Plague Diaries: Coronavirus in Seattle

Asian woman in a background with a blue coronavirus microbe in the foreground.

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!

When a 4 Hour Trip Takes 8…

Everyone who travels will tell you – you get into your fair share of trouble while you’re at it. I don’t know what about traveling long-term tempts fate so much, but when you’re on the road for a while, interesting things are bound to happen. And if you’ve been reading my previous posts, you’ll know that I’ve already had my fair share of difficulties. But, as any good traveler, I tend to go into any situation ready for the unexpected.

Sometimes there’s no preparing for it.

When you ride on a bus – particularly between major cities – you expect delays. It’s part of the gig. It’s one of the cheapest ways to travel, so it’s really not surprising that there are sometimes problems. Traffic happens. Accidents happens. Buses break down. So, I tend to expect some delays when I ride on a bus – no matter where I’m going.

I don’t expect my bus to turn around, though.

So, here’s the story: my friend and travel buddy Jackie and I were on our way back from New York (the second time), and we decided to take a bus. It’s only about a four-hour trip, and it’s easily the cheapest (and least stressful) way to manage the trip. Getting even the cheapest Amtrak tickets are usually about 3-4 times as much as a bus ticket. So, for the traveler on a budget, it’s the logical choice.

Our bus left New York City at 12:30 PM, and was scheduled to have us in Washington D.C. by 5:00 PM the same day – counting time that we spent at a rest stop in New Jersey. I don’t know why, but it was a fairly empty bus. There was one person per every pair of seats, and still some open pairs afterwards. Jackie sat one seat in front of me, which allowed me to put my computer on the seat next to me and lean against the window while I worked I generally make sure I have at least an hour’s wiggle room when planning to take a bus – or really any form of transportation – anywhere. Because it seems like any type of long-distance ride has some form of complication when I’m on it.

(The last time I rode Amtrak, the train I was supposed to get on was 12 hours late. And one of the last times I flew the plane was delayed because the flight attendants couldn’t get the door to close – which is sort of important when it comes to flying.)

So, I figured we’d probably be back in D.C. anywhere between 5 PM and 6:30 PM. Jackie and I could take the Metro back to my aunt and uncle’s and get dinner at a reasonable time.

And we were actually making pretty good time. I kept an eye on our projected arrival time as we traveled using Google Maps – it tends to be fairly accurate – and we were projected to arrive in D.C. around 6:15 PM with traffic. We had our pit stop in New Jersey, right at the border into Delaware. The bus driver made all of us get off the bus so he could refuel. We were given very clear instructions:

  • Be back in fifteen minutes.
  • The bus will be right here.
  • If you’re not here, we’re leaving without you.

That’s the way buses work. You are responsible for getting yourself on and off the bus on time. If you get left behind, it’s really your fault. I’d never been on a bus with people who were stupid enough to get left behind at a gas station. Most of us are self-aware, and know that if we got left behind, we’d be pretty much screwed, as we all had places to be.

So, we all get back onto the bus – 25 minutes after we got off. We actually ended up having a longer rest break than planned. Which was fine with me – I enjoyed being able to stand and pace for a little while. I got some food and stretched a little bit. The bus picked us back up, we all boarded, and we headed off again.

Fast forward an hour. It’s about 4:15 PM and we have a projection to arrive in D.C. about two hours after that. Not amazing time, but for rush hour into Washington on a Friday, it’s really not bad. So I was happy.

Then the driver comes on the intercom.

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. Uh, when we took our rest stop, we left some people behind. So, I have been – I have been ordered to turn around and go back for them.”

Stunned silence. The woman in the seat across the row from me looks over at me. “This is a joke. Right?”

I don’t know why she thought I would know. But I was pretty sure it was not a joke.

Jackie sends me a text as soon as the intercom turns off: Idiots. I can’t help but agree. I had so many questions:

  1. How do you miss getting back on your bus when it takes a 10 minute longer stop than planned?
  2. Why did it take them an hour to get us to turn around?
  3. How could the bus company prioritize those few people – who could have taken the next bus a couple hours later – over all of us, who were on time, and all had places to be in the evening?

Luckily one of the people sitting near me took the initiative to call the bus company immediately. Apparently, we were informed, we had left not one person behind, but five. And the company felt that the most compassionate thing to do would be to turn around for them. And while I respect the business for sticking to their values – after hearing everyone around me complain about what they were missing – I had to disagree. The most human thing to do would have been to get us to D.C. in some semblance of on time. What if one of us had been going somewhere really important? A funeral? A hospital to visit a dying friend or relative? What if we were trying to catch a plane or train? A delay of another 1.5 hours would ruin all those plans.

The people around me all started to talk – you could call it bonding, if you would like. The girl sitting across the aisle from me is a teacher, and she was going to D.C. to meet up with some friends to take a mini-vacation before school starts again. She’d been expected at a dinner at 7:15 PM, and now we weren’t going to get in until 8:00 PM.

The boys sitting two rows in front of me are DJs, and because of the delay they missed part of a gig at a club in D.C. Both of them were pretty easy-going people, and only looked a little disappointed, but accepted the delay.

The girl sitting in front of the teacher was on her way to a music festival in Baltimore for the weekend and would miss her ride there. She also hadn’t eaten all day, and now was resigned to being stuck on a bus for another 4 hours before she could get food. I – luckily – had a couple of spare granola bars, and I gave a couple to her to help her, but I doubt it did very much.

I was angry, I’m not going to lie. Not because I was delayed myself – no, that didn’t matter. I had things to do (like write blog posts that are long past due). But because these 5 people felt entitled to make the bus turn around when it was their own fault that they missed it.

Anecdote: My much kinder, and more compassionate best friend Jackie has pointed out that they could speak English as a second language and have heard “50 minutes” instead of 15, and just assume that things work that way here in America. And I mean, she could be right – but I don’t think so. I don’t think the bus company would have made the bus turn around for anything less than an absolute demand from the people left behind. So maybe it’s unkind. But I don’t care.

It’s now 5:05 PM, and we’re nearly back in New Jersey. We’re all sort of resigned to our fate now. I’d decided to do the mature thing and simply bury my nose in a book, and not look at who got on the bus. Because I couldn’t truly, deeply resent them if I didn’t have faces to match them to. We were nearly at the border when suddenly, the bus pulls off the highway, turns around, and gets back on going the opposite direction.

I think I’m one of the few people who noticed that right away. I’d been staring out the window for a while. I’d lost my internet connection and needed a break after working on the bus earlier. I know one other person noticed because he went up to ask the driver what was going on, then came back to inform us that the people who’d made us turn the bus around had contacted the company to tell them that they no longer needed to be picked up.

I can’t even tell you the momentary chaos that ensued. I was swearing and threatening these people who I had never seen and would never see again. Jackie was silently fuming and staring out the window. The teacher next to me was in hysterics – laughing and saying, “I can’t handle this, guys. I can’t do it.” The girl in front of her was muttering a string of steady curse words under her breath. The DJs said, “Are you f***ing kidding me?” and groaned.

This was incredible. I will never know if Jackie was right or me. I’ll never know if those people were simply very entitled and didn’t feel guilty about inconveniencing many of us for their own benefit, or if it was truly a string of weird coincidences. And I don’t know that it matters – it didn’t deeply inconvenience me in any conceivable way, and I met some cool new people out of it. So, I can’t complain. Not really.

***

Note: You’ll probably notice that I didn’t put the name of the bus company in this post. That was purposeful. I spent some time reflecting on everything that happened. Yes, the company inconvenienced me. But they also fully refunded both of my tickets, as well as gave me a voucher for another ride. And when it comes down to it – I’d rather ride with a company that chooses to help its passengers – even if they’re idiots – than one that would just leave them behind. Now if this same thing happens again – obviously I won’t ride with them again. But when I spoke to their representative on the phone, he was both kind and helpful. So all around, as weird of an experience as it was, I don’t really consider it a bad one.