COVID, one year ago today

I got COVID here. I had never been to Sun Valley before. A college friend of my girlfriend was getting married. They lived in Seattle, where some of the first US cases were spreading in community homes. We discussed not going, but as young, healthy Americans in a long-distance relationship who wanted to spend a weekend in the mountains, of course we went. Most friends who read that article asked if the Fresh Prince was there too. I’m sure that hurts DJ Jazzy Jeff’s feelings every time.

The following Friday — March 13 — I uncharacteristically worked from home. Mid-afternoon, I simultaneously received an email from the boss saying our offices would be closed for two weeks and that a friend of ours at the wedding, who lived in Seattle, had tested positive. I felt fine but I figured it was a good thing I was already home. I told my roommate and her friend visiting from New York. I told my immunocompromised friend with whom I share an office. I told my boss and the various people I’d met with the day before. I made dinner. I watched TV. I read. I went to bed.

I had a terrible night. Aches, pains, sweating, chills, overheating, hallucination, an inability to get out of bed to get more blankets, a desire to never get out of bed. Chris Cuomo’s description captured the feeling well.

In the morning, I called the hospital.

“Wow, you’re the first person I’ve talked to that seems to have all of the symptoms and a confirmed, known exposure.”

“How many people have you talked to?”

“I don’t know. We stopped counting a few days ago.”

“Where do I go to get a test?”

“We don’t have any tests. There’s a mobile testing site but I don’t know where it is. The location is announced in the news right as it opens so people don’t line up and wait all night. Anyway, you probably have it.”

I understand.

One reason it would have been nice to immediately start a national testing system would be to collect data that would later be useful in the distribution of a vaccine. It was clear very early that there would be multiple types of vaccines tested. Within a year, two very different types of vaccines are available. One requires one dose, the others require two doses. We’ve also learned that people who have had COVID may benefit from only one dose. In the rush to “re-open” and “return to normalcy,” wouldn’t it be nice to have data that could better organize vaccine distribution so that those who had COVID got the single dose vaccine and those who didn’t get two doses?

I had all the symptoms of the flu paired with images of ventilators and trying to find a ventilator and not finding a ventilator because the hospitals were full. My roommate and her visiting friend felt fine. My girlfriend felt a little sick. She was able to get a test right away, so we spent the next few hours trying unsuccessfully to find a test for me.

We decided that if I felt any better the next day, I would drive to her. Night two was the same as night one. Despite not feeling better, I decided if I was about to get really sick, I should be with her. So I drove 14 hours straight through. Knowing what we know now about transmission, it is unlikely this was a wise decision. I remember a gas station conversation:

“I heard they have cases in Denver and they have cases in Omaha.”

“Good thing we’re here, at least for now.”

There were no masks or hand sanitizer or wipes. Maybe those people got sicker than I did from the COVID I brought to them.

Almost a year later, after almost infinite public health warnings, restrictions, guidance and presentations of detailed data and analysis by public health officials directly to elected officials, I watched a city council member talk about his COVID diagnosis and recovery. He’d violated the restrictions he put in place, flying from the mountains of Colorado to New York to spend Christmas with his son and family. In other words, he violated all of the recommendations and requirements he’d imposed on the citizens who elected him to lead. He told a sob story, he sort of blamed an infant, he talked about how sick he was (hospitalized for five days) and he refused to even acknowledge that his actions not only reflected a complete failure of leadership but that he exposed countless frontline health care workers in our own community to COVID and required them to expend effort on him for five days after almost a year of underpaid overtime..

Then the local college students threw a huge party and the same fellow council members who rushed to offer their colleague sympathy were the first to condemn the students. Unfortunately, the convenience of blaming entitled millennials (who rightfully deserved public scorn in this instance) was just more of the same atrocious leadership by the same elected officials who just weeks earlier defended their own colleague with COVID. Do as I say, not as I do.

How much of the length of the pandemic in the US — while other countries were able to re-open more quickly as we pretended there was no solution or that we should just re-open while doing nothing at all — can be attributed to a nefarious combination of voters who have never had access to health care limited by cost or availability and a second group of voters who have never been able to access health care? If you’ve never had a problem getting a doctor’s appoint, never wondered how to pay the doctor’s bill, never forgone needed care or contemplated rationing medication, how can you even imagine that they health care system could fail, let alone believe that huge parts of it came senselessly close to failure throughout this pandemic? If you don’t trust the medical system in the first place, because you can’t afford it, because you’ve been taken advantage of by criminal billing practices, because a friend or relative died because they couldn’t afford basic care, why would it matter to you if the system failed? The result may have been that a plurality or a majority of voters either could not believe or did not care if the health care system was overwhelmed and collapsed because they completely believed that the system would serve them the same before as it did after.

The US enables a certain kind of head-in-the-sand brilliance. Anyone can pretend to know nothing while claiming to be an expert at the same time. Sometimes even in the same sentence. No shortage of people will talk in depth about the merits of various vaccines, travel restrictions and hand washing strategies while sitting in a restaurant without a mask because they are eating even though there is no food on the table. Millions more lament the cost of the most recent recovery bill — $1.9 trillion — without providing any context or analysis of the cost of spending less or doing nothing. And they certainly don’t mention the cost of the 2017 tax cuts.

We spent a lot of time walking through our city after we got out of quarantine. On one hand, it was incredible to be able to walk freely through the normally car-filled but now empty streets. The skyline was much darker with so many empty offices. This was in the early days of COVID outside of the coasts: some wore masks, most did not as there was no requirement to do so. And it was easy to see the bars and restaurants serving the working class closed while the white collar places were open, at least for delivery, often with some indoor and outdoor dining available. This trend continued off and on throughout. Many of friends earning six figures got COVID, many of my friends who do not did not. The entire time, it was not difficult to understand why the case counts climbed.

Even in darkness, our eyes adjust to the light