Life in the Time of Covid-19

I’ve been meaning to write for weeks. I even started a post but it soon became out of date and it just wasn’t worth trying to update. And now things have become so radically different that it seemed prudent to just start over. So here I am.

I feel like I want to capture how things unfolded because when I look back, it feels like things became so strange so quickly and yet, it feels like another time of life entirely since what I can recall as being the ‘beginning’ of this transition into the strange world in which we all live. So much is so different.

On Feb 29th, I went canvassing for Elizabeth Warren (sob!) with my friend Mo. Mo is intensely anxious but deeply extroverted and generally kind of zany and I really love spending time with them even though it also always feels ridiculous. We were canvassing in a neighborhood by the waterfront, big houses with huge curving driveways, recessed from the street, so every door felt like a hike from the street. 50 houses felt insufferably long, but we did it. In between ringing door bells and trying to convince people of Warren’s electability (sob!) we talked about the coronavirus. Washington’s first case had come in late January but it seemed to have gone away but then suddenly that day, there came reports of a death from the virus at a nursing home northeast of Seattle. Mo’s sister, they said, was super freaked out. She lived not far from the nursing home and she’d felt sick. “It’s not coronavirus.” I said. “It’s so rare. I promise, it’s not.”

Then on Sunday, there came news of two more deaths and I started checking my work e-mail because I knew things were probably going to get wild at the health department. (If you didn’t know, while my job is focused on sexual health, I do work for the health department in King County, which covers from north of Seattle down to almost Tacoma – including Kirkland, the location of the nursing home outbreak) I also knew that my team and my job class in general, often get pulled into things like this.

Sure enough, on Monday morning when I checked my work phone – as I always do after dropping Gus off at daycare – there was a text from my boss asking for two of us to head up to the central building to help the communicable disease-epidemiology program field the sudden influx of phone calls. So I rerouted waze and headed there.

When I arrived on the 12th floor and asked around until someone directed me to the administrative manager of CDEpi, things were already that buzzy kind of controlled chaos that fills you with anxiety. I stood in front of T’s (admin mgr) cubicle and told her I was there to help. But I don’t know that anyone had told her that I was coming, and so she was a bit flustered at how to put me to work initially. She was still in the middle of trying to write some kind of script or organize some level of note taking. But the calls were already pouring in and the voicemail box was full and the e-mails were unending.

With barely any initiation or instruction at all, they added me to the lines receiving calls, handed me a headset, an old school message book (the kind that carbon copies itself) and the draft of a script and told me to turn my phone on. From that moment on, the calls came one after another. If I needed to go to the bathroom or eat, I had to immediately put myself on do not disturb but usually a call would slip through in the split second it took to do that, so I’d usually take that last call before escaping.

Mostly, I ended up with calls from doctors, nurses, and EMTs who had a patient (with them, who they’d just seen, who they’d taken to the ER or the morgue) who had symptoms of covid-19 and they needed to report/find out if they should test/request the testing requisition number. In virtually every case, I wrote down their names and contact info; the name, date of birth and contact info for the patient; and the symptoms, situation, and other details. At 10am when I started, I told them to expect a return call in 24 hours when they didn’t have a patient in the clinic, and within 2 hours when they did. By 1pm I’d been instructed to tell them 24-48 hours, or within 4 hours for in-clinic. By the end of the day I was not making any promises about getting a call back.

Some of those calls were heartbreaking – family members of residents at the skilled nursing facility where the outbreak has been concentrated. These people wanted to know if their loved ones had been tested, or if they were ok, and if not when would they know any of that? Or providers who had someone who met the (at that time) stringent testing criteria who needed that requisition number because they were admitting the patient to the ICU. I couldn’t help them. I could take their info, and listen to them, and write down detail and highlight the things they were worried about and then pass it along to the team of people who hadn’t had a day off in 6 weeks before Seattle exploded in chaos.

Some of those calls were absurd: the nurse at a concierge medical practice who, very apologetically, told me that she had patients in her office demanding to be tested immediately though she already knew they didn’t meet the criteria for testing and weren’t even showing symptoms consistent with the virus; the woman who asked to speak with the medical director immediately because she had important information for him about how the virus was spread and who then told me that maybe I should ‘misclassify the message and die.’ She also said that the Medical Director’s inaction to call her back would simply mean she would get the Nobel prize instead.

Many lay somewhere in between – people who were being told by supervisors to report, or who had assessed their patients as at risk for the virus but were not admitting those patients. They needed guidance that likely could have been delivered with a standard answer, but things had escalated so quickly that there hadn’t been time for that.

I worked until close to 7pm that evening answering calls and there was no noticeable slow to the volume. I came back the next day and kept on, though in the interim a new script had emerged, a new paper tracking system, some additional tools. At some point mid-day, the formal call center got up and running and so, in many cases, I was simply directing call there – transferring people to a line with, at one point, an hour long hold time. I was also given a crash course in checking the state communicable disease database to try and cross reference if the paper messages, e-mails, and voice mails had been entered, assigned, and returned. I did this on Wednesday as well. Each evening, I emerged bone tired, often with a thumping migraine, still feeling like I’d done almost nothing to actually help except perhaps divert some of the less critical calls and be a live voice to answer instead of a machine.

In addition to the main call center, they set up a line specifically for families and staff of the care center where the outbreak had begun, and called my team to staff (and, unbeknowst to us until we were knee deep) lead this line. The end of that first week and most of last week I was on that line, which was a different kind of stress and heartbreak. Now, instead of unending calls with questions were people who’s mothers, fathers, sisters, aunts, grandparents were effectively imprisoned in a covid-19 time bomb and who had either heard nothing from the facility, or who had been lied to or misled. These people were scared and angry, justifiably so. But once again, I had little to offer them in the way of substance. No, I couldn’t give them their loved one’s test results. No, I couldn’t tell them why the test wasn’t back after 5, 6, 7 days when it should have come in 72 hours. No, I didn’t know who had or had not been tested or was experiencing symptoms.

Between the 7 of us working the line, we managed to pry information from wherever we could since leadership had created the line, publicized it, but then effectively left us to figure out the rest on our own. We cobbled together some systems and information just in time for the situation there to settle enough for the line to no longer be needed. This past Monday, I spent my last shift there closing things down.

In between shifts at the call center and now beginning this week mostly full time, I’m working from home like so many others in the US. Of course, my capacity has freed up quite a bit, since most of my work is school based and schools are now closed until late April, at a minimum. I’m here today, in the Teen Clinic waiting room, mostly to enforce ‘social distance’ with the teens to come in. Usually, I set out snacks and give aways and literature. Today I have a small pile I offer when people come in and then I hand them items directly, to avoid multiple hands touching things. The tables that are usually clumped are spread awkwardly apart. You can only sit with the people you come with.

Like a lot of people, I imagine, two weeks ago when I got that text to come in and answer phones, I didn’t understand the gravity of this situation. I thought people were freaking out unnecessarily. And, well, some people that day were. People who were now assuming that their runny nose and sore throat were caused by the novel coronavirus and demanding to know how to be tested – they were freaking out unnecessarily.

But I also thought – ok, this is a bad virus but so is the flu, especially this year. The flu kills people all the time, even healthy people. The flu has killed many more people than this. Wash your hands, don’t go to work when you’re sick – things we should have been doing already. I thought all of this, despite being pretty well informed about current events (including listening to a fair number of podcasts focused on the virus) and with some working knowledge of communicable disease and how public health works with CD. I came around to a fuller understanding pretty rapidly – but I also spent days almost entirely immersed in information from very reputable sources. The fact that I started where I did despite my position in the world gives me some level of empathy for the people who for a time were still wondering, ‘why is this such a big deal?’

But after weeks of being in the thick of this heartbreak, I no longer have that empathy for people who continue to hold that perspective. My parents are among that group, which makes me angry and also terrified. A week ago when I called my mom she told me she’d just been to the doctor for swelling and pain in her hand and discovered her blood pressure was 200/90. Like, the woman could have had a stroke any minute. She hadn’t been tracking her BP like she should have (she’s on medication already) and though they were able to get it down to a safe range by that evening with more meds, it’s still not consistently where it should be. And yet she continues to take my nephew to Target or go to the grocery store just for fun. My dad is still working part time and while his health risk is lower, he’s still in his 70’s.

I rattled off the numbers from the lifecare center for her: of 120 residents who were in the facility when the outbreak began, 67 of them have tested positive. There are 35 deaths associated with the center (they may not all be residents) and 56 total in King County as of today. I don’t know if it had the impact I wanted it to, but I hope it did something.

There is so much more I want to write about. About this situation and the world that is now and maybe what will come, yes, but also about the things in life where joy still exists. Because I think it may become harder and harder for all of us to remember that joy, whether because we are isolated or ill or grieving. But joy is what keeps us afloat in the slog of anxiety and uncertainty.

Here are the small joys right now:

Ansel turned 5 yesterday! Two weeks ago we celebrated with friends by renting out the planetarium at a community college where Ansel and all of their friends got a personal show about planets and then ate galaxy cake (with frosting colored so black their poop was green!) and ran around in their new astronaut costume with their friends. (I am grateful that mere logistics made that party happen early) Ansel is very much into space right now and, as such, asked for a real telescope – it was in fact, the only thing they asked for. We sprung for a fancy one and last night we found Uranus and Ansel about died with happiness. They are such a light in the world, their brain so unique, their heart so tender. I am grateful for the challenge and adventure of raising this small human.

We had to cancel our vacation to visit L’s mom and our good friends (which is NOT a joy) but got a refund on our AirB&B which allowed us to get a motherfucking kitten! I have wanted a cat for a long time but have also conceded that two kids and three dogs was plenty of beings for one pair of people to care for in a single home. Then we lost Eliot, then Cletus and things felt quiet and sad, but also much more manageable. We were sure that another dog wasn’t a good idea but Laurie was also resolutely not into a cat – they don’t like litter boxes and, correctly, pointed out that I am allergic (a fact that hasn’t stood in my way when I owned cats previously.) Then our friends’ daughter told us about holding a kitten and something in L clicked. The conversations about maybe getting a cat started, then L started looking into cost, then looking online at kittens. Then when we realized we were going to have both unanticipated time and money we thought we’d already spent, we decided to go for it. So this past Sunday, we looked into three different kitten options and ended up with this ridiculously adorable creature who we named “Mr. Frank Sparklepants.” He’s a ragdoll and he looooooooves snuggles and people – he spent virtually the entire day yesterday curled up between my shoulder and my neck while I worked. Ansel loves him with a shaking intensity a la Elmyra Duff so there’s been a lot of time spent on careful handling of the kitty. Angus thinks the cat is interesting but doesn’t seem to understand what it IS. In any case, kitten energy is EXACTLY what our hearts needed right now.

Until I get redeployed again (and I will) I am working from home with too much time on my hands. I’m trying to set up some routines for myself, including working on other non work related projects that bring me some peace and happiness. One of them is writing and this seems like as good a place as any to do that, at least for a lot of the things on my mind. But, I’ve made this promise before . . .

Until then, friends, be well. Take this seriously but don’t let it ruin your capacity or subsume your life. Find joy where you can. Let this time make us better to one another and ourselves.