According to the Washington Post, the first announced death in the United States from the COVID-19 pandemic came on February 29, 2020. Leap Day. An otherwise unremarkable day, except for calendar makers and soothsayers. A day that has left the family mourning this loss to only be able to mark it every four years. And this observation is but one of many that stick out to me in this unfolding drama that is seemingly without an author or cohesive plot.
Way back in February, I was eagerly completing details for my long-planned sabbatical. My departure date was March 1, so there was much hustle and bustle the day before. Curiously, however, neither my daybook nor my diary have anything written down on February 29. No mention of this virus that had popped up in far-off China and was apparently now making its way around the world.
Friends asked how I felt about going to Australia with the virus so active. While certainly not denying its presence, I also wasn’t intimidated or frightened by it. I did have a moment’s pause around the fact that the one cruise ship line that was particularly susceptible to the virus was the one I was booked on. Still, my thinking was such that by the time I get on board, surely they would have found a routine that kept the ship clean and the spread of the virus under control. And it was a risk I was willing to take.
Let me digress a moment here to note that with this decision I landed squarely in the middle of the bell-shaped curve that demonstrates just how poorly humans assess risk and how easily we rationalize our actions. I wanted to go to Australia and New Zealand. I had paid my money and nothing was going to stop me from having a good time.
We now know how that turned out.
COVID-19 coverage was everywhere in Australia. The news people were filled with outrage over the lack of response by the Australian Prime Minister. The people of New South Wales were unhappy with their Minister who kept allowing cruise ships to dock at Sydney Harbor and let people off the ship, who then spread the virus. Toilet paper was being hoarded and people were just not responding properly! I watched and listened and minimized. Somehow I would be bullet-proof!
We were delayed in boarding the ship because the Health Ministry of New South Wales required it to do an extra cleaning before allowing passengers on. This was reassuring. We were given chits from the cruise line to reimburse us for any food we needed to eat while waiting and, after a four-hour delay, we boarded. Purell-dispensing machines were everywhere – just put your hands underneath and a plop of Purell fell. Smiling crew members were stationed beside these throughout the ship and at every entrance to where food was being served. They cheerfully encouraged all of us to “Washy-washy!” at every opportunity. And so all 2,309 of us passengers did.
The truth about social norming is that even the most anxiety producing situations are ruled by how others respond. (For a social psychology explanation of this behavior, google “Darley and Latané smoke-filled room”). Within a day or two, all passengers were slathering themselves with Purell at every meal and in between.
I do remember having a strong preference for not getting into crowded elevators and for encouraging my travel-mates to use their knuckles rather than fingers when pushing buttons in the elevators and on the info-panels. But other than that, I remained rather carefree when it came to the thought of catching a virus. My roommate, a travel professional, assured us that it was not unusual for ships to have outbreaks of norovirus and for them to be well-prepared for this contingency. This calmed me and so, while I washed my hands regularly, and we wiped down the surfaces in our cabin, I thought I had managed my exposure risk really well.
I actually felt pretty healthy! I was walking farther and faster every day, improving in strength and stamina. I was watching what I ate and who I ate with. Our group of four stayed pretty much together and we really didn’t attend many large social events that are part of the typical cruise experience. We took our temperatures as a baseline, just in case we started to feel bad. But none of us had any symptoms.
Still, it was hard to ignore how COVID-19 was raging throughout the world. The contrast of being wined and dined each night before returning to our cabin to listen to the news of new outbreaks and rising death tolls was stark. By the time we reached New Zealand, there were indications that the cruise would be cut short. Inevitably, the situation evolved and our ship had to turn around and return to Sydney days before the cruise had been scheduled to end, because both New Zealand and Australia were closing their borders in an attempt to keep the virus contained.
I felt no particular fear from having to return to Australia. I was still hoping to spend some time in Hawaii as I had originally planned, before having to return home. I hoped that we would be taken off the ship in Sydney, and either spend 14 days there in self-quarantine, or be allowed to transit back to our original starting point. For me, that meant Honolulu. But these decisions were taken out of my control and I was given a ticket direct to San Francisco.
Our ship docked in Sydney at 1:00 a.m. Passengers were organized and debarked a little after 7:00 am. Crew members stood on deck, smiling and wishing us well on our homeward journey. No special arrangements were made for screening or for transporting people to the airport. We found out that one crew member and two passengers had come down with COVID-19. This was reassuring, but ultimately proved untrue.
Our foursome went to the airport in an Uber driven by a wonderfully extroverted Ukrainian who had been in Australia for 20 years. He noted how decimated the tourism business was because of COVID. He was not a fan of Putin or Trump. He remained hopeful that things would turn around quickly. Transit through the airport was uneventful. We boarded our plane, took off on time, and landed in San Francisco early. Customs was a breeze, and I said my good-byes to my travel companions and they headed back to the Midwest.
San Francisco airport is typically dense with people heading for all parts of the globe. On my arrival, it was more like a tomb, with few people, closed kiosks, and echoes. I was the only passenger on the airport bus that runs between SFO and where I live. The lack of traffic on the road was eerie. If the sun hadn’t been up, I would have sworn it was 3:00 am on a weekend.
I arrived home on a Thursday. The next day I received a phone call from the New South Wales Health Ministry asking me if I had a fever, was coughing, or had shortness of breath. I had none of these. They informed me that I should speak with my primary care provider and obtain a test, since I was considered a “close contact”, having been aboard a ship where folks came down with the virus. They also encouraged me to self-quarantine for the 14-days that had become standard.
As directed, I called my PCP and she told me to call our local hospital which was in the process of setting up drive-through testing. Now I live in a very small town and our local hospital system was never able to set up any drive through testing for anyone. It became clear than the only way I would get tested was if I got it through my PCP. I was able to get tested and, after five days, my test came back positive for COVID-19.
I was both relieved and surprised. Relieved because from what I understand about this virus, it now means that I am developing antibodies, which is a great thing! Surprised, because I had absolutely NO symptoms. As more information has been coming out, it appears that as many as 20% of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms.
Since I have been home I have been touched by how many people have reached out to me and expressed their concern about my testing positive. I want to reassure each and every one of you that I am doing fine. I feel a bit guilty that I DON’T have any issues, since so many people are suffering mightily. For those of you who are thinking, “What an idiot! What did she expect was going to happen?” I celebrate your righteousness and predictive accuracy. It was idiotic to take this trip, and I am sure there is something satisfying in your being right about the outcome. With that said, I have no regrets about going and feel incredibly blessed that I am now among the 80% of people who have recovered from COVID-19.
It does not seem that life will return to normal any time soon. And, as one Facebook posting has suggested, perhaps that is a good thing.
I am pacing myself. And finding inspiration in reading, especially “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodrön. If you don’t know this book or this teacher, I encourage you to find out more about her. If you do know her and her teachings, then I need not say any more.
We have updated our website to include information on COVID-19. Please take a look and share among friends and colleagues. It the meantime, wear a facemask, wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face, observe personal space (at least six feet!), stay sheltered in place, check on your family, friends, and neighbors, let us rise up and do better!