COVID-19: A Snapshot of the First Days of the Pandemic

By Kim Everson, DVM

It may not be possible to adequately document a historic period from within the moment. Journaling is probably better for this. But as a scientist and history buff, already I’m seeing noteworthy connections that bear reflection.

Personal protective equipment is a resource we are conserving. We each have been assigned one mask to rewear indefinitely!

What a fine line we walk between “crazy” and “stupid”! Whom do you trust? Is this all being blown out of proportion? The evening news graphically illustrates long lines of vehicles with anxious citizens awaiting their coronavirus test, and seamstresses in metropolitan areas are fabricating face masks from bed sheets. Weary looking emergency room doctors tell us they must guard their protective masks “with their lives” because there is no replacement. Until last week, I was highly skeptical about the severity of COVID-19, thinking the media was hyping a disaster to sell news. This is not something we can ignore. Today social media peer pressure heaps shame on individuals selfish enough to ignore social distancing measures. 

It’s been a week since my veterinary clinic posted on Facebook (in the wake of two initial COVID-19 cases reported in Fond du Lac) that we were stepping up cleaning protocols in the clinic to reduce spread of coronavirus. We reminded folks to stay home if they were feeling ill. Four days later, we restricted access to the clinic, offering car-side service for all but the most complicated cases that we felt needed face-to-face discussion with the veterinarian. Three days after that, we locked the front door on the clinic with all consultations done over the phone or in the parking lot at arm’s length. We are engaged in an ongoing debate about what level of service we can responsibly offer in light of PPE shortages (e.g., masks, gloves). So far, each decision we’ve made on our own has been echoed by a state or federal mandate to restrict gatherings of crowds. Now veterinary clinics are not allowed more than ten people in the waiting room but most are completely off limits any way. Our professional organizations are lobbying to have veterinary practices listed as “essential” businesses, up there with grocery stores and pharmacies. We hear rumors that, in some places, human health officials are appropriating veterinary supplies in response to the human health crisis. The next step, splitting our staff into separate teams that don’t overlap shifts, so if one team is compromised we can continue to carry on veterinary care with half the staff. I really, really don’t want to do this! I can’t imagine not working every day with my coworkers, but others across the country in many professions already have felt this loss and it might be the right thing to do. 

March 18, 2020, Wisconsin COVID-19 case map.

Veterinary training includes epidemiology and public health focus, so I follow daily updates on the CDC and state health department websites to draw my own conclusions about the spread of the disease.  Each night around the dinner table, I teach my children words like “comorbidity“, “exponential” and “fomite“. We study the first Wisconsin case map, showing dots stretching south to north from Milwaukee along the Interstate 41 corridor, that steady river of commerce and culture in our backyard, also a path for contagion. When my teenagers chafe at our self-imposed strict “shelter in place”, I warn them about Typhoid Mary, remind them of their responsibility to our higher risk neighbors, relatives and friends. I try to reassure them I’m not worried about them getting sick so much as how they might be an unwitting agent of disease spread.

At home, my low-carb diet husband bakes bread like a fiend. We have sit-down family meals together, watch old black-and-white movies and eat ice cream for dessert. We commiserate over the inconsequential losses — school trips and sports seasons, hanging out with friends, cancelled concerts and meetings — but try to put things in perspective. Some have it much worse, some families are losing loved ones. We look to what’s happening in Europe, especially Italy, as foreshadowing. When my angry, frustrated teen informs me “This has only just begun, and it’s going to get worse,” I’m relieved he’s finally getting it and worried about his psychological well-being. Then I see Instagram posts from my children and their friends being silly and lively and “together” in their quarantine. What I’ve considered a dangerous social media addiction among youth is a lifeline for them right now.

I can’t help but compare this pandemic to the Spanish Influenza of 1918. How drastic the differences! My Auntie Helen recounted that her father (my great grandfather) was the only one in the household who didn’t become ill. On their rural farm at the turn of the century, he was the only one healthy enough to take care of the animals, nurse wife and children, make the meals, clean up the messes. And it’s not like he could throw a pizza in the oven or toss a load of sheets in the washing machine! Can you imagine the hardship of making every meal from scratch, hauling wood and water, emptying chamber pots? There must not have been much time to sit around worrying, that’s for sure! Luckily the family all recovered, but Auntie Helen remembered neighborhood friends who perished from the Flu. This is not so hard to imagine right now, as fast as everything is changing, the possibility of being suddenly bereft, of friends and family being swept away in the tide of contagion. It’s a good reason to practice kindness and empathy (from six feet away, of course)!

My first vintage hat, the start of an obsession!

Ripples. That’s another thing that fascinates me. With salons forced to close, I guess I’ll be growing my hair out now. How long will it take us to look shaggy and unkempt collectively? Of course, it doesn’t matter much since we won’t be face-to-face for a while, right? But what happens when the quarantine lifts? How long will it take the stylists to catch up and make us all presentable again? Will the quarantine usher in new styles by necessity? Beards are all the rage already, but will women return to wearing hats to quickly look put together and pretty? (Ooooh I hope so!)

With all the virtual concerts and museum tours happening over Facebook, I’m surprised there’s any internet bandwidth left to watch Netflix much less hold a business meeting or attend a 5th grade math class! I wonder what miracles the tech gods are performing to keep us rolling along? I’m inspired and uplifted by the creativity and energy of those providing this new form of community engagement.  

I began working on this blog entry a mere 24 hours ago, but already my uncertainty about being “crazy” vs. “stupid” seems a distant memory. Within the past 24 hours my community has buckled down — perhaps because one of Wisconsin’s first victims to perish from COVID-19 is one of our own. From one moment to the next, my new internal debate seems to be “optimism” vs. “fatalism.” But even socially distanced, I see people pulling together to cope with the uncertainty, the isolation, the frustration of this situation. Connecting with others on social media, enjoying a parody song about “corona”, giggling about human nature is probably about the best thing we can do right now. Laughter may be the best medicine we have! 

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