my voice in the last two days. That gig was a haul and I took it to the edge. I don’t have the vocal endurance I once did, that’s all.” I had done 6–8hrs of pretty intense singing for both of the previous two days, and left every ounce of energy I had on the stage Saturday night. My throat was sore indeed, but it didn’t feel sick.
The truth was that simply I couldn’t tell.
“I got you some food, that veggie burger you like.” We had both converted to a plant-based diet a few months ago for health & longevity reasons, which seemed delightfully quaint given our current context. And while vegan fast food doesn’t exactly comply with our health food intentions, I was very hungry and appreciated the gesture.
I put the burger up to my masked face and looked over at her. “Um…now what?”
She laughed “Well, we can take turns with masks and eating, I guess.”
As a woman over sixty with a history of respiratory issues, my partner has every right to be very prepared and even a little paranoid.
Of much more concern is her 84 year-old mother who is still recovering from a surgery. She’s our neighbor, and caring for her is the reason we now live in Utah.
On the rest of our drive home from the airport, we played out a few scenarios for how to take things from here. I tried to keep it playful and hypothetical, but I think we both knew this was all too real.
While there was a ton of media coverage for the Coronavirus and COVID-19, there was very little useful information to be found. There was no mention anywhere I could find of what people like me were supposed to do in situations like this.
- The first case of Coronavirus near the very Oakland airport I had just flown from was confirmed while I was checking in for my flight.
- The night before I was parading around hundreds of shiny happy people from all over California, getting lots of hugs & high-fives & fistbumps & handshakes.
- The night before that I was sharing microphones and instruments and even food with fellow performers. How many of those people or places or things that I touched had been infected?
With the Coronavirus able to live on surfaces for up to a nine-day period, I tried to think back to everything I might have handled. California has the first domestic “community spread” cases of Coronavirus, after all. I had no way to calculate the exact number, but I knew my risk of exposure was significantly greater than zero.
I also now knew that 15–20% of people who carry other coronaviruses don’t ever show any signs of being sick. While it was too early to say if that statistic would be true for this specific variant or if such people could still transmit the virus, there was no reason to think this strain would be much different from the others.
I could totally be a carrier and not even know it.
Then there’s the fact that symptoms may take days or weeks to show up, during which time an infected person might unknowingly spread the virus to hundreds or thousands of others, which is what makes this whole Coronavirus thing so scary. Though the mortality rate is only around 2–4% on average across the general population, the people dying from it most often are the ones who look a lot like my partner and her mother whom we help care for daily.
In all likelihood, the odds are that I didn’t have anything like the Coronavirus and thus couldn’t spread it to my loved ones. But because there is no test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus yet available (just the COVID-19 illness that it causes), there was no way to know for sure. I didn’t want to be wrong and risk killing people.
We decided to do more research and take things a day at a time, but I moved into the apartment downstairs that the landlord kept free for his visits. He rarely visited this time of year, and with a potential Coronavirus case in the house we were sure that he wouldn’t want to drop by.
Begrudgingly, I yelled my “Goodnight, My Love!” up the stairs through the closed door, as I sealed off the open air vent between us with a plastic bag and some scotch tape. I finally climbed into the bed beneath my own around midnight.
The Dreaded Moment
Somewhere around 4am, I awoke.
My head was pounding. I fumbled for a drink of water, but upon taking it I started to cough. Not just that “wrong pipe” kind of cough, more like the “this is going to burn a hole through my chest” kind of cough.
“Clear my morning” I called out into the darkness. Then I doubled over the covers and shivered myself to sleep.
My fever for the next three days was relatively mild. Maxing out at 100.3 on Monday, and mostly keeping in the 99-degree range through Wednesday.
My cough was wicked and painful, but infrequent. Headaches & runny nose, for sure. But no congestion, no nausea, no diarrhea or digestive issues. I felt pretty bad and was clearly ill. I’d watched footage of people in China being dragged from their homes by police and taken to camps for these same symptoms. Yet as illnesses go, this wasn’t all that bad.
So I did what you’re supposed to do. I drank plenty of fluids, got plenty of rest, and kept my schedule to a minimum. I stayed quarantined while scouring the internet for answers to questions like:
- How could I tell if my cold/flu symptoms were or were not evidence of Coronavirus?
- Could I have caught something other than the Coronavirus on the news and still be an asymptomatic carrier for that dreaded Coronavirus?
- What would be the appropriate length of quarantine, whether this is or is not Coronavirus?
- Can Coronavirus be transmitted sexually? (hey, quarantine might last a while but my partner and I were willing to get creative as long as it wasn’t life-threatening)
- Who should I be looking to for reliable scientific information and appropriate instructions?
The answer in every case was the same: inconclusive.
I don’t count?!?
The truth is that there is no priority for someone like me who wants to get out of self-imposed quarantine and back to my life. At no point in this episode have I been sick enough to qualify for medical care in the US, let alone expensive CDC testing.
As a generally healthy and strong 40-something male who is not a healthcare worker, I don’t fit the threat model for mortality even if I do have the dreaded virus. And remember there’s no treatment that anyone can give for Coronavirus because it hasn’t been invented yet. Nor has any vaccine. That’s why all the emphasis is on prevention, locating and isolating the infections.
Yeah yeah, I know Vice President Pence made an announcement this week about how testing will no longer be denied to anyone who has a doctor’s note. But in true Trump administration form, that was a media statement with no governmental weight behind it.
They’re simply making up numbers when they talk about testing a million people per week, and saying it doesn’t make it true. No rules changed, no funding opened up, and to my knowledge no one in the medical establishment really knows what to do with this PR-based declaration.
By the time they work this all out, I’ll be symptom-free. No symptoms means nothing to test for.
…But does that mean I’m not infectious?
Of all the voices talking about the Coronavirus, 2019-Novel Coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, and COVID-19, I’ve yet to find any that seem very reliable. I want to hear from Doctors and medical researchers and scientific authorities on the subject. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t need to read anything from a government official to know exactly what they’re going to say. There’s only one thing any Chinese official is allowed to say, just like there’s really only one thing a US official is going to say at this point in time. No one has medical answers yet, so they’re simply trying to manage the optics. Good science takes time, and with a charged topic like “pandemics” there look to be more people claiming to be scientists than acting like them these days.
I want a trusted scientific voice, which right now looks to be either censored by hierarchy or obscured by crackpots.
For a while I decided not to post anything publicly or mention anything to anyone about being sick and my self-imposed quarantine. Much scarier than the Coronavirus is people’s fearful and panicky reaction to it.
But by today, as another 17-million people go into lockdown in Italy and more and more people get sick in my own country, I figured there are enough folks in my position that it would be worth speaking up on behalf of all of us. I’m almost completely better now, thank goodness. No fever for a few days, only a bit of residual cough and fatigue, but at this point the characteristic Corona relapse seems unlikely.
So please don’t hunt me down and put me in a cage for writing this. I’m super cautious and not a danger to anyone except those who would try to relocate me.
Best Case Scenario
I know that I’m much luckier than most. In our home, we had done some basic prep. Those N95 masks we had on hand were $30 for two 20-packs when we purchased them a few years ago. Now good luck finding them for less than $400. We had some food & medicine stocked, including vitamins and surgical gloves and hand sanitizer and other non-perishable stuff we’d gathered up slowly over time.
Last weekend all these things were swiped off the shelves at our local Walmart.
We also had an easy place that I could go to isolate myself from contact with others (including using a different bathroom & kitchen, which is critical!) with no notice at midnight on a Sunday.
My work is mostly online these days, thankfully. I don’t know what I’d do if I was still working restaurant or retail jobs.
No wait, actually I do know…
Everything Done Right, but still Wrong
Though it may look silly at first, we’ve actually been doing everything right from the very beginning. Well, other than me making the trip to California in the first place, I guess.
In my defense, when I left it didn’t look like a serious situation there, the only reported cases were around where the original American evacuees from China had been quarantined at Travis Airforce Base, not San Francisco (state of emergency declared 2/26) or Alameda county (state of emergency declared 3/1) or now the entire frickin’ state (California state of emergency declared 3/5). I hit it just right to be at the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong situation. Lucky me.
What are the odds?
As I reminded my significant other when she picked me up at the airport, no one “kind of” carries any virus. We either do or we don’t, 100% or 0%, positive or negative. The odds are all about the likelihood that we are one of the 100% have-its or the 0% have-nots.
I don’t believe that I carry the Coronavirus. The nearest I can figure is that there’s about a 90% chance that I was not exposed. So I am actually quite confident that I don’t have it…but is that enough?
That self-assessed 10% risk that I might transmit a lethal virus is not something I can treat lightly.
With even 1% risk of infecting the woman I love, possibly killing her or her mother just by being around them (or their pets!), I’ll stay over here in quarantine and await further information, thanks.
I’ve been awaiting further information for a full week now, and I still don’t know what to do next. I’m just holed up in my undisclosed location here in Utah, washing my hands frequently, getting better, and trying to figure out when I get to return to the world again. Maybe late next week…? Maybe the week after? Maybe the week after that?!? Maybe in a month’s time!?!
There are no clear and consistent answers yet, only clashing opinions.
I wish there were some way for any of us to know anything about what’s going on for sure.
Wonder how long that will take…
UPDATE — What I didn’t get right
The response to this article in the last few hours has been overwhelming and positive. Most people agree that I did a lot right, but not everyone. Now I need to own up to the fact that I must apologize to a couple important people.
My concern all along has been about me getting something and giving it to more vulnerable people like my partner or her mother. I mistakenly wasn’t thinking at all about any germs I possibly could have left behind from the 72hrs before I felt sick, and how healthier people might feel about them. Or about me as a result.
I was so focused on catching something from the people that I was around that I didn’t think through what I could have transmitted to them before I felt sick. While I really doubt that this happened, it is unfair of me to assume that they all feel the same way. I was in touch some of these same people while I was still choosing to be quiet about my quarantine. I should not have kept quiet.
Please let this last lesson of mine be your most important takeaway.
We need to keep in touch with each other and often, especially as new information comes to light.
If you get sick, don’t only worry about anyone you’ve been in contact with after your symptoms appeared. You owe it to those around you to retrace your steps for a few days before that and reach out to let those people know.
It’s a scary world out there and you may face a lot of anger and trigger significant panic as you do this. But do this. The alternative is at best that you are burning bridges with all those people, and at worst that you are allowing infections to spread.
About the Author
Sam Rogers a musician, writer, teacher, and creative producer who is addicted to learning new things. You can learn more about him at Sam-Rogers.com. He would very much appreciate your comments (and especially links) that help him decide what to do next.