Plague Diaries: Coronavirus in Seattle

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, nor am I trying to give anyone advice. This is purely my experience living here in Seattle in March 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak.

It’s Sunday, March 8th, 2020, at 4:30 in the afternoon as I sit down to write this. We’re about two weeks into what I’m calling “The Panic.” I haven’t left my apartment since yesterday morning when I purposefully went to the grocery store at 7am in order to get there during restock, and before other people would be out. I’m trying to get rid of the last of a stubborn head cold with some mint tea and honey. 

I figured my friends and family across the country were probably wondering what’s going on here in Seattle. The media hasn’t done a good job of covering the Coronavirus outbreak, both here in the United States, and across the world. All the stories out there are sensationalized, because that’s what drives viewers and readers. So, as someone living in Seattle, it’s really hard to tell what’s an appropriate response to this disease and what isn’t.

Let me back up a step. The reason I sat down to write this post is because, over the course of the last week, I’ve touched base with many of my friends across the country. Some of them are worried sick about me and everyone else in Seattle. Some are completely unconcerned and think that the coronavirus is all hype. I wanted to set some things straight about what’s really happening here in Seattle. Because things are… tense, and confusing. An already isolated society is isolating ourselves further out of fear of sickness and of the unknown.

I can’t speak to what is an appropriate response to this disease. I’ve never experienced anything quite like this before. So I’m just going to tell you what I’ve seen over the last few weeks, as well as what I’m currently doing to protect myself and, in my small way, stop the spread in our community.

And yes, even though the content of this blog is pretty serious – the title is a joke. 

So What’s Going On?

As I’m assuming everyone knows by now, at the end of 2019, China alerted the World Health Organization of an outbreak of a strain of coronavirus that has since been dubbed “COVID-19.” Since then (as of today) over 100 countries across the world have reported lab confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Over 3.000 people in China alone have died (Source: WHO).

As of the time that this post was written, the coronavirus has not officially been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. I’ve heard a myriad of reasons for this – but honestly, I don’t know why it hasn’t been labeled yet. What I do know is that there are over 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, with a death toll of 21 across the country – 18 in Washington, 2 in Florida, and 1 in California.

It’s also distinctly likely that in the coming days, the number of affected will rise. This will be due both to transmission and importantly, due to the fact that tests are becoming more widespread across the country. So just because the numbers start to jump, doesn’t mean things are actually getting worse.

When It First Started

I remember when I first heard of the coronavirus – it was shortly after New Years. I heard of it and immediately brushed it off – why should I freak out about a disease in China, after all? As the death toll rose and it started to spread across the country, I passively followed the news, but I remained unconcerned. I mean, I was concerned for the people affected – but I wasn’t concerned for myself, or really anyone in America. 

When the virus was first confirmed in Washington state, my first thought was, “Great, now my family is going to freak out.” To their credit, my family contained themselves admirably for quite a while after the virus spread here. 

As more and more cases across King County were confirmed, I grew wary, but not enough to change my patterns. No one has died yet in the U.S. I told myself. There’s no reason to fear.

Then, last weekend, I spoke to two friends of mine who work in healthcare. Both of them were taking the increasing risk of the virus very seriously. To the point that one has locked down her family and is trying to leave her home as little as possible, to try and slow the spread of the disease. At the time, that seemed extreme to me – but I respected her knowledge as a doctor enough to seriously reconsider my stance on the virus. 

Then, the next day, the news hit – the first confirmed death in the U.S. My tune changed. I was now taking the threat seriously. But with so few cases (at the time, there were roughly 50 cases confirmed in Kirkland, and 1 death) I didn’t see the need to panic. 

By this time, stores were already sold out of hand sanitizer. And they were running low on toilet paper as well – which I still don’t quite understand. Why stock up on toilet paper…? Are people that worried about a possible quarantine?

As this week progressed, my concern grew with the confirmed cases. Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency due to the rising number of cases. Health officials advised that people who could work from home should do so. The death toll rose, the amount of cases skyrocketed. I got nervous.

By the end of last week, I didn’t want to be out in public. Not because I was worried about dying – no. But seeing how empty the streets and buses were, I had a sinking feeling that I was the one who was reacting inappropriately, not everyone else.

What Am I Doing?

I’m not planning to totally quarantine myself (though after a bus ride with a guy who was coughing up his lungs on Friday, I’m not really feeling the whole “riding a bus” thing right now), but I’m going to limit my outside time. Most of my usual weekly activities are canceled for the foreseeable future. I usually go to church on Sundays, small group every other Wednesday, and do a dinner out with my friends on Friday nights. 

As of next week, my office has made coming in to work optional. The office itself isn’t closed. But I’ll be taking the opportunity to stay in, and off the bus. 

When I do go out in public (for example, the grocery store yesterday) I’m conscious of what I do. I try to touch as little as possible, keep my hands away from my face, and then wash my hands as soon as I get home/to the office/wherever I’m going. And yes, for the full 20 seconds with soap and warm water. 

I’m also trying to eat at home – though I will admit, this is more a budget issue than a safety issue at current. 

In staying in and off the streets, I’m hoping to slow the spread of the virus. Many of my friends and church family are doing the same thing. Some are trying to stay in as much as possible for fears of the virus spreading so quickly through the community that it overloads our already strained healthcare system. There are concerns across the world that our healthcare workers will run out of protective equipment due to limited supply (source: WHO).

My Moral and Sociological Struggles

The thing that alarms me about the coronavirus – and I’m sure others feel the same – is that those who have it can be contagious for up to 2 full weeks without showing any symptoms. That means that I could have caught it a week ago, exposed all of my friends at church and my entire office, and still not show symptoms myself for another 7 full days. 

This is why I’m glad I canceled my trip to Florida next week – I didn’t want to risk accidentally spreading the virus to my grandparents, who I would have been staying with on my trip.

And now that things have gotten worse around here, I’m really glad we made that choice.

There is one major thing I’m struggling with in regards to the coronavirus:

Staying In vs. Going Out

This may be a surprise, but I find the choice to stay in or leave to be a bit of a struggle. On the one hand, staying in (which is obviously my choice) means slowing the spread and potentially protecting myself from a serious illness. (DISCLAIMER: the mortality rate for healthy people my age is VERY low, so as I said above, I’m not worried about dying).

Sociological:

News outlets have reported that for some restaurants across Seattle, their sales have dropped up to 50% in recent weeks. This means that small businesses, hourly workers, waitstaff, entrepreneurs, delivery drivers, and many more people are short on their usual cash flow. Those people already don’t have the opportunity to stay at home and protect themselves – and if a quarantine happened, they would be the ones to suffer most. People like me with office jobs can work from home and continue getting paid regularly. But what happens to other people when those of us who usually eat out all stay in?

Moral:

On the other hand, say I continued my normal patterns and stayed out and about. I might, eventually, catch the virus, regardless of how carefully I wash my hands. 

What if I give it to one of my coworkers and they have someone at home with a compromised immune system? What if I give it to someone on the bus who works at a nursing home?

In other words, what happens if I unintentionally pass the virus on to someone, and because of that, people die. Where does that leave me? Obviously not consciously culpable. But morally, I’m not comfortable with that possibility.

The Result:

As I said, I’m trying to stay in as much as possible. I’ll periodically re-evaluate and see what other ways I can be of service to my community during what is admittedly a pretty scary and uncertain time. 

But I’m sure my mother, at least, is happy to hear I’m going to be staying in…

What Now?

If there’s one thing that bothers me about this entire situation, it’s the uncertainty. Say I start (as I have) trying to stay in. How long will I have to do so? How long before things go back to normal? Will things get significantly worse before they get better? It certainly seems so, with COVID-19 spreading to more and more states each day. So when does it end?

I don’t have answers to any of those questions. I’m simply living my life here in Seattle, trying to keep myself and my community safe, and make the best possible choices I can in a tense and confusing situation.

If there’s a moral to this story, I’m going to echo Doctor Mike, a Youtuber I follow: Be alert, not anxious. If you live in an area that doesn’t have confirmed community spread (or local transmission is another term), there’s no need to panic. Even if you do, there’s no need to panic! Be smart. Wash your hands for 20 seconds. Keep a reasonable distance between yourself and other people. And for the love of God – someone tell me why the stores are out of toilet paper!

If you want to hear the opinion of a medical professional about the coronavirus, check out this video from Doctor Mike:

In addition, if you’ve heard a lot of different things about the coronavirus and aren’t sure what to believe, check out this list of myths that WHO has busted, or this list of Frequently Asked Questions.

I’d love to hear from other people in Seattle and across the U.S. How has the virus affected your community and state? Leave me a comment and tell me how you’ve been prepping – and if your stores are sold out of toilet paper!

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