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PW exclusive: What it’s like to get tested, wait, worry and adjust to the new normal of a COVID-19 world

[1]“I’m not going to lie to you,” my doctor told me last week. “This is going to be unpleasant.”

She then pulled the longest medical swab I’d ever seen from its sanitary seal, explaining she would need to insert it deep into my nasal passage, very nearly into my throat, to get a proper sample.

The office had just 10 COVID-19 tests on hand. I was getting the first.

We were going into the weekend, and until the results came back — likely within 48 hours, but possibly as long as 72 — I would have to quarantine myself at home (along with my wife, whom I may already have infected). If the test came back positive, the quarantine period would stretch to 14 days.

That landed heavily on me. My colleague Lisa Sorg attended a journalism conference in New Orleans earlier this month where two people were later confirmed to have the virus. She was already quarantined at home [2] to prevent transmission while waiting to see if symptoms developed. Like me, she hates to be cooped up.

Lisa, thankfully, had so far remained healthy.

I was not so lucky.

For about a week I’d been fighting what I thought was a nasty cold. I have a pre-existing condition that makes me particularly susceptible to upper respiratory illnesses. I catch cold and flu viruses and they take up long-term residence in my chest leading to a nasty, lingering cough and can (too often) lead to bronchitis.

I felt sure that’s what this was — a real annoyance, but not an uncommon one for me. But with the increasing COVID-19 concerns, as soon as I felt sick, I took the precaution of working from home and staying away from everyone I could.

I ended up getting a test because, as my doctor pointed out, I had nearly all of the red flags for which medical professionals were now on alert:

  1. Cold and flu-like symptoms — congestion, a bad cough, body aches, fever —  that were getting worse, not better.
  2. A negative test for the flu (after a brief and sensibly sized swab).
  3. I had recently mixed with large crowds while on the job in cities where the virus had been confirmed. This was not as serious as having traveled abroad to one of the countries now hit hardest by the pandemic or contact with someone confirmed to have the virus. But community transmission of this virus is a matter of when, not if. My doctor thought it was better to know for sure.

And so, as she gently pressed the long swab so far into one of my nasal passages both my eyes blurred with tears, I tried to focus on my good fortune.

I’m relatively young and in relatively good health. I have a good job with health insurance, a good paid sick leave policy and colleagues who support one other. I have a network of friends and family who …OH MY GOD IS THIS THING STILL IN MY NOSE?!

The truth is, I was finding it a little hard to keep calm and count my blessings.

You may relate if, like me, you have been living in the world and paying attention for the last two weeks.

We’ve been living through the first half hour of a medical outbreak movie — and since in the US the disease is settling in weeks after China and Italy, we’ve already seen the scariest parts in the trailer. The situation is going to get worse and will only improve if we take this seriously, pull together and all do the right thing.

As I sat at home, trying not to panic, it didn’t look to me like that’s how people were responding.

Young people were shrugging their shoulders and taking advantage of suddenly cut-rate airfare to travel all over [3], figuring they were healthy enough to endure getting sick and not particularly caring about becoming carriers who may infect those who aren’t.

Older people (including too many to whom I’m related) were convinced COVID-19 was no worse than a bad cold or flu, but The Fake News Media™ was hyping it to hurt President Trump’s re-election campaign. Which was essentially what the President was telling them [4].

Even the mayors of major American cities where I have friends and family [5]were not taking the serious action that was so obviously needed. Instead, they were  telling people to go out to bars and restaurants [6], worried more about the economic hit of social distancing than the catastrophic health consequences of this virus spreading more widely.

And people were packing out bars and restaurants, bragging about not letting a little swiftly spreading pandemic put them off drinks on the weekend or scare away from concerts they’ve been wanting to see for, like, months, man.

It wasn’t that I didn’t understand that,on some level. Tension needs a place to go and it’s nice if it can be out on the town, with some friends.

The economic hit was also worth worrying about. I have friends and family who make their living tending bar, waiting tables, even one who just opened a restaurant this month. None of us know what will happen if most businesses shut down for weeks, maybe months. It’s only marginally less terrifying than the alternative.

And that creeping terror was making people crazy over the weekend. When friends and family were nice enough to procure some quarantine essentials for us, we found grocery store shelves were bare — no milk, no eggs, no bread, no canned food, no potatoes, tissue or toilet paper. Hoarding behavior was already making it difficult for even people who can afford them to get basics. Not a stellar start to what is likely to be a sustained period of economic difficulty and food insecurity for many.

It was at this point, as I was guzzling Mucinex and destroying several boxes of Kleenex on my couch, that I had to take a break from thinking about this stuff, or else snap. (Public service announcement for ’90s kids: The Pierce Brosnan-era Bond films and Cheers are now streaming on Netflix. Living Single and Seinfeld are on Hulu).

When I came back up for air, Gov. Roy Cooper was issuing an executive order closing the public schools for two weeks and prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people. While this was disturbing to a lot of people, it made me feel measurably better. It seemed to cut through some of the buffoonery and sober people up a bit.

Suddenly people who I’d seen laughing off the pandemic on social media were sharing articles about flattening the curve [7]. People were offering deliveries from their home or community gardens to people who can’t leave the house. They were sharing tips on how to keep their kids entertained and feeling safe when they’ve had to keep them at home for extended periods.

On Monday, though I still wasn’t feeling terrific, I threw myself into reporting and writing (as best I could from home) about how others are dealing with this strange new reality. As any reporter will tell you, getting back into telling other peoples’ stories is its own sort of Vitamin B12 shot.

By the time my doctor’s office called early Tuesday morning to tell me my test was negative, my symptoms had begun to lift. No more fever, no more body aches — the cough could take a while, but I expected that.

I can leave the house now, but will be doing so sparingly. I want to stay well enough to help others as they need it — and to keep at the important work we’re doing every day at Policy Watch.