Negative Dancy

I don’t have it. After thinking it’s possible that I contracted COVID-19, I got a late-afternoon call from the doc on Saturday, two days after I left the emergency room. He told me I was negative.

I can’t write an entire essay thanking every family member, friend, colleague, neighbor, and stranger for being so supportive—offering phone calls, jokes, and groceries. My wife and I are truly grateful, even though our personal trial of uncertainty lasted only three days.

But any more sentences about this would be hugely boring.

Instead, I’m going to discuss something no one really thinks about: worrying that you have a disease and getting a negative test result is discombobulating. It made me feel stupid for many reasons.

I’m going to discuss each of those reasons in the context of our growing crisis. So much has changed so quickly that it’s hard for me to imagine that last week—seven days ago–I was in the office worried about printer jams and speaker schedules. Now my wife and I are planning for months of house arrest as our city shuts down. Ultimately, I think I was right to get a test, and my reasons for feeling stupid were unfounded.[1]

I’ll explain the way any debater would, by engaging in imaginary arguments.

[1] You: “Wait, does this mean Geoff’s writing this essay just to prove he’s not stupid?” Me: “Shut up! It’s called writer’s license!”

But first: what the hell happened?

I had strep throat. Regular old streptococcal pharyngitis. Despite not really having much of a sore throat, and despite the doctor’s ruling it out on Thursday during tests, it turns out I still had a very common disease. According to the doctor, they “did a more accurate test of the culture, and that showed I was positive for strep throat.” He followed, “This doesn’t mean you don’t have COVID-19.”

While I had him on the line, I asked “So it’s possible I’m positive, and I’ll find out from the state government on Monday or Tuesday?” And he responded, “Oh wait, no, you’re preliminary test already came back negative. So you’re negative.” This was confusing, so I double-checked it with him. “Yeah, sorry, you’re for sure negative. Don’t forget, though, this means you can still get it.”[2]

Thanks doc. I burst open the bedroom door. For two days, I’d been hiding behind that door from my kid, hearing him in the next room sometimes saying “dada” until he forgot and continued playing and laughing. I’d been sweating out a fever that got as high as 103 F. And in between three-hour naps, I’d been reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza and checking Twitter.

So, finally out of the bedroom — which smelled like John McClain’s shirt at the end of Die Hard — I announced, “I’m negative!” My wife and I hooted and hollered. No more quarantine.

Feeling a new lease on life, I took a drive. That’s still social distancing, I reasoned. I was surprised to find hundreds of people walking up and down Magazine Street, congregating blocks away my home. They were decked out in Kelly green, drinking Guinness, and smoking weed into a delicious St. Patty’s Day oblivion.

Even before I found out I was negative, I confronted doubts: “So what if I have it? Maybe this really is much ado about nothing. Maybe the holdouts are right, and we’re all overreacting. Maybe I’m caught in my information bubble.”

Seeing these people on the street really drove it home. My relief turned to embarrassment. My family and I were quarantining to stop from infecting others. And no one cares. In their mind, the people on the street don’t need us. To them, we’re just tightly wound PBS addicts who don’t know how to have a good time. This brings me to:

[2] By the way, didn’t I complain in my previous post that it would take 4-5 days to get the results of the test? Yes, because that’s what the doctor told me on Thursday. It took two days, but it was that fast only because I was negative. If I had a preliminary positive reading from the Louisiana state test, it would have travelled to the CDC in Atlanta for further testing, which I’m sure would have taken a two or three more days.

Reason number one I felt stupid: “It’s like the flu”

There are still a lot of people—let’s say it’s 45% of the American population—who think this is no big deal, that COVID is just like the flu, and that we are destroying our economy by causing a panic. I understand this mentality because I once shared it. After all, the flu is contagious, lots of people get it, and thousands die from it. Sounds like COVID. So why are we worried about COVID to the point of shutting down cities?

I won’t resort to too many statistics—you can look them up at the Johns Hopkins coronavirus portal. Let’s just focus on the basics. People contract this virus very easily, and fast. It’s spread by people getting close to each other, and many seemingly healthy people transmit it, rendering it partly invisible. Estimates vary, but it’s probably the case that around 1% of people who get COVID die. Let’s call it 1 in every 100.

“Okay,” some might respond, “that still sounds like the flu. And that 1 person in 100 is usually very old or already sick.”

First off, as a matter of principle, I don’t think it’s okay to accept the death of the elderly or the disabled if we can attempt to stop those deaths. I value life. To blow off old folks dying is a little callous, to say the least. But also, it’s not just old people getting desperately ill. Here is a story about an otherwise healthy 45-year-old lawyer in New Orleans who got COVID, and reported symptoms well before the city’s first official case. He is in critical condition at the time of this writing.

Second, and this is the bigger problem: the disease attacks the lungs, and it often requires ventilators and time under intensive care to treat. Hospital beds and ventilators are scarce. If the numbers of infected who need them are low, fine. If that number increases all at once, which has happened in Wuhan and Italy, more and more people will die. You can scoff at an old person needing intensive care until that person is your granny or your 50-year-old uncle. Over time, we can expect more desperate grannies and uncles to join the search for a hospital bed, and long lines to form.  

Third, unlike the flu, there is no vaccine. There is nothing at all corralling this disease. The flu is a killer, but we keep it contained. Coronavirus is uncontained. It’s a tiger with hundreds of deer at its feet, eating as much as it wants. Without a gun to stop it, we have to hide the deer.

Fourth and finally, even if you still think this is like the flu, remember that we have to deal with coronavirus in addition to flu. People are still getting influenza at the usual rate, and they are still being hospitalized for it. Coronavirus is a completely unexpected problem stacked on top of flu’s seasonal wreckage. That’s why we are worried about having enough hospital beds.  

As for the economy. You might think the response is more of a problem than the cause. Closing down business will cause more damage than leaving everything as normal and letting people die from the virus. You might say, let the tiger eat until it’s full. At least that way people won’t lose their jobs and go hungry. That’s a fine point, save for this: if we let the disease run rampant, and it wrecks our health care system, then our economy tanks anyway. People still lose their jobs and go hungry, except they also die more of every kind of disease because they can’t get in to see a doctor.

COVID is different from the flu, it compounds the problems caused by the flu, and it would cause massive problems even if left uncaged.

Reason number two I felt stupid: It’s just “the media”

You may agree with my point that this virus will cause massive damage if left unchecked, but still disagree with me on why. You might argue that the reason so many people are going to the hospital and overloading health care systems is not the virus itself. It’s just the media.

For example, While I was still in bed with strep, one family friend, who I respect as a free thinker from my hometown, asked me on my Facebook wall: “Does it matter what virus you have? After all, if it were any other virus, we would treat it the same. Are we freaking out so much about this particular virus because we are too focused on it?” I’m paraphrasing.  

Her question resonates with me, and it made me interrogate myself: If this were just some other virus I hadn’t heard of, would I still be worried?

First, we have to confront that her question is basically one step away from the common refrain that this is “the media’s fault.” I hear this a lot, and I’ve thought hard about this because I also worry about media sensationalism. I’m often disgusted by it. I worry that, in general, media outlets are businesses first and moral actors last. They are in the money-making game, and that’s a problem when the product is reliable information.

However, can we say with any confidence that the actual cause of the destruction is not the virus itself, but media sensationalism? To ask this question implies a counterfactual: in a world where news media did not regularly cover coronavirus, would the same level of devastation occur?

The answer is no. In fact, the devastation would be much worse.

What’s the place that was worst hit by the virus? Wuhan, in China. More people were infected, and more died than everywhere else so far. Why? Was it because the people there were more susceptible to the disease? No. People everywhere get it. Was it because China’s hospitals are terrible? No. China has much of the same technology that we would use in the U.S. to treat this illness. The Chinese even built new hospitals to handle more patients.  

Then why did it hit them the hardest? It’s because they had no idea it was coming. They had zero information. And when a doctor discovered COVID-19 and spread the word, the Chinese government hushed him because they didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of the world community. This lost them critical weeks of data-gathering and response time. When they did respond, it had to be drastic, and it was.

The lesson? Publicity does not cause epidemics; it helps solve them.

Nevertheless, you may still hew to the conspiracy theory that “the” mainstream media have blown this out of proportion to make our dear leader look bad. If you think this, I’m sure you’re not still reading. But just in case, three things. First, media are not a single thing. They are many things, and they do not all have the same motives. Blaming the MSM for diseases would be like blaming sports for fistfights. It’s nonsense. Second, if you think that all of mainstream media got together at the MSM Ball and decided to sensationalize a random virus to attack our leadership, then I ask you, this: why didn’t they get together and do this before with another random virus? Oh right, because that’s ridiculous.

Back to the original question: “What if we had never heard of this virus. Would we still care?” Well, that ship has sailed. We have heard of this virus. Why? Because it poses a virulent mix of threats. It hit us hard, and we weren’t expecting it.

Reason number three I felt stupid: The bold hypocrisy

Some people might agree with me so far. Still, they may say in response: “Fine, coronavirus is a problem, but you can’t live your life worried about every little risk.” And I would agree with that. So very much.

Here’s the deal: I’m a romantic. I like a little bit of danger because I think it’s exciting. I prefer the imperative “Be bold!” to the admonition “Be careful.” I drove a racecar when I was in high school. I have ventured into conflict zones as an adult. When family members ask me how I could travel to a place like Kenya even though “there are terrorists,” I tell them the prospect of meeting Kenyans far outweighs the remote risk I’ll be unlucky enough to wind up the victim of a Al Shabaab.[3]

So what gives? Why do I slough off the terrorist menace, but worry about a pandemic that pales in comparison to Spanish flu and the bubonic plague? After all, the likelihood I’ll be stricken by coronavirus is still pretty low.

This contradiction makes me feel stupid.

I think there’s a clear answer here. In short, with terrorism, I am powerless. I can’t really do anything about it, outside of advocating foreign policies and promoting protective measures I think would help deter would-be terrorists. I’m a big fan of securitized doors on airplane cockpits, for example. Also, were I to win the unluckiest lottery possible and get caught up in a terrorist bomb plot, I suffer for a split second and I’m dead. Oh well. It was still worth going to Kenya.

COVID is different. It’s not about me; it’s about everybody. If I become a vector and spread the disease, I am causing suffering. That means I have some responsibility—however small. I can help stop the virus by doing everything in my control to avoid transmitting it.

That’s the reason I got the test on Thursday. Not because I thought I might accidentally die, but because I thought I might accidentally kill.

Which brings me to …

[3] What’s ironic is that many of those same people—the ones worried about terrorism—are not at all worried about coronavirus. I’ll let you guess why.

Reason number four I felt stupid: The party identity

On Saturday, New Orleans police broke up a bunch of St. Patty’s Day parties. People were doing the New Orleans thing: drinking and standing outside of bars. They were irate that their parties were dispersed. “The young and healthy should not be punished,” one beer drinker with perfect abs, a perfect phone, and perfect sunglasses uttered to a reporter.

I don’t have perfect abs, but I also love to party. Ask anybody. I play games. I sing karaoke. I go the distance. I’ll stay up until 5 am if things are getting interesting. It’s just who I am. I’ve always thought life is better when routines get shaken, when experience gets heightened, when anything can happen.

I also love that New Orleans has a history of “storm parties.” The hurricane is getting close. We’ve done all we can do to brace for it. Let’s have some drinks!

Lots of people would draw a connection between storm parties and pandemic parties, and that as an avid reveler, that makes me feel stupid. Why don’t we all loosen up and have a good time?

Because you are spreading the disease all over the place! You can be asymptomatic and still transmit coronavirus. This means that partying during this particular pandemic is basically like blowing second-hand cigar smoke at a table of old grandpas with COPD. Not all of them are going to die, but they might.

I’ll take that a bit farther. If you knew that for certain that — when you go out to party on Saturday night with hundreds of people – two lovely grandmothers would die, would you still go party? Probably not.

That’s exactly what you are doing.

The fifth and final reason I felt stupid: I stole a test

One lady tweeted at me Friday that she was “advised” that one should not get a COVID test in the ER unless one had symptoms that would normally bring them to an ER. Her insinuation, of course, is that I should not have sought medical attention last Thursday.

Damn. This one hurt. And she’s right. I stole a test from someone else who needed it. This had me feeling stupid and guilty for a while after I got my negative result. I stole a test. I am causing suffering.

However, in retrospect, I think this is a little unfair.

First, I had the exact same symptoms that Tom Hanks did. Tom freaking Hanks. Are you saying that Tom Hanks was wrong to get the test? I don’t think so. I mean, the man practically built the World War II Museum. Would you dare question his wisdom, patriotism, and moral fiber?

Second, my wife and I actually had no idea what to do when I got sick as hell literally the day after everyone suddenly started caring about coronavirus. We knew that the virus had become local, and while we thought the probability was low that I was in the first wave of cases, who knows? I’m sure no one thinks they are going to be the first.

Third, I tried to go to the primary care physician first, but the office receptionist suggested I go to the ER at the first mention of COVID. No doctor wants a COVID patient waltzing into the waiting room and spreading finger crud all over the Good Housekeeping magazines.

I think I did my best with the information I had. I chose excessive caution because I didn’t want to spread coronavirus to my wife and kid, to old ladies, or even to dozens of partygoers on the corner of my street.

What now?

My entire city—and probably our whole country—has been victimized by a tragic shortage of reliable information and planning. Because there are not enough tests, we will each be questioned for trying to get one. Because we don’t know whether to visit the doctor or not, we will be confused when we fall ill.

I don’t blame New Orleans. The shit, as they say, rolls downhill. You can’t beat a pandemic by leaving it up to states and cities to act on their own. There must be national coordination.

There’s some evidence that we are pulling together. New Orleans is one of the epicenters of COVID in the US, and it will now be one of four cities nationwide to run a pilot program in drive-thru testing. They are using our city to test which interventions are effective so they can be replicated in the rest of the country. And even more important, they could again be replicated quickly when Black Plague III comes in the future. This is a trial run.   

The Big Easy is turning the lights out for a month or more. We have closed gyms, bars and restaurants. No more loitering on the street. This will have hugely detrimental effects on the local economy, and we must do everything in our power to support businesses. Still, losses are unavoidable.

If the measures taken avert the rapid spread of coronavirus, it will be worth it. Undoubtedly, though, if our response is truly effective, and the impact of the disease ends up negligible, some of you Monday morning quarterbacks will look back and say, “See, I told you we overreacted.”  

When that time comes, and I hope it’s sooner rather than later, I hope you feel even a little bit stupid, and you look back and think about why.


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