The Coronavirus Conundrum

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Depiction of novel coronavirus courtesy of clark.wa.gov

One of my gigs is substitute teaching. I’m currently working at one of Shasta County’s middle schools. I spent last week washing my hands six times a day and encouraging students to do the same, precautionary measures to prevent spreading the novel coronavirus urged by the school’s administrators.

Now I’m worried such precautionary measures aren’t enough to stop the spread of coronavirus in our community. COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has a 10 percent mortality rate in people over 60, and I turn 60 on Tuesday.

I’m wondering if I should go into work tomorrow.

No one had to urge me to frequently wash my hands to avoid catching coronavirus. I’ve been taking the latest viral outbreak dead seriously for weeks now, since China, after thousands of deaths, quarantined millions of its citizens in Wuhan, shutting down a large portion of its industrial capacity.

China’s strict measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus severed global supply chains, causing stock markets around the world to plummet, including Wall Street. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be in China’s best interest to shut down such a large chunk of its economy. It’s become readily apparent to me that novel coronavirus is not your ordinary seasonal flu.

As we now know, China’s efforts didn’t stop the spread of coronavirus across the globe. According to the Coronavirus Dashboard, there are 109,493 confirmed cases and 3798 deaths worldwide. Some 3000 of those deaths occurred in China, where the coronavirus began in late November and the spread has slowed; another 400 occurred in Italy, where coronavirus has exploded and half the country has been quarantined.

The number of new cases outside of China now exceeds the number of new cases inside China.

Here at home, there are 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United State as of this writing, including 86 in California and 105 in Washington state. So far, 21 Americans have succumbed to COVID-19, including 16 elderly residents in a Washington nursing home and two patients in California.

In Shasta County, two people who had contacts with COVID-19 patients tested negative last week. *So far, there’ve been no confirmed cases in the county. (Read update below.)

However, that doesn’t mean coronavirus isn’t here. Officials in Washington state suspect coronavirus may have been circulating in the Seattle area as long as two months ago. It could have easily spread from the Canadian to the Mexican border up and down the 1-5 corridor during this time period, by infected travelers visiting their relatives and stopping at restaurants, gas stations and motels. We have no way of knowing, because until recently, we haven’t been testing anyone for coronavirus in the United States.

Make no mistake, spreading is one of the things at which coronavirus excels. Dr. Richard Hatchett, one of the world’s leading experts on global pandemics and vaccines, put it like this in a recent interview with BBC Channel 4:

“This is the most frightening disease I’ve ever encountered in my career, and that includes Ebola, it includes MERS, it includes SARS. And it’s frightening because of the combination of infectiousness and a lethality that appears to be manyfold higher than flu.”

COVID-19 is less lethal for people under 60 with no underlying heart and respiratory issues, but it can be deadly for people over 60. For people over the age of 70 with underlying medical conditions the fatality rate is 15 percent and perhaps much higher.

My parents, whom I often visit after subbing at the school, belong to the latter category. I’m extremely concerned that I might catch coronavirus at school and transmit it to them. I enjoy teaching, I need the money and my students depend on me being there, but my parents depend on me too. That’s my coronavirus conundrum.

Last week, the middle school I’m working at fully implemented the CDC’s recommendations for childcare and K-12 schools, with an emphasis on washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds as often as possible, not touching your face and cleaning desks and surfaces with disinfectant that kills coronavirus.

(Pro-tip: Washing your hands as often as possible, especially with Purell, dries out your skin and causes cracks that can lead to infection. Break out the Jergens.)

Instead of bumping fists with students, the teachers now bump elbows. I’ve calmed the fears of more than one student by explaining COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be all that lethal for young people with no underlying medical conditions—it’s old coots like me and above who have to worry.

And worried I am. Despite all the precautions my school is taking, it’s not too difficult to see where the virus might find a way in. Touching a door handle or tabletop recently touched by an infected staff member or student with no overt symptoms is all it would take.

I consider myself relatively healthy and just passed my annual physical with flying colors, but both of my parents have respiratory issues. By continuing to go to school and visiting them afterward, I’m not just potentially putting my life in danger, I’m putting their lives in danger.

I believe the safest course of action is to presume the novel coronavirus is already here in our community. Our schools are not the only local institutions where it poses a threat. Healthcare providers, law enforcement, emergency responders, service workers, people who attend large religious gatherings and anyone else in frequent contact with the general public are at risk of contracting coronavirus.

That’s pretty much all of us.

The CDC regulations cited above recommend temporarily closing schools where staff members or students have tested positive for COVID-19. It suggests schools consider closing if any community-spread coronavirus is detected within the district. Schools are expected to make these decisions in consultation with local public health officials. Given the aforementioned lack of testing nationwide, my fear is such action will come too late to stop the spread of the disease.

Now that testing is ramping up—Shasta County Health and Human Services says testing is available for anyone with a doctor’s recommendation—Shasta County will soon record its first cases of novel coronavirus.

As scary as all of this sounds, I’m still going to work tomorrow. My students need me, and I need the money. I’ve been extraordinarily cautious during the past two weeks, and I’ll still visit my parents after work. They need me too.

But I expect this state of affairs to change shortly. If the novel coronavirus continues to spread and local public officials don’t act, I’ll act myself, and choose family over work.

I’m certain that I’m far from the only person in Shasta County contemplating such a decision.

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*Editor’s update: A man in his 50s is the first Shasta County resident to receive a presumptive diagnosis of COVID-19, the novel Coronavirus. The patient is recovering in isolation at home.  The Shasta County Public Health Laboratory ran the first tests, which were positive, and they will be sent to the CDC for confirmation. Click here to read the full press release

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.
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