In February of 2020, I went to see my best friend, Sarah, when she was visiting her mom about two hours from my home in Little Rock. We both lived in Little Rock until about ten years ago, when Sarah’s family moved to New Jersey, so the chance to spend 24 hours with her was not something I was going to pass up. We talk nearly every day & text if we don’t talk. She, her mom and I sat in her mom’s den that Saturday evening and talked about this new virus that was making the news. We discussed how it appeared to be inevitable that it would eventually be a pandemic and how Trump had recently called it a “democratic hoax” and how he surmised that “like a miracle it would just disappear.” All the way home, I couldn’t shake that our world was about to change in the worst & most disruptive of ways. I soon became really concerned for her as she lives in New Jersey, which is uncomfortably close to NYC, where cases were beginning to appear.
I was sitting on our couch one day about a week and a half after that trip, editing photos, when Chuck came in the room and said, “I think this is serious. I think it’s time we all work from home. We need to stock up on some groceries and only go out for the bare necessities.” That day, it was reported that a hospital an hour away had Arkansas’ first Covid-19 case. Not long after, our youngest son’s school district went entirely remote, our oldest son’s college went remote and our daughter began working from her home. I had JUST set up an office in a room we call the playroom even though no one has “played” in there for years. Chuck took over my desk and has been there since March 11th.
President Trump’s remarks got crazier and crazier as he referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus” and he lashed out at reporters asking perfectly logical questions. Chuck & I embarked on the search for masks, at first fashioning makeshift ones from bandannas and scarves, until my husband hit the jackpot in the storage space under our house, finding an unopened package of N95 masks that I had purchased for some long-forgotten painting project. My mother-in-law made us some masks and I began ordering them from various places. Three friends and I formed a group chat and jokingly called ourselves the “Task Force.” It went from sharing funny memes with one another to griping about incompetence in our state government to sharing stories of people we knew who contracted Covid-19, to sharing stories of people we knew who had died to sharing stories of being tested ourselves and in my case ultimately, in late December, getting a positive test. (The “task force” is still going strong almost a year later, though no governing body seems interested in our skills:)
I am fortunate enough to be a photographer, a career that I can do from a distance, and I began a project photographing people in their homes, behind doors and windows. Black & white documentation of a time in our lives we all hoped we would live to remember, yet we kind of wanted to forget. A local news station even covered my project on the news and I was named Arkansan of the Day for the project. Our “shut down” didn’t last long and once people started going about their business like nothing was happening, I abandoned the project. I wanted the photos to be authentic, not staged by people who had worked in an office all day and spent the weekend on a family vacation. Soon spring turned to summer and things seemed pretty survivable in summer. We skipped our usual vacations and the pool was closed. We walked the dog, but otherwise, save for the occasional photo session, stayed home. School was out and things were more relaxed but “Covid fatigue,” as experts refer to it, was starting to set in.
Case numbers in the summer didn’t seem as scary and the numbers still weren’t terrifying, especially for upper-class white folks like myself who enjoyed a level of privilege that quik-shop employees or factory workers did not. We all got rather complacent, though many of us remained diligent in our safety protocols, like masks & no large gatherings. This disease was disproportionately hitting minority populations and those who didn’t have the luxury of staying home like I did. As I read obituaries in the paper and watched news stories, I felt guilty. Once again, class and race gave us advantages over large populations of people. In Arkansas, the Marshallese population was especially hard-hit. I got tested several times, because I would visit my immunocompromised dad in Missouri and wanted reassurance before doing so, or I would have a close call with exposure & think, “Is this headache/sore throat/fatigue actually Covid?” It wasn’t, so I stopped getting tested and assumed that since I was being safe, I felt comfortable assuming that those minor symptoms weren’t Covid. I did stop visiting my dad, because no risk was too small there. I primarily went to Kroger and Target, masked and armed with sanitizer, though I usually used delivery/pick-up services. Sometimes I would walk to our local bookstore or support a small boutique. The desire to support small businesses where owners had become friends occasionally outweighed my need to feel 100% safe. I only went places that took firm safety precautions like limited people in stores, required masks and ample sanitizer. I like being home though and I’m never, ever bored so it wasn’t an inconvenience for me to stay in. I would only leave to walk the dog or relax on our deck. Twice Chuck and I did dine out on outdoor patios but when we left we felt like we shouldn’t have gone. I got angry when friends espoused the “you do you” philosophy, which I found incredibly self-serving and thoughtless. I got angry with friends & family who carried on as though nothing was happening. I got angry when Chuck’s grandmother contracted Covid but the family insisted she didn’t really have it. I got angry when family and friends gathered for games and holidays and birthdays as if there wasn’t a world-wide pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of people. And instead of listening to us, people just called me “angry.” There is a time and a place to be angry, and yes, I was most certainly angry. Churches? My heavens, churches should have people’s best interests at heart and gathering was and is, in my eyes, completely unnecessary during a pandemic. My dad’s life depends on people doing the right thing. We have no concept of the flow charts illustrating how our actions affect others around us. It baffles me that some of the people who weren’t cognizant of that consider themselves Christians. I began to see people having long-term complications & I saw friends losing family members after weeks on ventilators, and yet people were still calling this lethal virus the fucking flu because it fit their political narrative. Don’t even get me started on the politicization of wearing a simple mask.
Schools and universities resumed classes and as one might expect, the uptick in cases began to surge. Christmas approached and I did most of my shopping online, at Target pick-up or at the few small boutiques and the bookstore I mentioned earlier. I was concerned my son would bring Covid-19 home from college but after Thanksgiving he didn’t have to return to college until mid-January. My older son moved out in November and I worried he would bring it home to us as well, since he was no longer part of our household unit. Our kids are careful and wear masks but at this point during many December days, we were having days of 3,000 – 4,000 new infections per day. One thing I did start doing was donating platelets. With so many Covid patients in hospitals, there was a constant need and it isn’t something a lot of people do, so I decided to let go of my fear and go with Chuck, who had donated for years. I went in December around my birthday and I was so frustrated because the man hooked up closest to me would NOT keep his mask pulled up. It was down under his chin as he pretended to eat a snack. I would ask the workers to have him pull it up and as soon as they were occupied with others, down it would go. I had mine on but we were little more than six feet apart and studies were showing a safer distance was more like 12 feet. He finished his donation before me and as he walked out the facility door, I noticed he coughed. Probably nothing. Get back to your book and stop being paranoid, Noelle.
Christmas Eve was in two days and this year I weighed not having the kids and my mom open presents here at all against doing a quick exchange on Christmas Eve. As I do every year, I ran myself ragged wrapping gifts, making a wreath, putting up outside lights, decorating the tree, finishing holiday photo orders, sending out Christmas cards, & making sure everything was perfect, all while handwriting hundreds of postcards to support Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia. I was TIRED. The night before Christmas Eve, I went to bed and thought, “I have not been this tired since I was pregnant the first time.” I woke the next morning and had a tickle in my throat. It was about 6:30 a.m. and I decided to go to Baptist Urgent Care at 8:00 a.m. and get a test. By the time I was actually seen, my tickle had gone away and I thought, “Why am I here exposing myself to Covid to find out I don’t have Covid?” The nurse did the rapid test and said it was negative but they did another PCR test to find out for sure if I’m positive. The doctor came in and warned me that she had to call four people that morning to tell them their rapid negatives had been proven wrong by positive PCRs. I went home fairly sure I was negative and in a move I regret, I allowed the kids and my mom to come over as long as masks were worn. Brooks and Chuck went for tests that day as well and both had negative rapids with contingent PCRs. After we all ate, I think mom was the only one to put her mask back on and we soon parted ways, a little annoyed that the ineptitude of our leadership had made for a quick and less-than-relaxed Christmas celebration. That night I went to bed exhausted but it had been a busy day so I thought nothing of it. After all, no one had any real symptoms and collectively we had three negative tests so far. In hindsight, it might not have changed things, but I would have worn my mask in the house and isolated until I got my PCR. In my defense, I honestly couldn’t think of a place I could have been exposed and the blood donation had not yet occurred to me. The morning of the 26th, I actually woke with some energy and the phone rang. When I saw a number with a Baptist prefix, I just knew. Why, I don’t know, but I knew. Positive. “Well, ok, ma’am. The health department will be calling, isolate, take your temp and log it, rest, Tylenol for fever, etc.” I know all of this because I have extensively asked questions of my friends in medicine and I have read every reputable article I could get my hands on since February. I retreated to Wyatt’s old room with books and stitching and my phone and computer. I still had work to do and orders to place and as I said, I am never bored. I was still quite tired and had a headache one day but it was no worse than my usual migraines and my Zomig worked perfectly. I waited anxiously for the symptoms to begin. Fever? Never came. Breathing difficulties? Never came. Chills and body aches? Nope. Loss of taste and smell? Nada. Cough? Only once when my Snickers bar went down the wrong way. Chuck was so good to bring me food & whatever I texted a request for, but tensions are high, as you might guess how stressful this is. I decided that surely that one positive test was a mistake because Brooks and Chuck both had negative PCRs now. I decided to go for another PCR. Negative. This really didn’t make sense but then I remembered: the blood donation guy. I checked the timeline. It fit perfectly, if you considered that my positive test was likely at the END of my exposure. My very mild case would make sense because he was about six feet away & I had on a mask. But HE didn’t have a mask on the majority of the time I was with him and had a cough. Every other person I was in contact with continued to test negative. Thankfully, my dear neighbor, who is an infectious disease physician, told me to be sure Chuck was tested five days or so from my positive and again at ten days if that one is negative. So off he went. Two days later he got his results and yep, POSITIVE. Our son who lives at home continues to test negative. Everyone else (older son, daughter and mom) has tested negative. Chuck’s only symptom was a mild cough, which if you live with him, work with him or live in a 1/2 mile radius, you know is a daily thing and has been for most of his life. (Seriously, I’ve never been around a family who coughs more.) Chuck is now back to himself. Just when I think I am, I have a day of fatigue or a headache (and now they are not feeling like my normal migraines). I can’t tell if my brain fog is worse or just the Gabapentin I take for my back. I have learned several things from this experience. For ease of explanation, I’ll just list them for you.
- This virus is easily transmissible & perhaps even more than we first thought. You can’t be too careful. I read a few months ago about a woman who wore her mask at home. I thought that was a bit much. I wish I had.
- If you have even a hunch you might be positive, get tested. This would make a huge difference in stopping the spread if people just didn’t take an “it won’t happen to me” approach. Had I not had that tickle that disappeared, I would have infected my kids and my mom (who is over 70 with diabetes and a 2-time cancer survivor), in addition to Chuck.
- If someone isn’t wearing a mask around you, do what it takes to get away from them. I asked them to have the man put his mask back on. If faced with that scenario again, I would ask them to unhook me and I would leave.
- When people tell you this isn’t real or “something is fishy,” or any other conspiracy theory, put your hand up and refuse to listen. This negativity and craziness only serves to spread the virus and endanger lives.
- Shut the hell up about fake Covid deaths. And Covid causes pneumonia. So if your friend/relative/acquaintance goes in the hospital with pneumonia, gets a positive test and dies, it’s Covid. And it’s not anything to be ashamed of. Perpetuating these conspiracy theories helps no one.
- When people offer meals and help, if you become sick, SAY YES TO THAT SHIT! It made our lives SO much easier and they truly wanted to help. I’ve never felt so loved.
- Anxiety is one of the worst parts of testing positive. Will I have severe symptoms? Will I infect someone I love who will have a serious case or even worse, die? Will I suffer some of the after effects like neurological impairment or blood clots or heart attacks? Will I end up on a ventilator or die? Have I infected someone unknowingly? A disease with so many unknowns makes you wonder about a lot of those unknowns and as with most anxieties, these become worse at night.
- Covid-19 is not the common cold, no matter what asinine info Rush Limbaugh feeds his followers. And the reason information changes is that it’s a new (or ‘novel’) Coronavirus. Physicians are learning new things about it and therefore recommending treatments or disregarding treatments as new info comes to light. Stop trying to make it a conspiracy theory. This happens with new diseases all the time. We treat lung cancer a hell of a lot differently than we did years ago.
- You spend a lot of time re-evaluating your priorities. Who and what is important in your life? Even if you have a mild case, the what-ifs make you think deeply. What do I want out of life? Am I on a path that leads to making those things happen? Because my story could have been a lot different.
- People have been ridiculous enough to suggest I got this because masks don’t work. NO. The man I am 99% sure infected me did not have on a mask. For maximum effectiveness, we all need to wear masks. Had I not had one on too, I am convinced that my case would have been much worse. Wear the damn mask. It isn’t unpatriotic but it is selfish not to. And it’s SUCH a small act of love to protect your fellow man.
I wish everyone had our experience, but they don’t. I wish everyone had our access to testing and medical care, but they don’t. I wish people weren’t dying of this disease in exorbitant numbers, but they are. I do know that researchers and medical professionals learn more about this virus daily. Until we are experts on how to diagnose, treat and prevent Covid-19, it’s up to us to do what is in our power to prevent the spread. Wear the mask. Don’t gather. Get the vaccine when it’s your time but understand it isn’t instantly nor 100% effective. Care for those around you that have it, even if it means sending them a card or leaving flowers on their porch to brighten their day. I promise you’ll be making a difference.