When COVID Came Calling

It was late in the day and my last chore was to clean up the spent daylily leaves from the front garden. That’s when I found a single stem of poison oak. My husband was sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch when I pulled it up. Immediately he said, “That looks like poison. Why don’t you stop and take it over to the debris pile now before you get yourself in trouble.” No, I assured him, I was almost done and could bury it into the middle of the other leaves. I’ll be fine. By the next day, you would think I had tucked that single stem into the crease of my right arm and left it there for a year.

He went through the Walgreen’s drive-thru pharmacy window and bought their only box of burn bandages in what began an around-the-clock second-degree burn treatment. Several other smaller spots popped up over the ensuing days, and two weeks later it’s become a rash all over my body, as if the poison has entered my bloodstream and traveled everywhere. The Webmd website says it’s time to get emergency care if, “Your skin itches everywhere, and nothing makes it feel better.” My husband thinks it’s the hives from having frayed nerves for days on end, but no matter, I’ve been in a state of emergency for at least a week.

My problem was that I thought I could handle the risk that one stem posed without taking the usual protections of gloves, long sleeves or outright avoidance. I’m highly allergic to poison ivy/oak, so what on earth was I thinking? That I could cavalierly play with fire and not get burned? I tell the story because I think that’s exactly how my family (and others) have probably contracted COVID.

A text message from my sister.

I knew something was wrong because I had only gotten short, cryptic responses from my sister in days. She had been writing me several times a day for months as she worked on one project or another around the house, so the silence was deafening. My mom and dad live there too in the same house, and he finally told me my sister and brother-in-law had isolated themselves in their bedroom days earlier. Both of them were sick. My first question was shouldn’t they get a COVID test? Several days later they did. It had been five days since their first symptoms.

Every death is fraught with unwanted emotions, but the prospect of watching four family members slowly die before my eyes when I couldn’t be with them, hold them, or say goodbye, was a hell I never knew existed.

My brother-in-law is in his early 60s and relatively healthy, my sister is in her mid-50s but a type 1 diabetic, my parents are early 80s but he has had numerous heart complications over the years and now has a pacemaker, and my mom has dementia among other underlying conditions. My husband kept telling me there was still a chance they could pull through this, but I could hear even in his voice that we should be prepared for the worst.

The next ten days were a combination of perpetual monitoring, research and planning. They couldn’t think straight or remember the sentence they just spoke, so I started a Note on my ipad with a list of their symptoms, new symptoms and a record of the vital signs we measured several times a day – temperature, pulse, oxygen saturation, blood pressure for my dad, my sister monitored her sugars. Sometimes they seemed so delirious that I wasn’t sure they even understood my questions. In between monitoring, I’d research the symptoms that might be coming next based on how many days it had been since their first symptoms began, I’d talk to their various doctors about my concerns, their concerns or to get medications that might help with something, anything.

Although each of them had a few unique symptoms to figure out, day 7-10 for each of them was the worst kind of sick you can’t begin to describe.

We called the ambulance for my brother-in-law when we couldn’t rouse him one day and his oxygen saturation had dropped and stayed at 90, but they decided he was stable enough and sent him back home. The day my sister was admitted to hospital, day 7 for her, my cousin wrote and asked for an update. When I gave her the quick rundown on everyone, she replied Dear God. I sat in my chair and cried. Those two words said it all.

One of the jobs from my earlier corporate life was as a Service Executive for my company’s largest customer, the Sears Enterprise. If a system was down at a Dean Witter, Discover Card, or retail location, Sears HQ made sure we knew exactly how much money was lost for every minute they were offline. My job was to get people that didn’t report to me to do things they may not want to do, and to report the status of the situation to people that surely did not want to hear bad news. At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was that I got the problem resolved. This has been my job for all these days.

Every minute seemed as if life or death hung in the balance. And there were the added complications of three dogs in the house, an elderly mother that couldn’t exist without my dad’s help and she didn’t understand what was going on anyway.

My husband and I were insistent early on that we should find out who was patient zero and what had gone wrong. We wanted to use it with our children and friends to show how letting your guard down anywhere could be catastrophic. It would be our duty to tell everyone we know, “just don’t let your guard down!”

Almost without exception, everyone we have said this to will justify how they are living their life. Maybe they know it’s important they wear a mask to one event, but justify why it’s ok that they don’t wear a mask to another. Just like how I justified not walking that one stem of poison oak to the debris pile, and that’s all it takes – exposure to just one person can transfer this virus.

It’s no longer important to us how patient zero in my family got infected, and we’ve all but given up on trying to change people’s minds about wearing a mask. I’m tired of lockdown. You’re probably tired of lockdown. We’re all ready to get back to normal. Except that every choice and decision we make individually has serious consequences for the rest of the people collectively.

My husband says to me that he always told his children that one day they’ll be faced with a decision. Someone will pass them a beer before they’re old enough to have a beer, or they might find themselves in a group that’s doing drugs, and they’ll have to make a decision. And the thing is, once you’ve made the decision it’s done. There’s no going back. My mother used to say to me that I could change my life in a matter of seconds. I thought she was a bit dramatic and over-bearing at the time, but maybe we all need to be that parent right now and tell each other the things we may not want to hear. Don’t let your guard down because COVID can happen to anyone. And it’s not pretty.

My sister and brother-in-law have made significant progress this week. Both have been able to eat for the first time and, for the most part, no longer need medication for their nausea or headaches. Neither of them can stand or move around for more than 5-10 minutes at a time without experiencing severe exhaustion and sometimes the nausea returns. My dad is several days behind them with the same symptoms, and my mother has miraculously remained asymptomatic.

I have continued to research what may come next for all of them. It’s possible they will make a full recovery, although no one knows how long that could take. It is also possible they could be one of the many survivors that we now know as the long-haulers with lingering symptoms of chronic fatigue, brain damage, heart, lung or liver damage, PTSD or residual emotional issues. Dare I say, COVID is the newest pre-existing condition millions of Americans will face.

Simply Facts:

#1. When you breathe with force (exercise), talk or sing, the rush of air breaks up strands of mucus in your airways, sending droplets of it airborne. If you’re infected, those droplets can contain the coronavirus, and early research suggests it can be viable for many minutes to hours. Remember: you may not know you’re infected when you send your droplets into the air.

Wearing a mask and reducing the amount of time you spend in poorly ventilated, crowded areas is a good way to reduce airborne exposure risk.

#2. If an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, sings or breathes while within about six feet or two metres of another person, and the virus lands in the other person’s eyes, nose or mouth, they can be infected. Protecting yourself requires wearing a mask that is designed to prevent the virus from passing through its material AND protecting your eyes. We can all prevent each other from being infected if we just wear a mask that prevents the virus from becoming airborne. Remember: It’s not as much about protecting ourselves. We wear a mask to stop the virus from spreading from those of us that may not realize we are already contagious.

But what if I stay 6 feet away? Because people infected with COVID can transmit large amounts of the virus, there is no safe distance in a poorly ventilated room. Imagine how cigarette smoke moves through indoor and outdoor environments. That’s how the virus-laden droplets move through the air.

Researchers in Hong Kong recently estimated that about 20% of the people infected there were responsible for 80% of the local coronavirus transmission. Choir practices, church services, nightclubs and a birthday party are just a few of the documented superspreader events. Remember: A superspreader event may be a smaller event than you realize.

My sister sent this picture from her hospital room. Our hospitals aren’t equipped with enough “negative-pressure” rooms to contain the virus. These window units pump all the air from the room out the window to keep it from spreading to the hallway and the rest of the hospital. It sounds like a generator and runs 24/7.

Notes of interest:
Research has found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were about twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant than those who tested negative.

Another described a large outbreak in one ward of a nursing home with poor ventilation. Two other studies traced how the virus spread during airline flights.
After attending a choir practice in Washington State in early March, dozens of people were diagnosed with or developed symptoms of COVID-19 even though they had not shaken hands or stood close to one another. At least two died. After dining at an air-conditioned restaurant in China in late January, three families at neighboring tables became sickened with the virus—possibly through droplets blown through the air.

#3. The incubation period is thought to be 14 days, with a median of 4 to 5 days. Remember: some people never develop symptoms or have such mild symptoms they don’t correlate it to COVID. In rare cases, symptoms can show up after 14 days. Researchers think this happens with about 1 out of every 100 people.

#4. Researchers estimate that people who get infected with the coronavirus can spread it to others 2 to 3 days before symptoms start and are most contagious 1 to 2 days before they feel sick.

A new study released this week of more than 5,000 genetic sequences of the coronavirus reveals the virus’s continual accumulation of mutations, one of which may have made it more contagious.

#5. Face shields do not stop the spread of COVID-19 without a mask covering underneath.

As of this writing, 6,960,152 people in the United States have tested positive for COVID. My parents are not included in this number because if one person in the house tests positive, everyone in the house is assumed to be COVID-positive and may not necessarily be given a test. 202,478 of these people have died. That number will be higher tomorrow.