COVID frontline: Portland and Seattle

From Richard A Lovett, Portland Oregon

First case reported 28 February

Cases 690; deaths 18

(At 19:30 local time on Tuesday 31 March)

COVID-19 caught the United States badly off guard.

Partly that was because in early February, when the virus had already infected 28,000 people in China and was poised to begin leapfrogging around the globe, the US was still transfixed by the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump.

But even without that to divert attention, our politics left us ill-prepared to handle such a crisis. People on the left don’t believe most things that President Trump or Fox News say, and people on the right don’t trust much of anything said by liberals or other media.

Even in March, conservative talk radio was presenting the virus as an artificial crisis ginned up by Democrats and mainstream media to discredit Trump, after they failed to take him down via impeachment. Two weeks later, when states were already beginning to restrict movement and close bars and restaurants, one conservative friend complained vociferously that this was a “fake-ass virus” that had only made a handful of people sick.

Not that this divide affects everyone, especially healthcare workers. “I’m a conservative,” one tells me. “I find this all very frustrating… I’m in California and people here treat this like spring break.”

Meanwhile, there is a litany of other concerns from those in and out of healthcare:

1. COVID-19 tests are scarce, backlogged, and hard to find. 

The government claims to be rolling them out in large numbers, but nobody I know in the medical community has seen much progress.

2. There is no clear, consistent message on how serious this is, or what people should do to protect themselves. 

Partly, this stems from the top, where President Trump seems to say one thing one day, and something completely different the next. 

But we are also a nation of 50 states (plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and a few other jurisdictions), each with a great deal of autonomy. Iowa, for example, has instituted fairly minimal restrictions, relying on social distancing, bar closures, and the goodwill of Iowans to help keep the virus at bay. My own state of Oregon has closed all non-essential businesses and banned all “gatherings” of two or more people, except for those who live in the same household. 

Virus response is also a patchwork at the local level. Here in Portland, for example, one hospital was handing out fabric to people in the community, so that those with sewing machines could make masks to help supplement rapidly depleting supplies. Another was telling employees not to use anything non-standard… yet.

3. A significant fraction of people just won’t listen. 

That may be the case everywhere, but America has a long tradition of rugged individualism and the freedoms that go with it. It’s very hard to convince 327 million rugged individualists to all do the same thing, for the collective good.

That said, this crisis is bringing out the best in many people here, just as it is around the world. 

Friends are emailing, texting, and phoning me up every day, just to see how I’m doing. 

I live alone and am 66 years old, which puts me in a higher-risk group than I’d like, but an assortment of millennials have been contacting me offering to do my grocery shopping. If I needed toilet paper, I’m sure someone would find me a roll. 

From Laura Crotty, Seattle, Washington

First case reported 19 January

Cases 4896; Deaths 195

(At Tuesday 31 March)

200402 seattle
The morning commute in Seattle has become a lot quieter than usual with many employees now working from home.

I live in Washington state, ground zero for the coronavirus in the USA. One day things were perfectly normal, and then, almost before everyone knew it, they weren’t. These days I check the King County website for latest local updates. Reports talk about the spread of a virus that has suddenly morphed into a pandemic.

I have tried not to fall into a panic, although the feeling lies in wait, just below the surface, a grim foreshadowing of things to come. Those of us who live in Seattle are somewhat overeducated on the subject of the coronavirus. Some would say this is necessary, “a good thing”, but I’m not so sure.

On my weekly trip to the local Fred Meyer, a grocery store chain welcomed by the community for its plethora of all things domestic, my usual 8am-ahead-of-the-rush visit quickly turned into a kind of post-apocalyptic experience. 

The toilet paper was all but gone. I purchased a few packages of what was left, the fluffy stuff, which lasts about an hour in my house. Then it was on to the soap aisle. My idea to buy a few travel-sized hand sanitizers turned into a pipedream. Nothing was there, the basket completely bare. As I pushed my cart down the aisle, I began to realize whole shelves were naked. Forget about travel size – there was no hand sanitizer period. Liquid soaps were all but picked over, but I grabbed a few, even though I didn’t need them. 

I felt a certain tightness grip my chest as I glanced down the soup aisle. A man was hoarding Campbell’s Chunky Chicken Noodle into his cart. Nearby, another mom with tousled hair, dressed in tights and a hoodie, was grabbing stacks of ramen noodles and throwing them in her cart. I rolled by a young couple with pallets of water. I didn’t even know they sold pallets of water and wondered if they made a deal with the store manager.

I resist the temptation to stockpile fluffy toilet paper and ramen and look down at my grocery list. It’s reasonable this week, fruit, veggies (including greens for Walter, our rabbit), coffee, milk, creamer and toilet paper, check. I’m pretty well-stocked, don’t need much of anything, so I try and re-assure myself that this whole situation will blow over; it’s only temporary, right?

Fast forward a couple of days. The school district and community centers have closed down indefinitely. My husband’s office building closed and local government officials are telling us to self-regulate. I’m just imagining my 13-year-old daughter and her best friend, who happens to live across the street, practising self-regulating behavior. And what am I supposed to do with everyone home? My oldest, who was finally off to college – which happens to be The University of Washington – is now coming home. What is happening?

Anyway, I am determined to try and keep calm, but I did ask the manager when they’re getting their next shipment of toilet paper (not the fluffy kind), and I plan on being there when it arrives…  just in case.     

 Read more in our “COVID frontline” series

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