Day 39: Normal

May 5, 2020

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

I’m writing today, as I have every day lately, from my dining room table. Behind me is a window twice my size, that looks out onto a world I more observe than inhabit.

But the opening is coming! So I read in the papers. So I see in the news. We’ll get back to business, our President promises. “Normal” will return again.

“Normal,” hand in hand with the coronavirus. Whatever that looks like.

I have no idea what the right path forward is. California’s governor is inching us into more economic activity, and that may be a good thing. As I wrote yesterday, I don’t know that we can live like this forever.

But here’s the conversation so many of us aren’t having: what are we willing to accept in exchange for a paycheck? In a swap for profits?

I just read an op-ed in the New York Times that wonders if our response to the continuing pandemic will come to resemble our reaction to gun violence fatalities.

“The coronavirus scenario I can’t stop thinking about,” wrote Charlie Warzel in the Times, “is the one where we simply get used to all the dying.”

It’s not such a fantastical scenario. The Times reported today that the Trump administration is discussing winding down the White House Coronavirus Task Force; as Trump himself toured a mask manufacturing plant in Phoenix, wearing safety goggles but no mask (like his VP, when he toured the Mayo clinic last week); and where he responded to a reporter’s question about the task force’s possible demise by saying, “”I think we are looking at Phase 2, and we are looking at other phases” of the pandemic.

Of course, Trump is only leading the way. From Florida to Georgia to Iowa, states are lifting quarantine orders. There’s also a cresting frustration in conservative swaths of this state. On Friday, a 24-hour fitness studio called the Gym, in Victorville, Calif., opened for business in defiance of the state’s mandate, with an 8-foot by 10-foot printout of the Constitution posted by the front door.

“This virus is political,” the Gym’s owner, Jacob D. Lewis, told the Los Angeles Times. “It comes down to our civil rights. There’s one thing that people in power forget, one thing that makes us all the same, and that’s the Constitution.

“They can’t force us to shut our doors,” he continued. “We did it voluntarily in the beginning because they hyped it so much, but guess what? They lied to us.”

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases nationwide continued to climb. And Riverside County, which contains Victorville, has the second-highest caseload in the state. At 4,354, it’s a fraction of the 28,000-plus cases in Los Angeles County, but more than double the 1,760 cases in San Francisco.

I can imagine an alternative path, one in which we continue to expand testing and demand people wear masks in public while staying home, in private spaces, as much as they can. Meanwhile, we ramp up our contact tracing abilities and invest in a great antibody test, like the one produced by Roche. Once our case numbers come down to a level officials deem acceptable, then we open up, slowly, testing for antibodies so we know who is safe to wander about, while continuing to test for new infections, and then tracing down and quarantining those who came in contact with the ill person.

It’s not a perfect solution, not by a long shot. Even if we have the best antibody test possible, we still don’t know what those antibodies mean. Do they confer immunity? If so, for how long? Also, we’ve burnt up so much precious time this winter and spring not investing in testing, not producing enough masks or hand sanitizer or PPE or any of the other items we need to prevent virus transmission, that we arrived in May hobbled by an economic crisis unlike any I’ve seen before in my lifetime, while here in LA and around most of the nation, more and more people are falling ill. I don’t fault our mayor or our governor, who did the best they could with the tools they had. But it’s also true that the people have been patient, and thanks to bungling at the highest levels, we don’t have enough progress to show for our sacrifices.

I realize I may be ruffling feathers here, and I’m sorry for anyone I’ve upset. But my husband is a doctor, and if we as a nation decide we’re not going to worry about the coronavirus, well, he won’t have that luxury. It’ll be in his exam room and in the ER and in the hospital. He will be exposed to it again and again and again, in a way he’s so far avoided thanks to the quick and decisive actions of our state and local leaders.

And anyway, I don’t know if any of us have that luxury. I just read today about a Ralph’s supermarket in Hollywood where 21 of the 158 employees have tested positive for the virus. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be in much of a hurry to shop there now. If we loose our controls, if we turn our backs on this virus, return to life as we used to live it, the virus won’t just creep away. It will creep inside us. That’s what viruses do. And then where will we be? And how will we function?

Day 12: Stiff Drink

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Monday, April 6, 2020

Last night, the five of us logged onto the ultimate Zoom call — 54 members of my husband’s sprawling, mutually-devoted Irish-Catholic clan, crowded onto the screen. We usually only see this group once every other year at Thanksgiving in Scranton, Pa., where the original six siblings of my mother-in-law’s generation grew up (though many of them also get together each summer on Cape Cod).

At times on the call, the cacophony grew so acute that our moderator — clear-minded Priscilla — broke us up into separate “group rooms.” Who knew you could even do that? We were in Boston, and Philadelphia, and a phone-in from a cabin in West Virginia where there is no WiFi, and Chatham, N.J., and the Jersey Shore, and Greenwich, Conn., and Lancaster, Penn., and Aspen, Colo., and Syracuse, N.Y., and Seneca Falls, N.Y., and Mar Vista and West LA and Torrance and Santa Clarita.

I learned that all the liquor stores are closed in Pennsylvania but beer and wine can be found at Whole Foods; that you cannot drive from your Pennsylvania home into Delaware to get said liquor, because you will be turned around at the state border; that here in West LA, vermouth is still on the shelves at the City Target at the corner of Santa Monica and Westgate; and that certain brands of beer have stopped production altogether, which admittedly is ironic in the age of coronavirus.

(I learned many other things besides, including that all 50-plus relatives are healthy and relatively happy, given the circumstances, which is the most important thing of all).

These are tough times, and if alcohol didn’t give me migraines, I’d be joining my friend Susan in figuring out, finally, how to make a proper martini. Marijuana, my balm in college, started giving me coughing fits just about the time it became legal in California.

So stone cold sober, I confront the news. The head of the English government is in the ICU. U.S. health officials say this week will be our Pearl Harbor of death and disease. The City of Los Angeles just begged residents to simply stay home. Even avoiding the grocery store, officials say, would be a good idea if you can manage it.

For weeks, I jolted awake at 5 a.m., unable to fall back asleep. That was particularly annoying when I was sick and trying to get better. Now, I can usually manage to sleep until 6:30 a.m., which is a far more humane hour.

My anxiety, instead, has taken a new form. I’ll be talking about disease symptoms, or even watching a show on TV where death comes up in the plot. Suddenly, I have to cough. My breath feels somehow limited. Maybe I’m nauseous. I panic. It’s back! Or, it never arrived in the first place, but it’s here now!

And then I go, Oh. Right. Vivid imagination.

I roll my eyes at myself.

Today, my husband called me from the hospital. I was in the dining room, working on an article, reluctant to pull away and break the concentration that is particularly hard-won these days. But when I heard the tightness in his voice, I turned away from the computer. A patient coded, he said, and it was only afterward that they realized he might have had COVID-19. They weren’t wearing proper protective gear, because they didn’t know, until later.

What do you say to that?

I said, “You know, I think the virus has already been through our house, and you had it but were asymptomatic. I’m think you’re fine. You’re going to be fine.”

I must not have sounded that calm, though, because when I hung up, my oldest son, who was eating a bagel in the kitchen nearby, looked up and asked me, “Does Dad have it?”

So casual, like it might be a baseball he caught at the kind of game none of us attend anymore.

“No,” I said. “He had a patient who might have the virus who coded, and he wasn’t wearing PPE.”

“Oh,” he said. “Okay.”

It seemed like an inadequately dramatic response. But these are times we live in, it was too early in the day for a stiff drink, and anyhow, as far as alcohol is concerned, I’m the state of Pennsylvania in permanent, reluctant lockdown.

My son returned to his bagel and the Netflix show on his iPad. I swiveled my attention back to my computer and peered at the words on the screen. I tried to remember what I’d been thinking when the call came in and for a moment, the world shifted.

A minute passed. Two. Then I started typing again.

Featured photo credit today to @uttaranatarajan, who is using her COVID-19 downtime in the most productive way I can imagine, recreating art masterpieces with her cat and other reluctant household items. Cat -- he of the truly nine lives -- is Mauricio.