COVID Frontline: letter from America

A few Fridays ago I went out for lunch with a vaccinated friend. Isn’t that a sign of the times! I don’t describe him as an old friend, a good mate, someone I’ve known since high school, who I’ve shared many adventures with over the years. No, he’s a vaccinated friend.

It wasn’t busy in the restaurant, a few tables occupied, the cooks in the kitchen, and two staff to look after the customers. We sat at the bar and ate our lunch.

On Monday afternoon my friend texted me. He’d been back to the restaurant but found it closed with a homemade sign taped to the front door, informing would-be customers that a restaurant employee had COVID-19 and so they’d decided to close for a few days while everyone was tested.

It was all informal – no mandated shutdown, no mention of contact tracing. If a government inspector had found mouse droppings in the Cowboy Nachos there would have been an official health-department notification posted on the door, but this was only another COVID-19 scare, so no big deal, right?

Anyway, my friend decided to have a COVID test so he went the next day to a local facility that had free testing. The following day he received his result by email: negative. Despite being vaccinated too, and taking into account his negative status, I also decided to take the test.

Read more: COVID frontline: South Korea and England

The lab was in a small, nondescript building in a big office park. I joined the eight people standing in a ragged queue outside along the footpath, some wearing masks, others not. Some were holding plastic clipboards and filling out forms. After a while, a masked nurse came out through the office door and handed us new arrivals clipboards, pens and forms to be completed. She then began admitting people into the office, two at a time. Two by two, they entered and then left.

Something I noticed about these forms we were filling out: we were asked if we thought we had COVID symptoms, and if we knew or suspected that we’d been exposed to COVID. But we were not asked where this alleged contact had taken place, or who we’d been with.

When my turn came, I entered the room and was told by the nurse to sit in one of the two available chairs. She took my form off the clipboard, checked that my email address was legible, and then used a cotton swab to wipe around the inside of both my nostrils. Nothing too intrusive – it wasn’t the kind of swab that tickles the backs of your eyeballs. When it was done, she told me my result would be delivered by email within 24 to 48 hours and I left through the same door I’d entered by.

As I was leaving, the nurse tossed my clipboard and pen onto a shelf by the door, and I wondered if they were going to be cleaned before she handed them out to the next group. I wasn’t filled with confidence as I drenched myself in sanitiser up to my elbows as soon as I got back to my car.

For me the story has a happy ending – test: negative.

But it’s not so great for the seven people who died from COVID-19, the 310 people who tested positive and the 89 in hospital in the week ending 9 September in Shasta County, California – population 180,000, vaccination rate less than 50%, despite plentiful supplies of free vaccines being readily available.

In November 2020 the Shasta County Sheriff had issued this statement: “The Shasta County Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing the compliance of any health or emergency orders related to curfews, stay-at-home orders, Thanksgiving or other social gatherings, inside or outside the home, maximum occupancy, or mask mandates within the private or business communities.”

What the heck, that just about covers it, right there.

This story was first published in The Local magazine, based in Victoria’s central highlands.

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