I want to wish a speedy recovery to Times-Review copy editor Jill Johnson, who is recovering from the new coronavirus, and am praying with all my heart for Katie Blasl, a crackerjack reporter over at RiverheadLocal who is fighting pneumonia and awaiting results of a coronavirus test. Both of these brave women have done much to inform the public by sharing their stories.
I hesitate to tell you my story because I am a healthy person who doesn’t need any sympathy, but if you are also a healthy person I think you need to hear it, because you have a role to play in protecting our community.
I’m not always a journalist. On the weekends I drive for Uber on the North Fork. It’s been a lot of fun for the past two years. I get to meet all kinds of crazy people from other places and see the place I live through their eyes, learn a bit about the behind-the scenes gossip at wineries and breweries, and take hard-working local people to work. This was all a lot of fun until, on March 9, it wasn’t.
As the news that Southold was becoming the epicenter of Suffolk County’s coronavirus epidemic broke early last week, I learned that at least one of the early patients was a regular rider in my Uber. That alone was enough for me to park my car. And as the cases piled up, I realized very quickly that there were only a few degrees of separation between my Uber and this rapidly spreading illness, the most important of which is that I have driven people to work at Peconic Landing, the massive retirement community in Greenport that is now on lockdown to prevent the virus from reaching its vulnerable residents, and where three of the early confirmed patients work. The North Fork is a small place. We are all connected to one another.
The Greenport Harbor Brewery, where an employee was the first local confirmed case, is a cornerstone of our community. Local people in my car refer to it as “Our Cheers,” and I take tourists there by the droves. It’s a busy place because the people who run it put a lot of care into everything they do. They’ve put a lot of care into their response to this crisis and I hope we can all go there and have a toast as soon as this is over.
Greenport Harbor was packed the evening of Saturday, Feb. 22. A Grateful Dead cover band was playing and I was shuttling tourists from up island and the city back and forth to the brewery and many other North Fork hot spots all night long. My car was packed to the gills with people I’ve never met before and will never meet again. I don’t know their names or anything about them, but I do know I was in close contact with many of them for more than 10 minutes.
I woke up on Wednesday morning, Feb. 26 with body aches and chills, stomach cramps and a sore throat — which is how I usually feel when I’m getting the flu. I remember feeling my legs shake as I brushed my teeth and saying to myself, ‘this is really weird. There’s no way I have the flu. I got the flu shot.’ This was more than a week before the first confirmed case of community transmission of coronavirus was reported in New York State. I told myself to stop being paranoid, stayed home for a few days until I felt better, then went out again to drive for Uber the following weekend.
The following week, I could feel my immune system mounting a familiar defense against a pervasive illness. I’m a healthy person and I didn’t feel particularly unwell. I have a lot of faith in my immune system, but I know when it’s working hard on my behalf. I felt a slight tightness in my chest and was winded walking up a flight of stairs. I’ve had walking pneumonia before, and I wasn’t too freaked out. I dug up my old albuterol inhaler to keep by my side, just in case.
It didn’t occur to me that what would happen next would be a solid week of horrible news.
On March 9, after learning about my potential exposure, I barricaded myself in the house and committed to covering the breaking news while in isolation. I only left home to go for brief, worry-filled walks, pondering the possibility that I had been a vector in spreading disease among my friends and loved ones. I called my doctor’s office to report that I believed I had been in contact with someone who had been confirmed to have the coronavirus. They took my name and number and told me ‘I’d be fine’ because my contact with potentially infected people was several weeks ago. I called a walk-in clinic looking to get tested and was told I didn’t meet the criteria — I wasn’t sick enough, and my contact history left them unphased.
I breathed deeply, drank hot tea and Emergen-C, downed echinacea capsules and watched CNN nonstop and synthesized news release after news release into grim local news updates.
I’ve heard similar health stories from friends on the North Fork. It’s like a Buddhist koan: If you had the coronavirus before anyone knew it was here, did you really have it?
I worried about my family. My mom is a bit older than me. She was born with a collapsed lung and I’d spent an afternoon with her the week prior. I also worried about my 23-year-old son, who is trying to get home from the Netherlands. He only just a few weeks ago quit vaping and smoking. I sat him down before he left and urged him not to leave the country right now. Could I have infected him while I was lecturing him? Like most 23-year-olds, he didn’t listen to me.
I felt all week like someone had a boot on my chest. But all of us feel that way a little bit right now. Anxiety can do that to you too.
When news breaks and you’re a reporter, it’s like getting caught in a rip current. You can get washed out to sea very quickly. When you start swimming across the current because you know your mental health won’t survive being pulled out any further, you see how far you’ve drifted from the shore. It’s never pretty. Your loved ones see this happening long before you do, and they give you wide berth. They know they have to wait you out.
Have you seen the simulations the Washington Post ran a few days ago to remind us how to flatten the coronavirus curve? It’s a sequence of tiny dots that represent a village of 200 people and how their movements affect the spread of a disease. The Post ran four scenarios, ranging from a China-style forced quarantine to an uncontained, rapid spread through a community, to how greatly the transmission is diminished when only one in four or one in eight people move around. It’s remarkable to see how far the transmission slows in the model with the most voluntary isolation.
As I watched the uncontained model, I noticed there were a few dots that were moving everywhere, infecting other groups of dots that might never have been infected if they hadn’t been in contact with the super-social dots. I kept replaying the model and thinking about everywhere I go as an Uber driver, and how much it resembled being the vector for a disease. Like I said, driving was really fun. Until it wasn’t.
Young people also move like this, in super-social patterns that connect other, isolated groups. They’re also the people who are least likely to display any symptoms if they are carrying coronavirus. That is why they need to listen to our public health experts and stay home too.
Late in the week, I tried to enlist Uber’s help in putting a stop to this. They have exhaustive records of driver and rider trip history. Their business is built upon these algorithms. They have a role to play in making the world safe right now. I wrote a detailed letter to their public relations people telling them I was concerned that I could have spread a disease in my community. They responded by sending me a message through the driver app saying I wasn’t eligible to be paid for staying home and I didn’t have a right to know anything about sick people who had been in my car. I don’t want to know any more than I already know about sick people who have been in my car. I want Uber to work with our health department to help keep sick people from wandering around.
The state of testing for this virus in the United States right now is a disgrace to our country. It has left us all with no choice but to hide in our houses until we can get any sort of handle on who is carrying it around our communities.
I wouldn’t think of seeing a doctor for my relatively mild symptoms, if the doctors are not going to take them seriously. I’m not going to risk passing this on to a health care worker. The only solace I am taking is that I feel fine now and it’s been three weeks since I first felt sick.
I’m a volunteer firefighter. I wouldn’t respond to a call right now either. One sub-symptomatic person carrying this disease into a firehouse could temporarily wipe out emergency response for an entire town. That’s already happened in Kirkland, Washington.
Once we get testing for sick people up and running, we need to do serology testing on as many people as possible to see who has already had this virus. The recovered have a role to play in fighting this too. The CDC says they’re working on serology testing. I wish I could believe this will actually happen.
If the U.S. can’t get it together to enable us to know whether or not we are carrying the coronavirus around with us, it’s on all of us to keep away from one another.
If you’re one of those people who think this is overblown, I want to ask you: Do you have parents? Do you love them? Do you have a loved one with cancer or an immunodeficiency or who smokes? Stop binge-buying toilet paper and go home now. You will be saving lives by doing so.
I get it. You think you need to make money. I’m taking a hit too. I have no idea how I’m going to pay my mortgage next month, and I don’t care. We’re all going to take a hit, either voluntarily or by force.
New York State has only 3,000 ICU beds statewide, according to our governor, who says we may need 18,000 to 37,000 ICU beds in as little as 45 days. It’s up to all of us to keep them from filling up in the next few weeks.
On the low end of those projections, we have just one in six of the ICU hospital beds we will need. On the high end, we have less than one in twelve.
None of us want to contemplate the choices doctors will have to make once the ICU beds are full. Italian doctors have already been making those decisions for weeks. We are not that far behind. For God’s sake, stay home.