May. Late morning, midweek. Parked at the curb of our village post office, I was in the passenger seat waiting for my gloved-and-masked husband to return with our mailbox key and any mail. I noticed a 30-something couple out bicycling. Or rather watched them walking toward me, balancing their bikes, chatting away, shouting some “hellos” to a neighbor on her porch. Walking closer. No masks. Not on. Not under the chin. Not a scarf or bandana.
I rolled up my window. A distinct feeling of nervousness pulsed through my chest. Anger even. It surprised me. What a strong response. Danger. Danger. Like a red blinking light.
I would have liked to have been able to smile, to wave a neighborly “hello,” to nod a greeting of togetherness, enjoying the lovely spring day.
Instead I felt fear.
To Be or Not To Be.
We had just returned from our once-a-week dart into town for essentials, stopping for pre-ordered, pre-paid, pick-ups, and at a few little open-air farm stands when we saw no cars, no customers, or we knew they had good safety procedures in place. I had smiled at a handwritten chalkboard sign, I felt protected by my farm neighbors: NO MASK, No Entry. Stay Safe.
Throughout the day I felt jittery. I couldn’t shake it.
Late afternoon a friend called. I assumed she wanted to talk about the book club we had created together, an experiment to bring other like-minded women into our discussion on climate change, and ultimately to take action. It’s all part of our ongoing work together with a grassroots group we call Drawdown East End .
I couldn’t stop myself from mentioning the bicyclists and my lingering unease.
“Me too!” she said and rushed to tell me her story — her unsettling morning ocean walk, seeing young people bunched together, no masks of course. What should I do? Should I say something? Should I notify someone? I shared her uncertainty. Wanting to do something she had started a conversation with a young woman beach walker, safe-distancing, motioning to the little huddle. “Oh that’s my brother and all his buddies. They’ve been together forever” she laughed.
“What to do?” my friend asked me. Somehow the idea of protecting our community health — and economy — by wearing a mask was not getting through to younger people.
Don’t they know we live in a “hot spot?” A place where our infection numbers are going up, not down? Don’t they know that our neighborhood stores, family restaurants, not to mention our schools, parks, beaches will only open when we get our numbers down? Don’t they know that the hospitals here are overwhelmed, doctors and nurses inundated, exhausted?
It felt good to at least share our common experience, to at least give it a name: anxiety.
We didn’t actually talk about how invisible we felt, in our 70s, to younger people. How our health didn’t seem to even be of any concern.
And we didn’t really dwell on how we felt — nervous. Didn’t they know they could be carrying the virus and shedding? Didn’t they know that as young healthy people they may never feel any symptoms, or they may be just be shrugging off a little sore throat, some muscle aches, a low fever — and shedding? Didn’t they know we are counting on them, the young and healthy, to do the right thing?
I told my friend about a popular local business owner, a young father, who had to self-quarantine and deep-clean his store after one of his employees tested positive for coronavirus. “I’m the CDC’s worst nightmare” he had told our town paper. “I feel great, never felt better, but here I am at home. I had to have the test, and I’m positive. I’m infectious and I would never have known it.” I could feel my friend nodding in agreement. “Infecting people without knowing” she said. “Everyone’s worst nightmare.”
My anger or anxiety or whatever it was did not subside. It just loomed, like a fog.
I checked in with a neighbor. A little older than I, it has become a habit now to call and ask how she was doing. Recently I joined her weekly meditation sitting. “Why” she asked ”do you say you feel disrespected? You are putting intention on an action which is unnecessary. Perhaps these young people are just uninformed. Ignorant of the facts.” Her words seemed like a magic wand. That sinking feeling cleared. Right. Get the facts. Follow the science. That will help me out of this feeling of helplessness.
I share an interest in getting-the-facts with my husband. Our Sundays include watching a favorite news show: GPS with Fareed Zakaria. This time his guest was surgeon Dr Atul Gawande who talked about how a Boston hospital guarded against Covid-19 in their crowded workplace.
“How did you do it?” asked Fareed.
Dr Gawand told how his hospital system of 75,000 people avoided transmitting the virus by everyone doing 4 key things, which, imperfect by themselves, become effective together, like a “drug cocktail.”
- Hygiene/hand washing.
- Social distancing.
- Symptom screening (daily before work).
“Everyday before I go to work” Dr. Gawand said, “I go to a Web site on my phone….Do I have any of the symptoms of COVID-19? ….Do I have a sore throat? Do I have a runny nose? Not just a fever. Fever is present less than 40% of the time when symptoms start.”
When he has no symptoms, he gets a green pass to go to work. If he has a symptom, like a runny nose, he stays home and calls in for testing.
Daily symptom screening. How smart. Turns out that the CDC has a Covid-19 self-assessment tool. I took it, curious to know all the symptoms: cough, runny nose, shortness of breath, fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell, nausea, diarrhea. (Turns out that they take 2-14 days after exposure to the virus to appear.)
And, number 4. Masks.
Masks are vitally important, Dr. Gawande said, because sneezing, talking loud, even soft talking can project viral droplets, and wearing a mask blocks those droplets. Further, masks are important because they address the virus spread by the asymptomatic. “You know, about half or more of the spread is from people who don’t have symptoms. And those people who don’t have symptoms, they wear a mask and that prevents them from spreading to others.”
I gasped. Half or more of the spread is from the asymptomatic? Do people know this?
I asked my husband “do you know this?” “Invisible spreaders” he commented. “How people are spreading Covid-19 without symptoms” popped up from VOX as I researched. Half the people in Iceland who had the virus didn’t know it. Others findings: people can start transmitting 24-48 hours before showing any symptoms, people were most infectious right before they started to show symptoms. Infection rates go down 85% if you are wearing a mask.
Was the Boston hospital 4-part regime effective? Very. Data from one month showed that 50,000 employees did a daily check-up. 11,000 turned up with symptoms. They all stayed home. They all were tested. Only 10% (1,400) tested positive, they self-quarantined 14 days until they tested negative. Then they could return to work. No spread.
Something Dr. Gawande said gave me hope: if 60% of us wear masks, do the 4 key things, we can shut down the virus.
Fareed Zakaria looked impressed. “But is it — I mean, can we — will we do it?”
Dr. Gawande answered: “So, I think the answer is yes. But it is the hardest part of this journey…..” The hospital culture that worked so well, he said, is “I never want to be the one to infect somebody and kill them.”
Thank you Dr. Gawande. Yes. Me too. I never want to be the one to infect someone, injure or yikes, kill them. I’m sure 60% of Americans feel that way too. I can count on “us.”
Do I feel less anxious now….with this new information on how to protect myself and others? Yes.
Hey, this just in — 89% of Americans say they wear a mask when out!
Now we just have to jump start daily symptom self-screenings.