March 17th: The Gut Punch
Our crafted calm around the novel coronavirus was shattered on St Patrick’s Day, March 17. We’d succeeded in remaining remarkably unruffled until then. In late February, we’d accepted as fact that our 4 month summer trip to England and Italy was unlikely to occur and that the $8,000 or so loss in airline tickets and lodging deposits could be absorbed. We fortified our sense of being in control of the situation by planning to instead spend the summer hiking the peaks of Colorado from our trailer.
A few weeks later, when the stock market lost about a third of its value, we shrugged it off as a shorter term loss than that from the 2008 crisis, one which we would survive. We accepted the reassurance of the analysts that this would be short-lived, that the economy would bounce back soon. But it was when, on the 17th, we could not buy the food of our choosing, that the gut-punch finally came.
We were in 29 Palms, CA, near Joshua Tree National Park (NP), when we attempted shopping for the first time in 5 days. The empty paper product aisles were startling but not a complete surprise, as was the absence of the cleaning products we sought. The shelves emptied of breakfast cereal weren’t an issue for us personally, but we knew the situation was a crisis for others. The entire butter case was empty save 2 small sticks with garlic and the fresh meat shelves were bare. A line had formed for toilet paper at 8:30 am for a delivery truck that wouldn’t arrive until 11:30 am, even though its contents were unknown.
The Lost Oasis at Cottonwood in Joshua Tree NP.
Another chill went through us when a flashing highway sign indicted that the Joshua Tree NP visitor centers had closed—a mobile sign board that hadn’t been on the road in the morning. “Prudent” we said out loud in unison. But then we wondered how much longer we would be allowed into the park—a place we could reliably go to have zero contact with surfaces or people. Hiking was something we could do to feel whole. Our world had contracted a little bit more, again, with this closure sign.
A Stater Brothers was on the road back to 29 Palms and we did a little better with our shopping there. We bought a package of fresh meat and 2 pounds of budget butter; we could have bought more but we hoped to buy better quality of both in 2 days when in Palm Springs. We however knew that postponing purchasing anything was a gamble.
The Stater Brothers also had no paper products and we were advised to join the line outside the store for their 8 am opening the next day, though they had no idea as to what would be on the truck. We were limited to buying 6 eggs; the man ahead of us in line was told he could buy the loaf of bread or the tortillas, not both. Their rationing of purchases seemed more effective than Walmart’s because they did have more fresh food available. We decided to skip the 8 am queue—I didn’t want to risk heightening my sense of deprivation by being in a food line.
“Food insecurity” wasn’t something I ever expected to experience. We weren’t without food, but we were feeling very insecure about obtaining the food of our choice. Canned Spaghetti-O’s weren’t a welcome option but of course, there wasn’t any on the shelves.
Alarmed, depressed, and subdued once back in our trailer that afternoon, Bill ran the numbers based on the latest reports and announced: “There is a 10% chance that one of us will die from this virus.” We both knew that my hypertension made me particularly susceptible to a severe case of the viral disease though Bill’s recovery from respiratory infections typically takes weeks longer than mine. Those were sobering details that further deflated our moods in this rapidly changing reality.
An hour later, we verbalized our shared conclusion: it was time to put our affairs in order. We’d been negligent in keeping up on wills, advance directives and such and concurred that our willful neglect was no longer acceptable. Some of the barriers had been carving out the time to work with an attorney and to make the hard decisions. We decided to shift our priorities from quality to quantity, to get it all done in any form. We’d start with online versions to get something in place for every category and then go through them again to upgrade the products if we were unsatisfied.
Bill then became deeply distraught about the new news of the “virus in aerosols being viable for 1 hour in the air” (later revised to 3 hours) and proposed that we stop using the RV park shower house, that we shower in our trailer and defecate in our trailer toilet. We had always limited our trailer toilet to being a receptacle for urine, without toilet paper, to keep the holding tank more hygienic and eliminate the need to add chemicals to the tank. Showering in our rig would be inconvenient but defecating would cause our toilet paper consumption to skyrocket. The RV park toilets had a steady supply of TP and we hadn’t been able to restock for weeks.
How not to use a vacuum cleaner bag for a mask.
We were off to a slow start the next morning, in part, because the emotional distress of the day before had disrupted our sleep. Our residual gloom and the unsettling mandate to shelter-in-place was heightened by a winter storm watch. Gone were the sunny skies of the days before, displaced by low-hanging, gray clouds. Several inches of snow would be falling 2000’ above us. The bright spot was that the nearby national park roads and trails remained open to us, though all realties were adjusted daily for everyone. We slowly regained our sense of equilibrium and were less preoccupied as the drizzly day unfolded.
We briefly pondered intentionally exposing ourselves to the virus to get it behind us, to develop immunity. It was of course, a risky consideration. If we both survived without permanent lung damage, it would look smart in hindsight. The other advantages would be being hospitalized before all of the beds were full, before the medical staff numbers were decimated by the illness, and before the supplies were exhausted. We considered it a reasonable option to seriously evaluate, which we did, and decided against it: too many unknowns, too great of risk of not surviving, too much chance of infecting others.
The following day, the 19th, proved to be a pivotal day emotionally. We were going to Palm Springs, with trepidation, for our last acupuncture appointment, and hoped to restock our nearly-empty refrigerator and fill the other holes in our supplies.
While streaming the latest news during our compressed morning exercise routine on our trailer floor, we both were triggered into action. It was the sad story of Washington state hospital staff making their own masks and face shields that activated us. I began online searching for face shields to see what was usually stocked and Bill began reading about DIY face masks. Not surprisingly, face shields had been cleaned-out from online sources but once I had a better understanding of the product, I began making a call list. I wrote down store names, phone numbers, and hours for the hardware stores on the road to Palm Springs.
Bill was delighted to find a research-grade article on making masks from vacuum cleaner bags. They were deemed to be equally effective as surgical masks. With further reading, he suggested we look for bags with HEPA filters. A video made in Hong Kong demo’ed how to make a mask from tissues and paper towels, both supplies we could not restock. And of course, the paper products would be far less effective barrier to virus particles than vacuum bags. The video allowed Bill to instantly create a shopping list for mask making. The Ace hardware store in Palm Springs had a small item we wanted to buy and we thought that they might stock vacuum bags, so it was added to my phone list.
Bill’s first production of masks from HEPA filter vacuum cleaner bags.
The waves of relief and sense of empowerment rippled through me for over an hour in a way I’d never experienced before. Success with the larger mission of the day, buying food, was still an unknown. But securing the face shields anchored a sense of restoring personal control over our circumstance; we felt less vulnerable. In less than 2 hours, we’d gone from idea conception to completion, a success for which we applauded ourselves over and over.
At 9:05 am, we were back in cell service range and the Ace hardware store had just opened, we hoped. Palm Springs was the only city in Coachella Valley at that point that was on lock down and we worried they would be among the many shuttered businesses. We happily learned that hardware stores were on the 10-item list of essential services in California. We whizzed in, purchased all of the items on Bill’s craft-project supply list, and made it to the acupuncturist on time.
Then the next drum-roll began: Bill headed to Trader Joe’s (TJs) in search of our higher-quality meat products and butter. Our goal was to buy a week’s worth of fresh food but their limit of 2 on all products, including apples, meant he fell short. Of course, it did mean that they had some inventory, at least for a few more hours.
As soon as Bill returned for his appointment with the “2’s-limit news”, I headed for TJs. I violated the spirit of their “2’s” limit, but the alternative, shopping daily, was ill-advised for our age group. I arrived at 11:30 and supplies were running low. I rounded-out our meat inventory and we would settle for smaller servings of our dinner vegetable for a week. Unlike elsewhere we had shopped, TJs had received paper napkins, which would do for TP when we ran out.
On my way to pick-up Bill, I stopped at a Ralph’s, another regional grocery retailer. Their parking lot was full, which was unusual since this crisis. Once in, I was impressed with their inventory. TJs was about out of eggs, but the Ralph’s cabinet was still full. I could only buy 2 packages of our favorite butter at TJs whereas I could buy what I wanted at Ralphs. Interesting, Ralph’s was limiting dairy products to 1 item per customer but a clerk checked with the manager on my behalf and we learned together that butter was exempt from the restriction.
Bill modeling Version 1.0 of his masks.
We were reduced to cheating again at Costco and we checked-out separately. Their limit of 1 item of our prized packages of canned and frozen wild-caught Alaska salmon again meant not being able to buy a week’s supply of either. Interestingly, the same Kerry Gold butter was in good supply and not limited, just like at Ralph’s. It suggested that what a TJs clerk had said was true, that the 17th, when we hit bottom, had been the worst day for the shortages and that inventory was starting to be restored. Still no toilet paper anywhere, though a friend said that the manufacturers were confident that their ramp-up in production would cover even the panic buying very soon (that didn’t prove to be the case for us, even into May).
At 2:00, we began eating our lunch in the truck while we made a beeline to our trailer at 29 Palms. It would take us close to 2 hours to cook the chicken I bought for a few lunches, prepare our dinner meat and vegetable, do the day’s dishes, and quarantine our purchases.
Peace and confidence had been restored. We had enough food for a week and had some extra of a few unrestricted items, like butter. Combining our home-made, HEPA filter masks with face shields not designed for infectious disease, would be better protection than nothing for future grocery store outings.
A few weeks prior, we had started quarantining our paper shopping bags for a week. When more information came out, we decided that 5 days was enough, and then that 3 days would probably do. Non-perishables that we didn’t need right away went into quarantine in the back of the truck or the back of the trailer. Items that we needed in current inventory were spritzed with disinfectant, though we aimed to conserve it. Bundled items and products like vegetables and masking tape, were stripped of their outer packaging. It took Bill as much time to segregate, sanitize, and stow our purchases as it did for me to do the kitchen work. And of course, we were both constantly washing our hands to prevent cross-contamination.
The next day taught us another valuable lesson, which was how toxic being indoors was for our sense of well-being in this crisis. It was the day scheduled for our monthly, 20 mile hike and we were pleased to still be allowed into nearby Joshua Tree NP for it. We were in the grit for 8 hours and it was during our typically long picnic lunch when we more fully appreciated how deeply nurturing it was to be sequestered from all reminders of the crisis.
While sitting on the ground, wind sheltering behind a rock, and catching some rays, all that our eyes could process was the desert scene, the clouds, and the sky. Anywhere else that we were, there was a stream of subtle reminders of the new normal: the few cars on the road, the free entrance to the park, half-empty parking lots in town, let alone the online and streamed TV news. It underscored that if we were prevented from spending the summer in our trailer in Colorado to hike, that we’d need to find equally potent ways to reset our sense of inner calm each day.
The “low stim” of Joshua Tree’s desert soothed our jangled nerves.
The fourth day after our gut-punch from food shortages was our catch-up day—a day to catch-up with chores and our beings, beings that had been on the roller-coaster ride of this dual crisis. I devoted the morning to documenting the previous 2 days experiences with words and the afternoon was spent with our small online community. By dinner time, I’d written a record-breaking 34 emails. Having been consumed by our personal Covid-19 drama most of the week, I’d gotten woefully behind in replying and also wanted to reach-out. I had a renewed commitment to sharing, supporting, as well as promoting laughter—it would be good for all of us.
In hindsight, this became another day on which we clearly restored some of our lost sense of power. A political ad on CNN at 5:30 am jerked us into action before we were fully awake. Amy McGrath had a powerful plea to support her in defeating Mitch McConnell. The timing was perfect: we were still angry about Senator McConnell’s predictable biases skewing the pending relief bill away from the people originally targeted, the people that we felt needed the most help. In a flash, Bill waded through the tedious online maze to make the largest political donation we’d ever made. Hours later on the trail, he was still savoring the satisfaction from his early morning political stance.
By afternoon, I had a crafted a plan for a ‘random acts of kindness’ project: we’d buy a small stack of $50 gift cards from a grocery store chain to give when ever there seemed to be a need. The gift cards would be less awkward than the cash we handed to the North African boat people in the Dolomites. These small gestures were a good sign: we’d advanced from self-pity and pity for those less fortunate to beginning to act in the larger community.
Larry Brilliant, an eminent epidemiologist stated: “The N95 mask itself is extremely wonderful. The pores in the mask are three microns wide. The virus is one micron wide.” Our HEPA vacuum cleaner bags filtered particles down to 0.3 microns. We were elated. We didn’t know if the scale or conditions for filtering dust and pollen were different in some way from filtering viruses, but we were pleased with the presumed endorsement of our lovely masks. We first put them and our face shields on to use in the laundry room.
From the beginning of the crisis, Bill and I were at odds about using masks. The CDC and others stated “Don’t wear masks” and Bill concurred because most masks don’t fit snuggly enough to kept air from coming in around the edges. I was in the “anything is better than nothing” camp and noticed their heavy use in Asia. Wearing them made sense to me, though we couldn’t buy any.
When word came out that the virus could linger in the air for 1 hour, and 3 days later they said 3 hours, Bill panicked. Suddenly he was in my camp of “anything is better than nothing.” The wretched truth about the virus in aerosol for 3 hours is that you have no idea how long ago someone was in a space, like the RV park shower houses or laundry room. Of course, in the grocery stores, the air is potentially, constantly, refilled with floating particles. That is what spurred us into action to buy the face shields and materials for making masks: It was the image of walking through a perpetual, invisible mist of viral particles that made us clutch.
Our first batch of Covid-19-response supplies.
The image of a viral particle cloud was also what prompted us to completely change our immediate travel plans. We were to be on the road at 10 am on this, the 23rd of March, and at 7:30 am, I revived Bill’s prior suggestion to not go home at all. He had mentioned it a few days earlier but I was on overload and didn’t want to face ALL of the losses of not going back—mainly massage and acupunture sessions and being with friends. But on this morning when I visualized how that persistent viral mist would fill the air in the indoor halls of our apartment building, the stairwell, and the elevator, I deeply understood his fear. We’d potentially be coating ourselves, our clothes, and belongings with the aerosol and hauling it into our living space, which we wanted to believe was safe. Of course, we’d also be breathing it in. Doing laps in the stairwell for exercise was clearly a non-starter.
Disinfecting the surfaces in our apartment when we returned had been the plan because maintenance people, managers, and our friend had been in our space but suddenly, what was outside our door was of more concern. Worse yet, we had no control over it. Stepping out our trailer door would be 100% safe; stepping out our apartment door would present some unknown level of viral exposure every time.
For the second time in a week, our morning exercises came to a halt. We switched to reviewing our calendar, checking for news of a lockdown order by the Oregon governor, calculating driving distances, and looking for the RV park outside of Grand Junction, Colorado that we’d used in 2015. (A call hours later revealed that the RV park was open but full! We were on the waiting list—more unexpected angst.)
One of the surprising things about this virus was the hours, the energy, and the sense of well being that it sucked out of us each day and this day was a prime example. This was a radical shift in plans and we had to sort through each of the many details to make sure it would work. Never mind that we were left to hope there would be space for us at the RV park.
Once businesses starting opening for the day, there was a call to the package store we use in Portland to confirm that we had no packages waiting for us—uncharacteristically we’d held off on ordering before our return. I would contact our naturopath in a few days and ask her to ship a 4 month supply of supplements to us when we had a mailing address. After the Monday morning rush had time to pass, I’d call 2 physician offices for telemedicine appointments rather than in-person appointments. I’d made a patient portal request to one office the week before but hadn’t received a response. Still no answer, but my requests were in the works. We could have our friend ship our mail and waiting prescription medications to us in a few weeks. We had to run through ALL of these details and more to make sure the abrupt plan to drive straight to Colorado would work.
Our RV park neighbor built this nearby, camouflaged cell tower for the city of 29 Palms.
So, there we were at dinner time, finally regrouped and contented with our new plan to stay at 29 Palms for another week and then drive directly to Colorado. My productivity during the day had tanked; at times I struggled to stand up to move on to the next chore. We had lived such a simple life for 20 years that our nervous systems reel from the intensity of big, abrupt changes. Fortunately, all of our problem solving skills were intact but we didn’t like the emotional roller coaster. Somehow, we ran out of time for our planned, rest-day, neighborhood walk on this redesigned day. We hoped that the biggest, most stressful aspects of this upheaval were behind us.
Uncertainty has always been one of my demons, something I’ve had to learn to navigate throughout my life. I’ve always believed that I could deal with it, if I knew what “it” was. With that clarity, I could gather my resources, craft a plan, and forge ahead with confidence. And I was a firm believer in the power of confidence to make up for shortfalls. But the squooshiness of uncertainty makes it hard to decisively organize around.
Covid-19, like any new threat, fomented uncertainty. Our best guess as to how long it would go on was “A long, long, time,” which wasn’t encouraging either. I noticed that when I was particularly unnerved by the uncertainty of life within the pandemic, that my brain had forgotten that a vaccine would likely end a lot, if not all, of the uncertainty; my brain had flipped into “eternity” mode. Whether it was 1 year or 2 years until there was a vaccine, there would be an end point. Though it seemed excruciatingly distant, even this would be over some day. Remembering that a vaccine would be our “out” always hit my reset button, allowed me to calm myself and move forward.
In the first weeks, the abruptness of the new threats were body slams. Hearing that an entire hotel was suddenly quarantined confirmed our earliest fears about overseas travel. What chaos to wake up one morning in a foreign country and learn that you were a prisoner without a crime!
Regions, then countries, closing their borders were radical fractures in how our world had always been. “Stay at home” orders suddenly shutting down entire industries and cities was an action that had been unimagined in our lifetimes. Every few days we were reeling from life as we had known it evaporating. None were direct threats to us, but they shattered our sense of normal, and subsequently, our sense of calm.
A dab of ‘old normal’: We see this particular Milk Vetch in bloom every year in Joshua Tree.
The same evolving understanding of the virus resulted in the ground shifting under our feet about the utility of masks. Early on, our RV park posted the CDC’s stern warnings “Do not wear a mask” but why? They made it sound like a danger to your health, but how could that be? A few weeks later, it was “Don’t buy masks because the health care workers need them more than you do.” There was no fault behind these gyrations but they were fuel for my uncertainty.
Next, I read a comment intended for physicians that they need not worry about becoming infected if they passed a Covid-19 patient in a hallway. That comment left us confused; it was hard to reconcile with the ‘aerosol for 3 hours’ finding. On TV, a doctor said that being less than 6’ away from an infected person for less than 30” was not cause for concern. “Which is it?” We kept wondering. A week later, another physician said that the “3 hour aerosol” was only in the very specific instance of being around an infected patient undergoing a respiratory procedure. “Ah…” Not only did it explain the discrepancies, it made the new normal a little less scary; perhaps we could survive this but later, even that assessment changed.
Around the time that the “3 hour aerosol” details were being clarified, we were horrified to learn about a new study from China revealing that heart damage was occurring in some patients, damage that increased their risk of dying from the disease by 10 fold. Apparently it is the inflammation that is the real killer with Covid-19: rampant inflammation damages both the heart and the lungs and other organs. It was bad enough to learn a week before about the potential for permanent lung damage, but now this.
Two days later, more details about the heart damage emerged. An online “JAMA Cardiology” journal indicated that the patients more prone to injury were “older patients with preexisting cardiovascular complications and diabetes.” Phew! That wasn’t us but of course, it described the circumstances of friends. It seemed that we were all busy dodging bullets and hoping that other people were as well.
We worked particularly hard to be clear about the length of time that the virus was infective when on surfaces. We’d begun quarantining our shopping bags and non-perishable foods for a week, then revised it downward to 5 days, later noted that 3 days might be sufficient, and finally were comfortable with 24 hours. We dropped our guard a bit and then the study of one of the cruise ships that debarked in the US had virus on surfaces even after 17 days. “Yikes!” Topsy-turvy again.
Even at the Joshua Tree NP, the rules changed about every 36-48 hours for a week. The national headquarters sent down rules, which the rangers instituted. Then, they added a few more restrictions to customize the spirit of the rules to their park. And 2 days later, they tightened the rules further to comply with the California governor’s mandate. Later, they closed it down entirely, again because of California’s changing rules.
At the end of March, there were a few tidbits of encouraging news. Dr Eric Topol, a renown researcher we trust, said that it made no sense to him that hypertension was a significant risk factor, comforting to me because I have uncontrolled hypertension. He assumed that the data hadn’t teased-out the difference in risk between having hypertension and the usual maladies of aging, which I didn’t have. In his mind, my hypertension wouldn’t count as a comorbidity. My sense of vulnerability rose and fell with subsequent discussions as to whether hypertension was a risk factor or not.
Bill was able to buy one package of TP on our last shopping trip to TJs in the Palm Springs area.
The Covid-19 crisis was my first personal experience with how deeply soothing effective leadership could be. Sometime in March, CNN began broadcasting New York Governor Cuomo’s morning briefing each day and we listened when we could. At last, there was political leadership—we’d been limited to the doctors leading the way. To hear a competent political figure report the facts, acknowledge the uncertainty we were feeling, and share his vision was unexpectedly comforting.
We quickly became devoted fans of Cuomo’s. Unlike the President, he told the truth, was data driven in making decisions, and put forth clear next steps. We could trust him and we appreciated his vision and inclusiveness in providing the missing leadership for the country.
Governor Cuomo was masterful, delightful, and reassuring during his press conferences. His daily presentations began with a review of the rapidly changing facts in an unchanging format, changes in expectations and plans, and then ended with his folksy story telling. He had a tone, a story, and an analogy that would resonate for everyone.
Cuomo shared arguing with his sister, urging her not to visit Mom, and of spending 25 minutes trying to convince an old friend that New Yorkers weren’t going to be locked in their homes. The guy wasn’t to be soothed, even when Cuomo said “I would know, I’m the one who would issue the order!” He even issued a strict set of rules (that included wearing a mask when it was contrary to all other recommendations) to protect vulnerable populations and named it after his mom, Matilda. It was like we were sitting around the radio listening to Roosevelt’s fireside chats and we felt markedly better for it each day.
One crushing blow the last week in March was learning that Trump’s approval ratings had gone up. We were dumbfounded. The one good thing that we could hope for in this terrible crisis was that it would sink his re-election. We were wrong. People who weren’t following the hideous details of his endless lies and blunders concluded that he was doing as good of a job as could be done in this situation.
Just the Beginning
And this was just the first, wild, 10 days after our initial collapse into despair. Fear, uncertainty, disbelief, confusion, and rapidly changing realities were our new normal. We kept banging the “Reset” button in hopes of moving from surviving to thriving but couldn’t get there. We clung to our routines of hiking and biking to create the illusion of normal, to have some sense of control over each day, but we still knew that we didn’t know where we were headed (except to Colorado).