In the Face of a Growing Pandemic

In the Face of a Growing Pandemic
Image created via Midjourney

Somehow, this week went from "growing concern" to "everything hit the fan" in the past 48 hours.

We have been following the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) since the outbreak in Wuhan, China.  I remember the spread of bird flu (H7N9) and swine flu (H1N1) years ago.  H1N1 in particular was spreading in 2009 when my son was an infant.  I remember being nervous, though I do not really remember taking many precautions.  It likely never reached the community where I lived at the time, so it was less threatening.

It became clear that coronavirus was spreading rapidly and I became more concerned.  The death rate is unclear, but seasonal flu has a death rate of 0.1% and COVID-19 is in the realm of 1% - 3%.  But upon doing more reading, it seemed like my family would be more than likely "fine" if the virus were to hit our house.  Ger and I are in our thirties, no underlying health issues, and the virus seems to have little impact on children.  I breathed a bit easier.

Then coronavirus hit the Seattle area hard.  My brother lives there, and his employer (Microsoft) ordered all employees to work from home for three weeks.  As an employee who has been working remotely for over 13 years, I made jokes with my co-workers about how these large tech firms (including Amazon and Facebook) would finally "catch up" to the modern working world and learn that interactions did not have to be face-to-face to be productive.

On Tuesday, I sent out an email to some co-workers regarding March Madness, as we have done a bracket challenge for several years.  One replied back on Wednesday with a link to an article that showed some of the divisions were cancelling their tournaments.  Along with other big announcements, Chicago decided to cancel their annual St. Patrick's Day parade and dyeing the river green, a longstanding tradition.  I heard the reports that people had begun to stock up on supplies (with a somewhat unexplained amount of toilet paper being a main staple).  Travel restrictions to Europe were put in place.  The entire country of Italy went into lockdown.

The more I read, the more it seemed that we would be faced with a period of containment at some point: either self-containment, because someone in our family contracts coronavirus, or mandated by the government.  The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a "global pandemic" with a reminder to countries that the virus could be "significantly slowed or even reversed through the implementation of robust containment and control activities."

I read that the 1918 flu pandemic affected more than a third of the world's population.  Controlling the spread was limited to "non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings."

So in the middle of Wednesday afternoon, Ger and I went shopping.  I have always done grocery shopping week-by-week, so we had nothing stockpiled and very little non-perishable food.  We bought pasta and sauce, rice, canned soups and vegetables, and crackers.  We bought Tylenol and ibuprofen, in case we were hit by coronavirus and needed to control a fever.  And yes, we bought toilet paper (in a reasonable quantity) along with paper towels.   Hand soap is one of the few things I buy in bulk, and we had disinfecting cleaners and wipes at home.  We even bought water, with a huge unknown about what the impact could be.

Upon arriving home, I put all of these items into a large storage tote in our basement.  Theo thought it was a fun game of creating a "bunker" in one of our basement closets.  If we didn't end up needing the supplies for this outbreak, I figured it was not a bad idea to have emergency supplies on hand for something even like a bad snowstorm.  I added a calendar reminder for myself to replace the food every year so that it wouldn't go to waste.

I found that I couldn't fall asleep that night.  My mind raced as I kept reading more and more about the outbreak.  More events cancelled, including an author event I was supposed to attend locally.  I read a Facebook post by an American living in Italy named Christina Higgins.  She wrote about the strain on their medical system.  The message was clear that "there is no more time" and that action has to be taken now.  She wrote "It's not a time to panic. It's time to be a responsible citizen."

I did not feel panic, but I felt even more unprepared.  During our shopping trip in the afternoon we only bought enough food for maybe seven to ten days.  Suddenly confinement seemed like it could be much longer.   at 2:00 am, I added 57 more items to my Target shopping cart.  More food.  Diapers.  K-cups that I had originally not thought about and would not want to be without coffee.  I chose a store pickup option so that I wouldn't even need to go into Target and could breeze through the parking lot in the morning.

After dropping Autumn off at day care on Thursday morning, I went to Trader Joe's.  I bought our weekly supply of fresh groceries and added even more food there.  None of the "fun" frozen foods that we normally get (like macaroni balls and spring rolls), but food that would give us a lot of benefit for the least amount of freezer space, such as chicken nuggets and fish sticks.  I bought dozens of apples that I knew would keep in the fridge for at least a few weeks.

From Trader Joe's I went to get my Target order.  A harried employee pushed out a cart full of my supplies and told me that they had 300 store pickup orders they were currently preparing.  It seems like my timing was just slightly ahead of the curve, because by the end of the day, I saw photos from friends everywhere that store shelves were empty.

The governor of Illinois gave a solemn speech that evening, calling for sacrifice and lifestyle adjustments, and everyone helping/working together.  Infected cases in the Chicago area include someone who worked in the bustling downtown, and a child.  However, schools in the area were to remain open, though after school activities and gatherings were cancelled.

The lack of local school closures seemed like it was only prolonging the inevitable.  An email from the superintendent stated that if a single person in our district tested positive, the schools would immediately close for 24 hours to asses and decide how to proceed.  But it is well documented that symptoms do not appear immediately, so by the time an infected person believes that he/she is ill, it has likely already spread - exponentially.  The virus is also known to live on surfaces for hours or days.

However, the schools in this area and the Chicago Public Schools specifically have another concern, and that is for the children who receive free/reduced breakfast and lunch from the school.  This represents over three-quarters of children in CPS and in some cases, these meals are the only food that children receive for the day.  Illinois has received a waiver from the government that the food must be provided in a "group setting" - meaning that these meals could be delivered in other ways, but there is still a question of how to get the food to the children.  I can understand how this dilemma is weighing heavily on school officials.

The guidance is clear to practice social distancing.  Our school happens to be closed on Monday and Tuesday of next week, for a teacher in-service and then Illinois's primary election day since the schools are polling locations.  I have a feeling that by Wednesday of next week, the spread will be so wide that the schools will shut down, likely for weeks.

Which leaves only today, Friday the 13th.  Schools are open, but in all likelihood, coronavirus is in our district and we don't know it yet.  In our home, we have options.  Ger and I both work from home.  So in our sense of social responsibility, we are going to keep our kids home today.  It is not out of concern that the virus impact us personally, but on the chance that one of the kids could contract the virus and spread it to other people.

I have thought through the phone call that I will leave on the nurse's office voicemail, in which I need to state why my kids aren't in attendance that day.  I will make it clear that we have no symptoms of COVID-19, but instead are making a choice to help limit its spread.  I don't think that we are overreacting, and it is not a decision made out of fear.

So many vulnerabilities have been exposed.  Failures in the testing process for the virus, including making it readily available.  Concerns over people that will not get tested because they cannot afford the testing (though Congresswoman Katie Porter was relentless in demanding that the CDC offer the testing at no cost).  Concerns over people who will continue to work, because they have no paid sick leave and can't afford not to be paid.  Fragile businesses in all areas of entertainment, travel, and service sectors that will be impacted.  The economic repercussions will likely be deep and affect everyone.

My  own fears are not of the virus itself, but of the unknown impacts.  We may feel secure in our family, but this may prove that we are not.  So many people are in tenuous situations and likely very stressed.  If this isn't a call for federally mandated paid leave and universal health care, I don't know what is.  My own prediction is that the United States will have a hard time containing the virus in the coming months because of these shortcomings.  I am hoping that it will also show community responsiveness and people coming together in the interest of a common goal.

“These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto, but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow [humans]”
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933 Inaugural Address