It’s May 24th and I thought I’d start keeping a journal of some of my thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic as New York starts to open back up. As I write this, Long Island is still technically “closed,” but many businesses are open, and people are starting to relax the actions that have brought the numbers of hospitalized and dead down to the lowest levels we have seen since two months ago, in late March, when this whole thing started for us.
Back in January I started to hear talk about another respiratory illness that had emerged in China. This wasn’t too different from other stories we had heard over the past two decades. Usually, the media would report on some type of serious flu that had emerged, such as SARS or some other virus that was killing people at an alarming rate. Generally, these things got pretty much under control not long after their initial outbreak.
A doctor named Li Wenliang from Wuhan, China, had informed his colleagues in December 2019 that he was seeing a SARS-like virus in circulation. He was warned to stop making false comments and was put under investigation.
The reports of this new “novel coronavirus” were that people were getting very sick from the illness it brought, and that it might have originated from a wet market in Wuhan province in China, where some intermediary animal that had become infected from a bat might have brought it to the human population there.
We started hearing that children weren’t really affected, but that the elderly and those with health issues were particularly vulnerable.
The hospitals were getting overrun with patients, to the point where China was building a new hospital and planned to have it ready in ten days to cope with the surge of new COVID infections. I remember marveling at the construction taking place. How were they going to build a giant hospital in only ten days? I’m pretty sure the whole world was watching in awe, wondering how it would do something this ambitious, should it be needed.
By January 23rd, two years before the start of the Chinese New Year, the province of Wuhan was locked down. There were pictures of arteries into Wuhan being blocked off, and scenes of soldiers in haz-mat suits dragging people from their homes and off into isolation.
We heard of an outbreak aboard a cruise ship toward the beginning of February – 47 were sick on the Diamond Princess. These represented some of the “first” cases from the United States. Eventually, 700 passengers from this vessel would fall ill.
On January 30th, President Trump came on the television to announce that he was cutting off travel from China to the US. Anyone who was coming to the US from China now needed to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon entering the country. He went golfing two days later, and claimed a few days after that, at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
It was also around this time that we began to hear that someone in Germany had obtained the virus from someone who had no symptoms. That was perhaps one of the scariest things – that there were people walking around, spreading the virus, not knowing they were spreading it.
Around this time, the World Health Organization reported that there were more than 85K cases worldwide in 46 countries. Most of these cases were from China, but it was clear the virus was starting to spread.
There were hopes that each outbreak could be contained, but then the first week of February we heard that the a 50-year-old healthcare worker from Washington State had died of coronavirus. Almost immediately after that, a breakout was reported at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, Of the 108 residents there, at least 27 were showing symptoms of coronavirus, as well as 25 of the 180 staff. Two people there had tested positive.
Panic seemed to settle in to this hotspot in the Pacific Northwest, as no one seemed equipped to handle what was happening. Crying, confused family members couldn’t get answers. The CDC was late to arrive on the scene.
On February 26th, Trump appointed Mike Pence as the pointman for the coronavirus response and noted, “We’re testing everybody that we need to test. And we’re finding very little problem.…It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner,” and then added, the number of cases “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
It seemed as if most of the cases related to the United States were contained, and that we knew where each person had gotten the virus. Some were on the cruise ship, some had traveled to Italy, which was experiencing its own outbreak at the time, and some had contact with people from China.
But then the first case of “community transmission” happened. Someone had contracted the virus out “in the wild,” without seemingly having had contact with anyone who had the virus.
And that’s when things really started to get scary.
On February 26th, the CDC announced that an infection with the novel coronavirus had been confirmed “in a person who reportedly did not have relevant travel history or exposure to another known patient with COVID-19.”
On February 28th, Trump holds another rally and tells America that the coronavirus is a “new hoax” by the Democrats.
March 4th, Trump tells Hannity, “a lot of people will have this, and it’s very mild. They will get better very rapidly. So, if we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work—some of them go to work, but they get better….It’s not that severe.”
March 6th, he meets with the CDC and tells the cameras that he would like to keep the infected people on the Grand Princess on the ship sot that the official count of cases in the US doesn’t rise. “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
And then it was in New York, my home state.
A lawyer from New Rochelle had been struggling to breathe for days, when his neighbor took him to the hospital. Doctors put him in an ordinary room on the fifth floor.
“Over his four days at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville, N.Y., Mr. Garbuz came in contact with dozens of doctors and nurses, the workers who brought his food and cleaned his room, the porters who helped move him around and the respiratory technicians who made sure his ventilator was working. And other patients, too.”NY Times, 2020/03/10 – Article titled, “For 4 Days, the Hospital Thought He Had Just Pneumonia. It Was Coronavirus.”
My panic level was pretty high by this point. This virus seemed like it wasn’t going to be contained, no matter what government officials were telling us. It was just out there, and the fact that it spread asymptomatically just made it that much scarier. “Community spread” became a phrase thrown around more and more.
That night, I read the tweets from Daniele Macchini, an ICU physician from Italy who felt he needed to warn the world just how horrifying it was when a country’s healthcare system became overwhelmed by this virus. (Download PDF here)
The issue was that some were still treating this like the flu, and not taking it seriously. Rush Limbaugh had said on his radio show in late February that it “was the common cold, folks.”
I still remember the chills and anxiety that those tweets gave me. No one was talking about it at first, but it really drove home the wave that was about to hit this country as we watched the Trump administration flounder. By the early part of 2020, Trump had replaced most competent public servants in his administration several times over, and we were left with the “C” team in most departments, if the departments hadn’t been hollowed out entirely.
Not long after this, the cases started hitting closer to home. A school administration official here, a friend of a friend there. I was surprised that the kids were still in school, but I guess everyone was still in denial that this could be contained.
On March 10th, Rudy Gobert, a player for the Utah Jazz, was reported to have come down with the virus, and not long after that, it was revealed that he had touched all the mics the day before at a press conference, joking about the dangers. He apologized shortly thereafter. Detroit Pistons forward, Christian Wood, who had been matched closely with Gobert in a game a few days earlier, got the virus. So did a kid from Rhode Island who got Gobert’s autograph.
Things seemed to be happening more quickly now. Cases were being reported all over the United States, even in places like South Dakota and Vermont. Some states were beginning to declare states of emergency in order to deploy resources to deal with the crisis.
I read another horrifying story in the NY Times titled ‘It’s Just Everywhere Already’: How Delays in Testing Set Back the U.S. Coronavirus Response.
By Feb. 25, Dr. Chu and her colleagues could not bear to wait any longer. They began performing coronavirus tests, without government approval. What came back confirmed their worst fear. They quickly had a positive test from a local teenager with no recent travel history. The coronavirus had already established itself on American soil without anybody realizing it. “It must have been here this entire time,” Dr. Chu recalled thinking with dread. “It’s just everywhere already.”NY Times, 2020/03/10 Article titled, “‘It’s Just Everywhere Already’: How Delays in Testing Set Back the U.S. Coronavirus Response”
On Wednesday, March 11th, I was at work when my co-worker told us his daughter was coming home from college for the semester. All SUNY and CUNY schools were sending everyone home.
That evening, the NBA suspended its season. I remember seeing Mark Cuban’s reaction when he found out via text on his cellphone. It was becoming clear that sports were going to be done for a while. Soon, every major sports league would cancel its season.
That night, we received a call that there had been a positive case in our school district (ten elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools, 13500 students), and that field trips and after-school activities would be canceled through Friday, March 13th.
On Thursday, March 12th, cases in the United States passed 1500. Public schools around the country started announcing they were closing. I still remember picking my son up from school that afternoon and wondering how much longer he’d be attending before they’d have to close ours down. I didn’t have to wait long. Around 9pm that night, we got a phone call that schools would be closed in our district on Friday the 13th but they expected to be open Monday. All activities and field trips for the weekend were canceled.
Everyone was wondering what was going to happen after the weekend. I knew there was no way they’d be opening up the school again for a while. Sure enough, on Saturday evening, the Superintendent of Schools announced that school would be closed the following week. By Monday, they were closing for two weeks.
The wave was coming.