After developing COVID-19 symptoms, President Donald Trump took a helicopter to a hospital where top doctors and a presidential suite awaited him. While that level of care is of course expected for the Oval Office occupant, my own recent experience reflects the more ordinary reality most people face if they’re infected.
No medical SWAT team swoops in at the moment you test positive. Unless your symptoms are severe right away, you go home and use your best judgment and the tools at hand, like the acetaminophen and thermometer in the medicine cabinet, to manage the disease and determine if or when additional medical care is needed.
It’s disconcertingly do-it-yourself, but that’s how it is.
My husband and I knew we were taking a risk when we decided last month to travel by car to Florida for the small funeral of a beloved family member. We figured we’d wear masks, social distance, take other precautions and we’d be fine.
But four days after our return home, we both developed a dry cough, congestion, aches and then, more ominously, lost our sense of smell. After arranging a testing time by phone, which took about a day to find a slot close to us, we climbed into our Ford Fusion and drove to a MedExpress clinic next to a local Walgreens.
We pulled into parking space No. 1, called the clinic, answered some routine questions. About 30 minutes later we departed after having our nasal cavities swabbed by the nurse who reached in through the car windows.
Then we went home, got back on our company laptops and resumed work in our home offices: the kitchen table and an upstairs bedroom. Two days later, we checked our results online. The virus had been detected in our samples. We were COVID positive, a development greeted with quietly uttered expletives and a sense of resigned resolve.
What’s struck me most is how much we’re on our own. The state health department called both of us within an hour to gather information and offer guidance on how long to quarantine. The clinic staff called after, just to make sure we’d seen our results. But our care is really up to us, and it’s essentially directed by what we’ve gleaned in the months since the pandemic began.
Our days feature multiple breaks to monitor temperatures and check our blood oxygen levels with the finger-clip pulse oximeter I bought a while back just in case. Our medications aren’t some exotic experimental drugs. Instead, we’re relying on Target-brand painkillers and cough syrup, things I’d stocked up on back in early March.
We’re resting when we’re tired. Other than that, there’s not much else we can do unless things take a turn for the worse. Again, whether we need to seek out emergency care will be a decision we make, perhaps with a call to a nurse line for a second opinion. I’m an editorial writer with years of experience covering public health. I’ve been writing about this pandemic almost nonstop since early February, yet this responsibility is still daunting. I’m tired and achy, but can’t let down my guard.
The concerned calls from family and friends are appreciated. They’re mostly a combination of “What, you’re still working?” and “Do you need someone to pick up groceries?” The answers are “yes” and “no.”
Thankfully, Amazon and our local grocery store have left essentials on our doorstep. And we’re still working for a lot of reasons, but this is probably the biggest one: It makes the time go by faster.
Having COVID is a waiting game — if you’re lucky. My husband and I are in our 50s, in reasonably good health and so far, this has been like having a moderately bad chest cold. We don’t feel great, but we also aren’t flat-on-our-back-sick right now. So, we’re writing in my case and managing a crew of engineers in his case.
It keeps our mind off a sobering reality: This could easily change. We know all too well that COVID can take a turn for the much worse, particularly in the second week, which we are in the midst of. A line from an old Kenny Loggins song (from the 1980s “Top Gun” movie) keeps playing in my mind: “Ride into the danger zone.”
And so, we stay vigilant and wield the household tools we have against the virus. There’s a sigh of relief when we get normal results with each temperature and blood oxygen reading. But we still have a ways to go. It’s like driving very carefully through a blizzard. We’re creeping along, grateful to pass mile markers and still be on the road but the ditch looms menacingly. We are well aware that more than 2,100 Minnesotans have succumbed.
Focusing on work and routine things, like doing laundry, hasn’t kept me from obsessing over where we were infected. We’re not aware of anyone else at the funeral, including the two other attendees staying at our hotel, who has tested positive. Our symptoms instead line up best with exposure on the trip back home. We had overnight stays in two states. And while we didn’t eat inside restaurants, we did do takeout and drive-through and we made the usual stops for gas and bathroom breaks.
Yes, we wore masks, socially distanced and practiced good hygiene. But not everyone else at the hotels, restaurants or gas stations extended the same courtesy. One of the reasons I am sharing my story is that I see a lot of people on social media posting pictures of short getaways or even vacations. Masks, distancing and good hygiene reduce your risk but can’t eliminate it.
For now, we just keep moving forward as best we can, hoping soon to be on the other side of the COVID “danger zone.”
Be careful out there. We thought we had been. It wasn’t enough.
Jill Burcum is an editorial writer for Star Tribune Opinion.