Welcome to the first of what will be regular chapters of a living oral history of the Covid-19 pandemic, an attempt to capture in real time the stories playing out across our country, in the words of those who are experiencing the crisis. This installment focuses on people who are ill right now (or suspect they are sick) because of the virus, along with the voices of doctors and health care workers taking care of them.
The project grows out of my work writing and researching an oral history of September 11th, a world-changing disaster that rewrote our geopolitics, our economy, and our society. Now, of course, we’re all living through another once-in-a-century crisis—one that appears to have the potential to rewrite even more of our geopolitics, our economy, and our society.
Capturing the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic—how this crisis unfolds and how our thinking about it changes—is critical both to understanding it now as well as to the stories we someday will tell about it. Each Friday, WIRED will publish a new chapter, weaving together as many stories as we can from across the country about living through this “Covid Spring,” trying to capture the story of American government, American business, and American life, and the titanic task ahead for our health care system.
Share Your Stories
To tell this story, though, I need your help. Please write in and share your own stories—tell me how your life has been affected, how your family is handling this moment, how your work has changed, tell me what you’re seeing in your home, on the streets, at the grocery stores, in the parks where you’re walking or running—at an appropriate social distance, of course.
Email your stories to me at email@example.com, write as much or as little as you wish, and stay tuned each week for additional chapters of our series: Covid Spring—an oral history of a pandemic. None of us knows how many chapters it may take until we’re out of this.
Editor’s note: The following oral history has been compiled from original interviews, social media posts, and online essays. Quotes have been lightly edited, copy-edited, and condensed for clarity.
I: Living With Covid-19
As of Thursday afternoon, the United States overtook China as the country with the most confirmed Covid-19 cases in the world, more than 85,000 total. Yet that number still represents what is almost surely a fraction of the actual number of cases in the US, as testing has lagged nationwide and many who are ill and wish to be tested don’t meet the strict criteria to receive a test still in place across much of the country. The scale of the nation’s epidemic also means that public health officials have quickly abandoned attempts to trace the contacts of those infected, leaving those sickened by the virus—or those who think they’ve been sickened by the virus—wondering not only if they have it, but how they caught it.
Amee Vanderpool, writer and lawyer, Washington, DC: People are in total denial about this. I even did that for the first three days. The 21st was a Saturday. Saturday is when I came out of denial. I definitely had something that I’d never had before. I could get really sick.
Anne Kornblut, director, news and new initiatives, Facebook, Palo Alto, California, via Facebook: I tested positive for Covid-19 [last week]. I’m relatively fine; lucky, even. Around here, officials have been preparing, so much so that I was able to get a test when I needed it. Facebook sent us home many days ago, so it’s unlikely I affected a big group of colleagues. I went supply shopping weeks ago. Here’s what I didn’t prepare for: telling my kids to back away from me, while informing them that this scary thing upending the entire planet is now inside our house. Inside their mom. My daughter cried and asked if I will get better. I couldn’t hug her. My son wrote an account of it for our home newspaper. “Anne Kornblut has the coronavirus but do not worry it is not the bad kind,” he wrote on the front page. “Please note that you should not be within 10 feet of Anne.”
Morgan Madison, age 18, Chandler, Arizona: I really wasn’t paying attention at all—I didn’t really care [about the virus]. Trump told us it was never going to hit the United States. He said there were like three cases. I thought I definitely wouldn’t get it—if there are just a handful of cases, why would I be one? I work at a car dealership, and my GM got back from a seven-country tour, and four or five days after he got back I had a sore throat. Our receptionist got a horrible cough too. She just stopped coming to work. Last Monday, I got to my desk and just started hacking up a lung. My GM came in and said, “Clorox wipe your office and go home.” I woke up the next day and felt like trash. I felt I had inhaled glue. My throat was sticky. I was coughing. Lots of migraines. Horrible migraines. It just went from feeling great to taking a five-hour nap in the afternoon. There was dizziness and confusion. Sometimes I feel fine, then the coughing up a lung came back. There were a couple of times I’ll just be sitting on the floor hitting my inhaler.
Howard Yoon, literary agent, Washington DC: A week prior to getting a fever, I’d developed a sore throat and a runny nose. That was the seventh of March. The idea of the coronavirus was creeping into everyone’s minds when they got sore throats. Out of an abundance of caution, I stayed home. I felt fine the next day. That might have just been a cold or maybe that was the onset of the virus? Since I felt fine after that first day, I went to New York that Wednesday. I tried to take some precautions—avoided the subway, walked most places. That night, I had drinks with some friends and colleagues. I knew I had it [four days later] on Sunday the 15th. All the days leading up, I don’t know whether I had it and was developing all week or it came on full-blown after catching it in New York. One of the people I had drinks with, she has tested positive for the coronavirus. I don’t know if I gave it to her or she gave it to me.
Anne Kornblut: Even when I got sick, I assumed I didn’t have it. After reading so many coronavirus stories as part of my job for weeks now, I thought I knew what to look for: a dry cough, a slow onset, a high fever. I had none of those things. Instead it hit me suddenly, with chills, aches, a mild fever, a sore throat, and a terrible headache, and then improved dramatically within three days. Now I’m just extremely tired, and because of a history of pneumonia, trying to force myself to sleep.
Amee Vanderpool: I felt like I was hit by a bus and very tired. I felt like I was getting a head cold. My breathing started becoming constricted around my lower ribs, not high up in my throat and lungs like with an asthma attack. I slept most of the day. I tried to call my doctor’s office just to give myself a laugh, and I got the same recording that tells you to call 911 in an emergency and then to call back. They don’t even give you the option of leaving a message anymore.
Howard Yoon: Saturday, I had a scratchy throat. Then Sunday morning, the 15th, I woke up and my face was warm. I experienced a lot of fatigue. I didn’t get out of bed. I’d purchased a smart thermometer, so I was tracking myself: 8:09 am on Sunday, I had a fever of 100.9. By Sunday afternoon, I self-quarantined in our basement apartment. At 2 pm, I was at 101.1. At 9 pm, it spiked to 102.6. I was just rolling around in bed. I was drinking a lot of liquids. I felt parched constantly. The weird thing is I had an appetite. For a while, I was not hungry, then I was starving.
Anne Kornblut: The health department called to inform me to stay away from everyone, including my children. So who should take care of them if my husband tests positive, too? “We haven’t had that scenario yet,” the public health nurse said, offering to call me back.
Morgan Madison: I called my doctor, and they said, “Do you know three people who have it?” No. “Have you been to China, Europe, or these places?” No. OK, just try to get better at home. Then I was seeing the news tags on Facebook; I saw the news that there were now hundreds of cases. After I found out I couldn’t be tested, I was thinking, “Who else can’t be tested? I’m really sick and no one’s being tested.”
Howard Yoon: The next morning, like a storm clearing, I woke up and my fever was just gone. At 6 am, I was 98.4. I did a teledoc thing with a physician’s assistant that day. She told me maybe I didn’t have the coronavirus. The teledoc said stay quarantined for one more day. On Tuesday, I came back upstairs. I’d heard the MedStar in Adams Morgan, near where I live, was doing tests, and I went, but I evidently didn’t qualify. I needed to have a fever and a cough. Even though I had been with someone who tested positive, it wasn’t enough.
Amee Vanderpool: I’ve given up on getting tested for the time being. I am already in self-quarantine and I don’t feel well enough to run around trying to find a drive-up testing center.
Anne Kornblut: Last Friday, [my husband] Jon’s doctor called to say he had it, too. Jon hung up the phone and made a plus symbol. Positive. Even though it was probably inevitable, the news was strangely shocking. The medical advice, already unclear, got more confusing. If both Jon and I have the coronavirus, should we test our two kids? No, the doctors said. You should assume your kids have it, or already did. So does that mean we can all hold each other, and be together in the same rooms? Can I take off my mask and gloves? No, the doctors said. You don’t want to give them more virus—more “viral load”—and make them or both of you even sicker. And absolutely no one can come or go from the house.
Amee Vanderpool: If you have ever been in a situation where you could not breathe for an extended period of time you will understand what I am saying here. This Covid-19 is scaring the hell out of people with respiratory issues. So far my lungs are totally clear, which is pretty much keeping me calm. If that changes and I am not able to breathe, I will immediately go to the hospital. Until then, I will self-quarantine and take extra good care of myself. This means drinking a lot of water. When I say a lot, I mean a glass every hour and then one or two more for good measure. Extreme dehydration seems to be a major component here, and I am hoping that staying hydrated is most of the battle.
Howard Yoon: I was still experiencing a lot of fatigue. I’d tried to work for a half-hour and then feel like I needed a nap. That night, Wednesday, I went to cook a chicken I’d defrosted before I got sick. My wife came downstairs, and said, “What’s that smell? That chicken has gone bad.” I couldn’t smell it. I put my nose right into it and realized I had no sense of taste and smell. I still don’t. Since then, I’ve just been sleeping a lot. As of three days ago, my energy bar is getting bigger.
Morgan Madison: When I cook, I don’t smell anything while I’m cooking. I can smell really pungent scents—like taking out the trash—but nothing sweet.
Anne Kornblut: With both of us now sick, we set the bar at survival. We took turns with the kids. We wore masks and gloves to make their food. We begged them to put themselves to bed. We tried not to seem sick, even though we took one step forward, another back. I went from no fever to a low fever. An odd headache recurred, one that felt like a kind of brain fog. My breathing was up and down—never very problematic, just enough to worry. The weird loss of smell thing happened with me, though not Jon. We both needed naps.
Coryn Wolk, photographer, Philadelphia: My father is recovering from a mild case of coronavirus, and my mother is making a show of staying six feet away from him until his quarantine ends. Last night, we had a family conference call—them, me, and my sister in Maine. My dad held their landline phone on speaker and my mother shouted at it from six feet away.
Anne Kornblut: I gave up on the mask soon anyway—slowly at first, then increasingly as it became clear that the kids needed our normalcy more than anything. We kept our distance from each other and from them. But we gave occasional quick hugs. How do you tell a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old that it will be fine, their parents won’t both die, without some little touch? Our daughter, so ecstatic at her first hug after all that time, made me an “I’m better!” button and insisted I wear it. It was premature, but I put it on anyway. The kids’ questions were searing. “How do people have funerals for the coronavirus if people aren’t allowed to be together?” “If I die from coronavirus, how would my friends who don’t know each other know to come to my funeral?”
Morgan Madison: My work and my boyfriend’s work require a positive test for us to be paid while we’re quarantined, but they don’t seem to understand that we literally will not be tested. I’ve had multiple episodes where I’ve been stuck laying on the floor, struggling to breath, head pounding, and sweating like I just ran a marathon, but I can’t afford a $30,000 hospital bill to go get an oxygen mask and still no test.
Anne Kornblut: Every night I have dreams about infecting other people. I’m in a movie theater, sharing popcorn with someone, when I suddenly remember I have the coronavirus and tell the other person. I’m in a meeting, borrowing someone’s pen, when I tell them I’m sick. Night after night. Yesterday I left the house for the first time in 13 days and took a walk in our neighborhood. It’ll be at least another week and a half, and probably longer, before we’re out of quarantine, but doctors say we can go outdoors if we stay far from others. So I veered 40 feet away from the nearest pedestrians. Even then I worried about the wind carrying my germs. By the time I returned home, I had to sleep.
II: Critical Condition
While the majority of people who are infected by Covid-19 will not require hospitalization—about 80 percent of cases appear to be mild—the virus has a remarkably high rate of severe, and even fatal, cases compared to the regular flu. So far, the picture we have of what’s happening to the most serious cases of Covid-19 is limited. Few first-person accounts have emerged of patients, and so far privacy concerns have kept reporters and cameras out of the hospitals as the crisis swells. In an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter, emergency physician Esther Choo said, “What would the zombie apocalypse be like if we only had verbal descriptions of zombies, but could never show them?”
A rare first-hand exception came last week, when David Lat, the founder of the blog Above the Law and now a legal recruiter, posted a photo of himself in a hospital bed receiving oxygen. He explained how his case had developed in a multi-part Twitter thread, published on Wednesday, March 18.
David Lat, legal recruiter, New York City, via Twitter: How did I get the coronavirus? I have no idea; it was true community spread. And I was also contributing to that spread, because I (stupidly and cavalierly) brushed off my initial mild symptoms and went to the gym, office, etc.
On Thursday, 3/12, I woke up fever-free without having taken fever-reducing meds, which struck me as great. In fact, by that afternoon I was thinking that maybe I was over whatever little three-day bug I had.
Boy, was I wrong. On Thursday afternoon/evening, I developed a nasty cough, replete with heavy chest congestion. This continued into Friday, which is when my fever returned (101.6).
I called my internist on Friday, 3/13. The physician’s assistant I spoke with said it sounded like a flu that turned into bronchitis. She prescribed cough syrup and a Z-Pak and said I could feel better as early as the next day.
Unfortunately, I got worse over the weekend, my coughing having progressed to the point where it was making it hard for me to breathe. On Sunday, 3/15, I made my way to the emergency room at NYU Langone Medical Center, my nearest ER. I described my symptoms at the ER, but based on all the horror stories I had read about the difficulty of getting a Covid-19 test, I wasn’t expecting much—and I was right.
By Monday 3/16, I couldn’t breathe again. I rushed back to the ER—and this time they were on their game. They admitted me, gave me oxygen, put me in an isolation room—and FINALLY gave me the Coronavirus test.
Last weekend, two nights after his Twitter thread, David Lat was intubated and put on a ventilator. He has not tweeted since. He remains in critical condition.
III. The Caregivers
Instead of hearing from patients, the picture we’re beginning to have is emerging in harrowing terms from the social media posts and interviews with doctors, nurses, EMTs, and health care professionals who are on the front lines of the hospitals’ responses across America.
Mary Macdonald, emergency department nurse, Oakland County, Michigan, in an Instagram post: I’m an emergency room nurse and have been working on the front lines of this coronavirus for the last 10 plus days, and I have to admit that if you had asked me 10-plus days ago if I thought that this was going to get as bad as it was, I would’ve told you “no.” You heard the rumors, you saw the trends, but until you see it firsthand you just have no idea what it’s like, what it’s going to be like, and it’s truly frightening.
Craig Spencer, Director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine, New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, via Twitter: Walk in for your 8 am shift: Immediately struck by how the calm of the early morning city streets is immediately transformed. The bright fluorescent lights of the ER reflect off everyone’s protective goggles. There is a cacophony of coughing. You stop. Mask up. Walk in.
Meredith Case, internal medicine resident, Columbia University Medical Center, via Twitter: The deluge is here. Our ICU is completely full with intubated Covid patients. We are rapidly moving to expand capacity. We are nearly out of PPE.
Craig Spencer: You take signout from the previous team, but nearly every patient is the same, young and old: Cough, shortness of breath, fever. They are really worried about one patient. Very short of breath, on the maximum amount of oxygen we can give, but still breathing fast.
Esther Choo, to CNN’s Stelter: The truth is, the sickest patients are terrifying. They are air-hungry, dropping their oxygen, confused, distressed. We can never show that. But it is terrifying.
Craig Spencer: You’re notified of another really sick patient coming in. You rush over. They’re also extremely sick, vomiting. They need to be put on life support as well. You bring them back. Two patients, in rooms right next to each other, both getting a breathing tube. It’s not even 10 am yet.
Mary Macdonald: Things have been changing for us on the front lines every single day—hourly—in regards to policies and procedures that we should be putting into place to fight off this coronavirus. The numbers are starting to double and triple in regard to people that are coming in. Most people are not getting tested, especially if you’re walking while you’re being sent home to quarantine.
Meredith Case: Tough day. Floor beds were converted to ICU beds on the fly as a cascade of patients in the ED and on the floor required emergency intubation. Inspiring to watch RN, NP/PA and MD administration come together to find a way to care for these patients.
Rebekah Gee, CEO, Louisiana State University Health Care Services, in an interview Thursday with CNN’s New Day: We’re fighting a war, and when you think about how you fight a war you need two things—you need to be equipped with what you need to fight that battle and you need personnel and strategy. Unfortunately, our equipment is starting to reduce. We’re a couple of days away from being out of masks. We’re buying gowns on eBay in some cases.
Rob Davidson, emergency room physician, Michigan, via Twitter: As an ER doc I’ve always known I could be exposed to a pathogen or toxin that could harm me. But in the past, when the risk was known in an individual patient, I always had the protective gear needed to be as safe as possible.
Esther Choo, via Twitter: My heart may never recover from all the people dropping off personal supplies of gloves and N95 masks and offering to sew facemasks for hospital workers. Covid-19 is uncovering our societal fault lines, but so much kindness too.
Craig Spencer: For the rest of your shift, nearly every hour, you get paged. Stat notification: Very sick patient, short of breath, fever. Oxygen 88 percent. Stat notification: Low blood pressure, short of breath, low oxygen. Stat notification: Low oxygen, can’t breath. Fever. All day.
Meredith Case: Staffing these beds requires incredible resources. Hard to say which will run out first—staffing, physical beds, ventilators, or other life support devices, e.g. [Continuous renal replacement therapy (CRRT)] machines to run continuous dialysis for the many patients developing renal failure.
Mary Macdonald: Resources are very slim. We have no medications to keep these patients even ventilated—let alone ventilators. Medications like fentanyl or propofol that would keep a patient sedated while they’re intubated we’re out of. We’re out of Tylenol. We’re out of Tylenol. And that’s not even going back to the fact that we don’t have any ventilators to put these patients on. We’re going to start making life or death decisions in regard to people’s care.
Esther Choo: This country is beginning to feel like the devil’s romper room.
Craig Spencer: Nearly everyone you see today is the same. We assume everyone is Covid-19. We wear gowns, goggles, and masks at every encounter. All day. It’s the only way to be safe. Where did all the heart attacks and appendicitis patients go? It’s all Covid.
Mary Macdonald: It’s getting to the point now that we’re going to be just like Italy. We intubated from 10 pm last night until this morning. We intubated two of my patients within a half-hour, and I would say upwards of 10 patients were put on ventilators. My patient took the last ventilator available in the hospital at 7 am.
Meredith Case: Today was the worst day anyone has ever seen, but tomorrow will be worse. We are on the precipice of rationing. Needless to say, these decisions run counter to everything we stand for and are incredibly painful.
Mary Macdonald: I didn’t choose nursing or the health care field to not help people, and that’s exactly what the choices are that they’re giving us. They’re giving us no choice but to help only the people that they think can survive.
Rob Davidson: In addition to our own safety, some of us have faced—and others will face—decisions we never thought possible in this country. We are making life-or-death decisions not based on research, data and evidence…but based on a lack of ventilators.
Craig Spencer: Before you leave, you wipe EVERYTHING down. Your phone. Your badge. Your wallet. Your coffee mug. All of it. Drown it in bleach. Everything in a bag. Take no chances. Sure you got it all??? Wipe it down again. Can’t be too careful.
Meredith Case: I am ending my night by delivering acetaminophen to a co-resident who spiked her first fever today. She is one of many in recent days.
Rob Davidson: It’s a stressor that we bring home as well. From changing out of our scrubs in a “safe place” at the hospital and disinfecting every item we carry back and forth, to disrobing in our garages and sprinting to a shower before greeting our loved ones, life is very different.
Craig Spencer: It’s really hard to understand how bad this is—and how bad it’s going to be.
Bill de Blasio, mayor, New York City, in an interview with CNN, Monday, March 23: It’s going to be bad this week, it’s going to be worse the following week. We have to be honest about this. This is just the beginning.
Meredith Case: This is where we are.
Esther Choo: Without personal protective equipment, we wonder who’s next. The cavalry is not coming.
Rob Davidson: What will we do when a significant number of health care workers succumb to the coronavirus? Who will staff our hospitals?
Jean Schoening, pharmacist, Chicago: I am a retail pharmacist and encounter at least 100 to 200 people a day. I have not coped well with working so closely to the public right now. Minor issues that pop up in pharmacy regularly have now become catastrophic in my anxious brain. I have cried every day at work, occasionally due to panic attacks, since our area shut down schools and restaurants. I cry from the anxiety of wondering every single day as I walk up to the store, “Will today be the day I catch it?” This is during the initial upward movement of the curve. What will the peak look like?
Rana Awdish, medical director of care experience, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit, via Twitter: I lost my first friend to Covid-19 today. He won’t be the last.
Chris Albon, director of data science, Devoted Health, via Twitter: My wife is a doctor at [University of California-San Francisco]. We sent our kids to stay with family two hours before the shelter-in-place order took effect. We haven’t seen them in almost two weeks, I don’t know when we will see them again.
Jean Schoening: I am currently the only one earning money as my significant other works for a nonessential small business. That pressure, of being the only one bringing in money, is more significant than I had realized. Another significant fear is that I will be the one that brings the virus into our house. If we do end up with the virus, it will of course be the only person working outside of the home. This thought consumes my day and night.
Rachel Patzer, PhD, director, Center for Health Sciences Research, Emory University, Atlanta, via Twitter: My spouse is a physician in the emergency department, and is actively treating coronavirus patients. We just made the difficult decision for him to isolate and move into our garage apartment for the foreseeable future as he continues to treat patients. We have a three-week-old newborn and two young kids and just can’t risk it. It pains me to wonder how many weeks will go by that he won’t get to hold our new baby or see our older kids.
Mary Macdonald: This is truly scary and nobody is taking it seriously. I want to jump through my phone and strangle people that are on the beach or out with their friends still.
Esther Choo: Today some of my colleagues and I vowed to tell each other’s kids how much they were loved, if any of us are not around to tell them ourselves.
Craig Spencer: Everyone we see today was infected a week ago, or more. The numbers will undoubtedly skyrocket overnight, as they have every night the past few days. More will come to the ER. More will be stat notifications. More will be put on a ventilator.
Mary Macdonald: Don’t do anything that could put you at risk to have to see me at the end of the tunnel. I’m telling you it’s not worth it. I don’t know what I can do to save people anymore.
For those health care professionals in areas of the country where the coronavirus wave hasn’t hit yet, days right now remain tense.
Candice Cody, anesthesiologist, Washington DC: The cases we’re doing, we’re treating everyone as asymptomatic positive. We’re ramping up, practicing for these massive intubations in the ER and the OR. The wave hasn’t hit us yet. Everything right now is cleaning and disinfecting three or four different times, three or four different ways.
At work, tension is high. We’re doing the aerosol generating procedures, which are most dangerous [for Covid-19 exposure]. I have several people in my department who are sick. We’re still awaiting test results. We have spouses who are sick. We’re waiting for a number of us to fall. In the call room the other day, someone broke down in tears, worried about bringing it home to her family; she’s got a child with respiratory issues. Another partner sent her children to live with her parents; she doesn’t know when they’ll come back.
[My husband] John [Cody] and I are on two front lines; one of us is doing intubations, the other is doing ER-receiving in the Covid tent. There are young doctors who are getting sick. We have had to make a plan; if we both get sick, who is going to take care of our kids? In the garage, we have two bins, for dirty clothes and clean clothes. I have a 30-minute decontamination procedure I do at work, and then I come home and then I change into clean clothes in the garage, and go right to the shower. I’m washing everything down everyday with bleach. We’re kissing the children on the hair only. Our affection is touching feet together right now.
I’m on my phone constantly; how to disinfect my PPE to reuse multiple times, reading studies. We have phone conferences every night. There’s so much to learn so fast. At least we have some time before the wave hits. I really feel for the people in New York.
The messaging has been such a terrible disaster for the public. [President Trump is] sending this message that it’s going to be OK. He’s saying only older people are going to get sick. And now he’s saying everything’s going to be open by Easter? How can anyone understand this?
Nora McGreevy contributed research to this article.
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