Last night we got our daughter home safely.
I’ve had a chance to sleep and to breathe and now it’s time for a cautionary word.
Consider this a letter from the future. Depending on where you are, California may be living in a time five to eight days ahead of you. As of this morning, in our state we have over 1,500 Covid-19 cases and 48 deaths. The number of cases in our county have nearly tripled from 8 to 22 in the last day. These numbers will feel far away and quaint three days from now.
Our governor is presently requisitioning school gymnasiums, sports facilities, and thousands of hotel rooms to hold patients. And Department of Defense resources are being deployed to set up triage tents. School has been cancelled until at least September. This is what we are preparing for here and in this moment – eight days ahead of where you may now be, going about your daily business, perhaps thinking that this is a short term thing, or that since you work from home or are so remote that it will not affect you.
But this may be the strange and uncomfortable truth.
The Covid-19 virus most likely is already in your neighborhood or community.
This is no longer about you as an individual getting infected.
It may now be about keeping you from infecting everyone else.
In essence, you need to function as if you yourself already have the virus and that you are at risk of infecting your family, your children and every one of your loved ones.
Why? Because several preliminary studies suggest that Covid-19 can spread before you show symptoms and that may explain in part why it is spreading so rapidly.
This is why you must act before anyone shows symptoms, not after. Once you show symptoms, once sick people start appearing in your family or in your community, the window of opportunity has already begun to close. You may already be too late.
This is why Louisiana is in trouble. Eight days ago New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras, and hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the country and the world gathered and drank and danced and kissed and vomited in proximity to one another. Now, today, Louisiana is facing a public health emergency. The rate of increase in Covid-19 cases that are presenting in that state is one of the highest in the nation.
This is why, in our household, we have already begun to live as if it were eight days past our current situation.
Controlled laboratory studies suggest that under certain conditions the Covid-19 virus can survive for up to three days on metal and plastic surfaces, and up to 24 hours on cardboard or paper surfaces. When you touch something, you are not just touching that surface. You are in a sense touching all the people who themselves have touched that surface.
When I say surfaces, I mean everything. The doorknob. The toilet lever. The shower handle. The dresser drawers. The top of your dresser. Your car door handle. Your steering wheel. Your mop handle. The shopping cart. The handle to the freezer door in the grocery store. We touch hundreds if not thousands of surfaces every day and we are not even conscious of it.
As well, and more importantly, instinctively and habitually throughout the day we all constantly touch our faces. We scratch our noses. We pull our lips. We wipe our mouths. We kiss.
If someone is sick and coughs and touches a surface, and then you touch that surface and touch your face, you are in danger of contracting the virus.
To make this real, I’ll describe what it looks like in our family.
My wife is a physician. The current modeling suggests that she may very well soon be on the leading edge and taking care of a great number of people. She is also very much the linchpin of our entire family. She keeps us all together. As a family, and as a larger community, we very much cannot afford for her to get sick.
Two days ago I started to experience a sore throat and a mild cough. Nothing at all bad. Our lilacs are blooming as well as the crab apple. It is almost certainly allergies. At the same time, in recent days I’ve been in a lot of public places in a county that has already presented with the virus. I was in Safeway multiple times, touching multiple surfaces. I was in the hardware store, in the Mexican market to buy tortillas and cornhusks, at Best Buy and in the checkout line at Whole Foods. I gassed up at the gas station, touching the plastic gas handle. In nearly all instances I passed people who were congregating. I walked alongside people who had coughs.
I touched multiple surfaces.
Because of the possible consequences to my wife, and my family, and my community, I have to assume that I have come in contact with the Covid-19 virus. And now, when I cough, even if at the moment it is only because of allergies, I’m spreading droplets.
I may be a vector.
And now we’ll take it up a notch. Two weeks ago, our daughter was living as an au pair in Paris. France presently has the seventh highest number of cases in the world. Last week she flew from Charles DeGaulle Airport to Geneva to visit friends. As a function of population, Switzerland presently has the second highest infection rate in the world. That weekend, both France and Switzerland issued shelter in place orders. The borders in Europe began to close. Our daughter remained in Switzerland for another week. The United States further tightened travel restrictions and our family collectively decided that our daughter needed to come home. Over the next 72 hours she passed through four airports and four global capitals. She passed by hundreds of people from dozens of countries. She sat in a bar with a person evacuated from South Africa where a national emergency has been declared. Two others in Border Control had come from Iran. Another from Delhi. She passed through border control with hardly a question.
She touched hundreds of surfaces.
We have to assume that our daughter is now a vector.
While she was in flight, traveling from Los Angeles International Airport, I drove down to SFO from Sonoma County. As I drove down 19th Street in San Francisco on that late Saturday afternoon, I saw small groups of young men and women walking huddled together down the street. People laughed and joked. They ate sandwiches while standing at the bus stop. They wiped their hands on their pants, and their mouths on their sleeves. They spoke and kissed and coughed because of their seasonal allergies. They shouted and spit. At that same moment, hundreds of people were walking and congregating in crowds at Point Reyes National Seashore. They were all being human, living and loving one another.
And the thought of it all made me frightened.
When I met my daughter outside SFO baggage claim, she sat with her luggage, a mask on her face. We did not hug. We did not come close to one another. Instead, I had brought her doggie who was able to run up to her. They hugged and greeted, I wiped off my hands with a sterilized wipe. I gave one to my daughter and she wiped off her hands with a sterilized wipe. We tossed them into the trashcan on the curb. We loaded her luggage into the back.
And then my dear daughter and I and her dog drove home together for one hour and fifteen minutes in close quarters in our car.
Today is no longer today. A little over a week ago, it was today.
On that day, I stocked split wood and kindling for the wood stove in our field house. The following day it was tomorrow. On that day I moved some of my clothes and books into the field house. Two days later it was in the middle of this week. I moved in a box of food and stocked the fridge with beverages.
Yesterday morning, as a final preparation, we did a deep cleaning of our house. And then today, which is eight days hence from where you all are, my wife and I and my daughter went into fourteen days of relative self isolation.
My wife and daughter have occupied different areas of the house. We try not to share bathrooms. For the next fourteen days, except for cooking and gardening duties, I’m living out in the field house.
Our daughter’s luggage, her guitar case, her backpack, all touched by multiple baggage handlers, remained outside on her porch until my wife could wipe them down with bleach. We had our daughter change out of her clothes as soon as she got home and we washed them. We all washed our hands repeatedly that night.
We eat meals together, four feet distant. We have cleared all the counters and every surface of objects to make them easier to wipe down. We have disinfectant and rags out at all times. In our family, I make the coffee. I am the only one to touch the machine. After I touch it, I wipe it down.
You touch a surface, you wipe it down. You touch a surface, you wash your hands. You touch a surface, you wipe it down.
We are starting to be conscious of our hands and our faces. Where are they? I recite a mantra. Hands, hands. Face, face. When idle, I try to hold my hands in front of me, fingers touching so that they are aware of each other. This keeps me from idly reaching out and touching surfaces. Hopefully it keeps me from touching my nose and mouth and face.
I rub my hands across my nose and face. Dammit. I wash my hands. We each have different hand towels put in separate places.
These are extreme measures, perhaps far beyond what might be recommended in a normal situation. But you have to remember why: today is no longer today.
In our family, our today is eight days from now.
And what does that world look like on that day? That day is the day that Italy experienced seven days ago. On that day, California hospitals are beginning to feel overwhelmed. Triage rooms are filled. We do not have enough ventilators. We do not have enough physicians. My wife and many other physicians no longer have the luxury of performing telemedicine. On that day, physicians start to work fifteen hour shifts. Patients line the hallways on gurneys. Nurses and doctors and medical assistants start to break from the strain. Personal protective equipment is increasingly no longer readily available. Soon everybody knows someone who is sick or dying. As is presently happening in Italy, bodies start to accumulate in the churches and morgues.
And for that day, my wife needs to be well. We cannot get her sick. When she comes home, she cannot afford to have any additional vectors. All of our lives, not just in our family, but in our larger community, may depend on it. Touch a surface, wipe it down. Keep your distance.
And here is the crazy part of all this dystopian time travel. If we all do this, if we act in the extreme, if we actually succeed – then that tomorrow will never come. We will actually prevent a terrible future from happening. And then we will have the greatest of luxuries. Once again, today will only exist as today.
And that will be a very, very, very, good thing.