My Pandemic: From Global to Local

Hi everyone. I live in New Orleans, I work at Tulane, and it’s possible that I have Corona Virus. It’s also possible that I don’t. Let me explain.

Part One: The TV Virus

Before this morning, March 12, I was just like most of you, following the news of the pandemic. I haven’t traveled abroad since early February. I didn’t worry about my family. But I I watched on TV as the virus cascaded “out there.” It started in Wuhan but then sent Iran and Italy into lockdown. I read in horror that Italian doctors might soon be forced to prioritize the survival of some patients over others.

I saw Washington state nursing homes get ravaged, and read about how well-meaning American scientists fashioned tests as early as January but were not allowed to use them. I tuned in as President Trump nonetheless accepted public praise from the CDC Director. He called “our” response “perfect”.

The US response is in fact woefully inadequate compared to South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. Why? In short, because there are too few tests in the US. It’s untrue that everyone can be tested, and it’s untrue that the tests are fast. Spoiler alert: I learned this first-hand today.

This week, the poor American response started to blow back. I bit my nails as the virus roiled the stock market and led to a ban on travel from Europe. My wife and I cancelled a conference trip to Hawaii, and then we started mulling whether we should flee to Ontario, to wall up with her parents. Our thinking was that they could help us care for our 20-month old for the long stretch he is out of daycare. The whole time we were talking about this, I felt like a silly doomsday prepper.

Technically, our daycare still has not shuttered its doors, but I expect it to soon. Earlier this week, confirmed cases around New Orleans started to trickle in. The virus travelled around the world, person to person, and now it’s on our doorstep.

On Wednesday, March 11, I sent out a survey my friend is running to try and help understand the disease. Please take it (here). Otherwise I went about my day like any other.

Last night, I was shocked—but not surprised–that the virus led to the postponement of the NBA season, when it became clear that Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell contracted the disease. As seemingly inconsequential as this is in the grand scheme of things, I’ll forever remember the sight of a full stadium of people finding out that they wasted a trip to the big game. It’s surreal to watch a well-orchestrated sporting event on TV devolve into disorder. People booed, even though cancelling was clearly the right thing to do.

Before bed, my wife and I reviewed the comments of the President’s televised public address on Corona. There were few concrete solutions. We went to bed with a sense of dread.  

Part Two: The Pandemic Becomes Personal

While asleep on Wednesday night, our child started coughing, and he coughed all night long. He woke up at 4 am. I went into his room to hold him. By two hours later, I had a 100 F fever, chills, body aches, serious fatigue, a sore throat, and mild tightness in the chest. Not the worst sick I’ve been, but enough to make me lie on the floor.

My initial impulse was that I’ve come down with a cold or a toddler’s virus. I laughed about how this is literally the worst day to get a cold, because everyone is on edge. I texted my friend, and he suggested that I wash my hands to the Diesel Driving Academy spot from 98 Rocks radio in Shreveport, LA, Everybody in my hometown knows this song. Good advice.

While I was steaming up my bathroom to warm my chills, I talked to my dad, and he repeated the line that COVID is similar to the flu, and that we are all being hysterical because of the mainstream media. We always talk like this, but this time I called his position “ignorant.” More heavy-handed than usual, but my amusement was turning to worry.

I teach at a university, I go to restaurants and music venues, and I’ve been in contact with probably hundreds of people since 14 days ago. I could be a vector.

I decided that I would get tested. Easy right? I looked online, and the CDC suggested that I contract my primary care physician. At 7:00 am, my wife called our doctor’s office. I should note here that I haven’t been to the primary care physician for three years, mostly because I rarely get sick. For an overweight 37-year-old, I have a pretty solid constitution (Like the US! Or does it?)

The doctor’s office wasn’t open until 8:30 am. We called back at 8:30 on the nose, and the receptionist told us that she would have the doctor call us back before 11 am, which came and went. I called back, and the receptionist said that they don’t have any tests for COVID-19. I should go to the emergency room.

At 11:30 am, I drove myself to the emergency room.

Admittance was easy enough. I was screened at the door, and then screened again inside. This took about 15 minutes, during which I had time to answer the final Jeopardy question in the waiting room. “Who is Banksy?” I announced to everyone around me. The people in the waiting room responded with blank faces.

They screening nurses made the judgement that, because I travel and regularly interact with other travelers, I should be tested for COVID-19. I thought I would know whether I was a positive or a false positive in a couple of hours. I was wrong.

I was marched to an isolation room with a facemask on. That was like the Green Mile. People were staring, even though they weren’t staring, if you know what I mean. “Does he have it?” I imagined them thinking. “I wonder if he washes his hands.”  (I do, by the way).

I donned the gown, got an IV, had my vitals taken. Everything looked good. The young and chipper doctor suggested that I probably had the flu, or strep. They swabbed my mouth and nose, and left the room.

That’s when the wait began. I waited and waited. Forty minutes for the IV to drip empty. Then, a nurse came in and attached another entire saline bag. They were buying time.

About 90 minutes later, the doctor notified me that I didn’t have the common cold, the flu, or strep throat. So I would be getting a COVID-19 test. Finally. The real deal.

Two more hours passed by. I watched three entire re-runs of Gunsmoke. The actor who played the second Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies starred in one episode. He was rugged and handsome.

Three-and-a-half hours in, the guy behind the isolation curtain on my left was released. He was a construction worker, and the doctor excused him from work until 48 hours after his fever returned to normal. He was in good spirits, and I wished him luck.

I overheard another person getting treated somewhere. He had a virus–again, not flu, cold, or strep–but they were not testing him because he doesn’t travel. This doesn’t make sense. We know that the virus is here in New Orleans. This person was free to go. “Wash your hands, and take care of yourself,” they said. Was this person a false negative?

I was uncomfortable. I had to pee. I told the nurse, and he handed me a bottle. I felt too exhausted to negotiate the space on the small bed to pee in the bottle. Luckily, at that very moment, I saw the doctor flashing by. I asked, “How much longer will it be?” He answered, “Infectious Diseases hasn’t come by yet?” “No,” I replied, “they haven’t.”

I then asked him to explain the testing process. He said, first, that the swabs will go to the Louisiana state government. Second, after the state does a preliminary exam, the swabs will travel to the CDC in Atlanta for confirmation. This process could take 4-5 days. “We are overloaded with tests, and most of this is new to us.”

That means it’s possible that I will be mostly well by the time I know whether I ever had COVID-19. Think about that. While I wait at home for results through this weekend–cooped up in my two-bed condo with my wife and energetic toddler–the disease could spread at an exponential rate in Louisiana. The elderly and the infirm could be seriously harmed. This is not good.

Even more annoying, the doctor could not confirm that I have COVID-19. He said I may just have a normal virus. They simply can’t know yet.  

I asked how long I should quarantine. He said until two days after my fever subsided. Should I notify everyone I’ve come in contact with. “Sure,” he replied.

I peed, adjusted my facemask, paid my $150 copay, and drove home.

Part 3: Reckoning

While I was sitting in the hospital bed, my first thought was that we would have to self-quarantine for 14 whole days, because that’s the window of transmission. I fretted about the toll that would take on my family. First, my son. He would not be able to run or climb. He would not be able to take walks. He would get stir crazy. I came up with a plan to build a fort inside his room, and to buy him a toy kitchen, which he loves. Cold comfort.

Second, my wife. While I have fever, she has to take care of our child, all day, every day. For some, this doesn’t sound too bad. But she is drafting a book right now, and she is making headway. This is a completely unplanned interruption. While her brain is on fire with sentences she may write, she will have to sing Elmo.

The next thing I thought about is our inefficient system for testing. You basically have to go to the ER, take up a bed, and bear the brunt of the cost as a single patient. I am not rich, but I’m fortunate. I have great healthcare through Tulane. But I’m still preparing for a bill that is $1,000 or over. I actually have no idea.

This is silly. The spread of a virus like this should be treated as a public health problem to which the government devotes serious resources. Instead, we offload the expenses on individuals, in piecemeal fashion. It will cost us all, but only in confusing bills we receive a month from now. Meanwhile, the President’s Administration is releasing $1.5 trillion of loans to small businesses.

The last thing I thought about is you. How many friends, loved ones, neighbors, academics and strangers have I come in contact with over the last two weeks? The answer: too many to count. That’s why I’m distributing my story as widely as I can.

This is also why, because of the amount of time it takes to test, all I can leave you with is the worry that you have interacted with an infected person. For a whole weekend, you won’t know the truth, and neither will I.

You probably read this (TL;DR) because you would like more information in a time when a pandemic is upon us. COVID is everywhere, as are universal pleas to wash your hands. In the end, though, all you will be left with is more uncertainty. And for that, I’m sorry.

As it stands, I’m sitting in bed, hiding from my child, and typing on this laptop. I’m one of the lucky ones who will survive, but not everyone will.

I’ll let you know more when I know more.


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