Monday, March 30, 2020

In a Time of Virus: That First Week in Lockdown

We've been in some form of lockdown since March 13th.

In some ways, this hasn't been entirely different from the nearly two years when I worked from home when I was at Northwestern University.  I wake up, I shower, make coffee, eat something and sit down and get to work.  I use my office, which is also my "collection room", ie: The Fortress, which I had decommissioned for work when I went back to UT.

When we were sent home from work, the home office was full of "stuff" all over the floor, making the room unusable.  We'd recently had a remodel of our bathroom, and to make room for the contractors, I'd cleared things and just dumped them in my office and shut the door.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Honestly, what I piled in there was sitting on top of things I hadn't yet cleared away from Christmas, waiting for some time when I'd have some downtime and clean up, which I usually do when we're set to have company.

The first weekend, starting on the 13th, we just sort of blanked out.  There was a run to HEB Saturday morning, buying food for a full week or more.  The store was busy, but not hectic.  Jamie and I put on nitrile gloves before going in - and I never saw anyone else with them on.  No masks.

We've been home since then.  I've only been out of the house a handful of times.  On that same Saturday I also went outside a few times.  On Monday I woke up coughing.

As I believe I mentioned previously, someone in my building was identified as carrying COVID-19 on the night of Thursday the 12th or Friday the 13th, which was part of why we were told not to come in.  I'd been diligent about hand washing, practicing the multistep formula for getting every surface past the wrist.  I had a bottle or Purell on my desk and one in my car.  I was not screwing around.  I'd been using paper towels to press elevator buttons since Wednesday.  But our office has huge, heavy fire doors with handles we all lift for entry.  You put your hands on tabletops.  You never know.

The flipside is, and I was well aware, I'm allergic to a few things, and one of the top offenders is Oak pollen, which had been listed as "high" for days.  I didn't need to look at the charts, I knew. My skin gets irritated before the respiratory stuff settles in.  My eyes hurt.  Oddly, the dog is also allergic to Oak, so one of my telltale signs I'm suffering from allergies and not getting sick is that the dog coughs a lot at night before bed.

Nonetheless, this was week one of what was about to be declared a pandemic, and, honestly... it wasn't just a cough.  On Saturday my lungs began becoming short of breath.  They'd felt dry and almost itched.  All the stuff I'd heard were early signs.  I lay in bed at night and think about how each breath felt as it came in.

Up in New York, my friend Lauren - and then her husband, Steven - had gotten COVID-19, and I was paying attention to her reported symptoms.  I now knew someone who had it, and the abstract became concrete.

Sure, there was an infinitesimally small chance I'd picked it up from someone I didn't know in my building, but...  The thing is, it's not about *me*.  Reports had been that it was worse for the elderly (the death rate is far higher for people over 70), Jamie has myriad health issues.  I didn't want to think about her being in the house with me if I was a carrier.  And as she requires dialysis at  a clinic near our house, there were no obvious answers for where I could send her or myself.

I called the doctor's office and made my argument.  "Not so much for me.  My wife is on dialysis."  To my shock, they had tests.  To my shock, they said to come in to see them immediately, but to call from the parking lot and await further instructions.  I briefly flashed to what I figured would happen as I threw on shoes and grabbed my keys.  I've never called my doctor's office and not sat on hold for five to ten minutes.

Sure enough, I wheeled into the parking lot a few minutes after I said I'd be there and called as soon as my car was in park.  Immediately the wait message and music began.  One minute stretched into five into ten.  Finally someone picked up.  They said "we canceled your appointment because you were late".  "I've been on hold for ten minutes," I said flatly.
The music came back on.
At that moment another number from my doctor's office rang me.
"Are you coming?  We're waiting for you."
"I've been on hold for ten minutes."
A long sigh.
"Come on in."  They gave me directions to a room not in the office, but near the entrance to the building.  I slapped on gloves and held my breath til I got to the door.
The test I got was the throat culture, which is the less accurate test, but everyone made it pretty clear they didn't think I had anything and this was for Jamie.  Which, good.

"Can you keep separated?" my doctor asked.
"Sort of."
"Six feet apart?"
The results were due within 3-4 days.  In that time, no petting the dog.  No sleeping in the same bed.  No touching.  6 feet away.  All that.

During the day I worked in my office with the door shut.  At night I slept in the guest room.  I used the guest/ hall bath.  In the mornings I washed my hands and made my coffee and grabbed a cereal bar out of a box.  At lunch I washed my hands and made a sandwich with my load of bread, my deli meat, my cheese.  I wiped down surfaces as I went along.  Jamie had to both make dinner and do the dishes.  I couldn't risk coughing on a rack of dry dishes.  When we settled in, Jamie took to her usual roost on the love seat and I sat on the far edge of the sofa - six feet or more away.  That edge has been Scout's end of the sofa for years.  So all night she'd keep coming by, staring at me and refusing to use the rest of the couch.

It was only 3 or four days.  And then I checked in Thursday, and they said maybe tomorrow.  I checked in Friday and they said "they're running behind - five to seven days".

So we now had the weekend of more of same.

You can try to be careful, but every time you need to pass each other, it gets strange.  You second guess everything.  You forget and find yourself touching things and then running to get the Clorox wipes.  You wonder what you touched.

In the meantime, my coughing had more or less ceased.  But my lungs felt dry and itchy.  Any moment of downtime, including in the hour or so before I was going to sleep - I was aware of my breathing.  But also exhausted.  I told people I'd been tested and assured them it was just allergies, but I didn't know.  The reports of how this hit people ranged from "not at all" to "immediately dead".

It doesn't seem like we talked to each other much, either.  Frankly, it took a while for me to realize part of what was happening was simply a prolonged panic attack, which I think all of us were or are going through.  But I also felt my health coming and going on waves - that I could tie to the rise and fall of oak pollen. 

On Monday night last week (the 23rd) about 8:30 my doctor called. 

"Yeah, so, your test came back."
"You've tested negative for SARS (something something) COVID-19."
"You don't have it."
"Look, I'm thrilled.  My wife is going to be relieved."
"But I've got something."

So I've been on an antiobiotic since, and about a day and a half after I started on it, whatever was going on finally knocked off.

Maybe the test was a waste.  I don't think so.  We knew for sure.  Jamie could quit looking at me like a bomb about to go off.  I could pet the dog and not worry her fur would carry it to Jamie.  I can touch doorknobs and not curse myself.  When we start to cook, I can jump in.  I can do the dishes. 

But, look. 

Every night I do the same thing everyone does as I look at the news and see the numbers going up a curve.  People I've heard of have gotten it.  A man my age with no underlying medical condition picked it up and died a week later in an Austin hospital.  The City of Austin has us in lockdown.  They had to start administering fines because you can't tell anyone in Austin they can't go sit in a public park and all splash around in the same water with a highly contagious disease when the sun is out. 

Anyway, still, pretty much every night I spend time looking at the same news you do, and that panic attack rises a little bit.  I check my own breathing. 

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