15 March 2020

Surreal


I'm starting this post on my phone while seated in an airplane.  The flight is departing Fort Myers, which is a classic and popular spring break destination, and this is "peak season" here on the Gulf Coast of Florida - but the plane has lots of empty seats.  The mood of the passengers in the boarding area seemed muted and somber rather than festive; while I was out there a girl two seats away from me coughed three times in the space of ten minutes.  I moved to a different part of the boarding area out of what is now called "an abundance of caution."

Seated on the plane, I note with interest a man across the aisle wiping down his tray table before returning it to its upright position.  Then two ladies enter the row ahead of me.  They are wearing high quality masks, with the upper edge tightly pinched to their noses and the bottom well under the chin.  They pull out two packets of wipes and proceed to scrub not only the tray tables and the armrests, but also the fabric of the seatback and seat cushions, and the full back of the seats ahead of them.  One steps into my row to scrub the backs of those seats, apologizing for the smell and explaining that they have children who touch everything.  One sits in the row ahead of me, one in the seat next to me.

I am ending a visit to Florida three days early because of uncertainties about how the coronavirus drama will unfold.  Last Friday I escaped the dreariness of a late-winter Midwest climate to visit my native-Floridian cousins.  A day after arrival in Naples I made a daytrip up to Sanibel to go on a nature hike in the Ding Darling preserve with two old friends from my high-school days.

In an outburst of mutual joy in renewing a friendship after so many years we bumped elbows.

Back in Naples, I monitored the headlines, constrained by the limits of a small phone rather than my heavily bookmarked desktop Mac. CNN gave me thumbnail sketches of the news; the BBC and the Bloomberg business channel provided better insight into the views from Europe and Asia.  Events moved quickly; analysts were unable to predict what will happen to the world economy since there is no precedent for a simultaneous supply-side shock and demand shock. The world has shifted into a risk-off mode with 10-year treasuries briefly trading at an incomprehensible 31 basis points.

My cousins received a message from a daughter in Salt Lake City, where the Mormon church has cancelled all services. Worldwide.  A hospital there has set up negative-pressure tents on the grounds outside the building to house suspected COVID-19 patients. Medical staff are resigned to the likelihood of becoming infected.

Each day after reading these news items, I stepped outside to find the sky blue and the temperature moderate, and I walked for miles on neighborhood streets and the nearby beach.  Everything was quite normal in the natural world.

The human world began to evolve a response that metastasized with a rapidity that the pre-internet world could never have achieved. Museums closed, tourist sites closed their gates. Restaurants were empty. Minor sports events stopped, then major ones. Universities told students to go home, followed by local schools, placing huge burdens on embattled working parents.  I decide to terminate my vacation early, uncertain whether travel restrictions might be put into place.

On my final day I’m in a boat in Morgan Bay in the Ten Thousand Island preserve south of Marco.  We have arrived at low tide for some birdwatching and beachcombing; we range far apart, as explorers of the natural world often do.  Its a reminder that away from urban areas, "social distancing" can be the norm.


I walk on this island, my shoes accelerating the conversion of shells into sand.  I find a fascinating lightning whelk egg case but toss it back because I don't need to accumulate any more stuff in my life.  Dolphins are cavorting just offshore. Nothing is unusual.  It's a day just like most of the previous ten million.

But now nine hours later I'm seated in this plane watching masked people swabbing everything that doesn't move with alcohol.  So I look up the definition of "surreal" -
surreal (comparative more surreal, superlative most surreal)
Etymology: From French surr√©alisme; sur- +‎ realism
  1. Resembling a dream: fantastic and incongruous
An appropriate term.  And today is Friday the 13th...

The view from the window on this night flight is as beautiful as always, with spiderwebs of lights interconnected by ribbons of highways.  Nothing unusual out there.  I walk once up and down the aisle of the airplane.  Most of the tray tables are in their "full upright and locked position" - perhaps because this is a discount "red-eye" flight, but it may be a change in behavior.  Some passengers are holding tablets and laptops on their knees.  Many have their hands folded neatly on their laps, their elbows not touching the armrests.  Normal?  Maybe.  I return to my seat before the flight service begins; while doing so I sense that some passengers are unhappy that I touched the back of their seat while navigating my way down the passageway.  The flight attendants move quickly down the aisle with their cart, with many passengers refusing the offer of refreshment.  Because it's nighttime, or out of "an abundance of caution"?

I feel like I’m living in a movie adaptation of some Stephen King novel or a 28 Days Later sequel. In my life I've read literally dozens of zombie and postapocalyptic stories (and I've always particularly enjoyed the Last Man On Earth ones), but in none of them did the public response first manifest itself with a hoarding of toilet paper.

I rejoice that I am no longer chief of a pulmonary service and an intensive care unit attending physician responsible for deciding who gets those precious beds and who has to be bumped out to a step-down unit on the ward. And I now appreciate that in those days if my hospital faced a shortage of ventilators, all that needed to be done was to place a call to a vendor or borrow one from a nearby facility. I don’t envy whoever has those triage responsibilities now.  And I think of all my favorite trainees - the pulmonary fellows and the respiratory therapy students - who are likely out there on the front lines now.

My seatmate asks me if I have ever seen anything like this. I tell her I was an unwilling participant in the big polio epidemic of 1952 and that I escaped with only an ambulatory impairment while other children in the Sister Kenney institute wound up on iron lungs.  But I was a child, way too young to share the more apocalyptic horror my father must have felt to see his wife and both of his children afflicted and hospitalized with a disease for which there was no cure and not yet a vaccine.

Now I'm back at my desk, cleaning up these trip notes.  I visited my local Target this morning - not to "stock up" on anything, just for regular grocery needs.  The store was not crowded; signs were posted limiting the hoardable items to two per customer.  I gathered my cheese and raspberries and naan bread and other staples and returned home.  Now I need to attend to paperwork, laundry, house chores, etc and generally recombobulate for a couple days.  Then regular blogging will resume.

In the meantime, I invite readers to share their experiences in the Comment section below.  No politics please.

20 comments:

  1. Today the wife and I went to the local grocery store to get a few food items, nothing we needed to stock up on. We found no paper towels, few facial tissues, no toilet paper, no hamburger meat, few bananas (! but plenty of other fruits), few eggs, plenty of sodas -- you get the picture.

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  2. I started preparing about 3 weeks ago by buying supplies under the assumption that we could be trapped at home for 2 weeks, including 5 days without utilities. I bought things we could use anyway, like canned food, candles, water, and ammunition.

    One of the last phases of that plan came Wednesday, when my kids and I went to the public library for the last time to max out our checkouts.

    We can button up pretty well. The schools, including those that my wife and I work at my our kids attend, are all closed. We have some extra time as a result, so we've begun the laborious task of fixing our sprinkler system. I have made several runs to the hardware store for that, which has been my only contact outside of the family. I'm ready to end that.

    I've never seen anything like this. I don't know where it's going. This isn't an extinction event. The worst-case scenario possible is something like the 1918 pandemic. But that's really, really bad.

    Anyway: if you're going to button up soon, consider a quick stop by your local public library to check out all the books that you're allowed to. You may be inside for along time and you may not have electrical power that whole time.

    I just thought that I'd mention it since I haven't seen any other preppers online do so.

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    1. Our local library just announced it is closed for the next three weeks.

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    2. On the plus side, I can check out eBooks and audiobooks from our library even while it is closed. Technology can be nice sometimes :)

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  3. I can't let your request for comments go unanswered. In the Northern Virginia/DC metro area I would say there is a somber anticipation. It reminds me of waiting for Hurricane Irma/Maria to hit Puerto Rico (except you could see those storms coming). Similarly, store shelves are empty of the essentials. I'm not sure why everyone is buying toilet paper and water for this, but they are. We had no trouble filling our pantry with food.

    Schools are mostly shut down. Government agencies have begun teleworking, where possible. Some have employees reporting on alternating days to reduce exposure. Interestingly, I know of one agency without sufficient telework capabilities that has employees showing up on a normal routine.

    Overall the mood is positive, but apprehensive. Individual preparations have been made, so now we wait. Given the 7-14 day delay before showing symptoms, I feel we're all waiting to see who has it and who doesn't. It's the same kind of doubt if your house with withstand the hurricane or not.

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  4. We are hunkered down as well ~ Hubby was able to actually find TP this AM at two of our local stores. (We're not hoarding)
    My heart goes out to all the nurses and RT's and Dox that are having to deal with this reality ~ may they all be safe.

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  5. My mother broke her hip and was in the hospital. She gets anxious and confused in unfamiliar surroundings (although she lived alone and was fine before the fall), so someone from the family stayed with her 24/7 in the hospital. The day she was moved to a rehab facility was the day they all locked down with no visitors. We were blindsided, having been busy beforehand. She is completely alone among strangers, can't remember where the help button is, and forgets that she can't get out of bed without help. It's killing me to think what she's going through.

    Both my daughters, college seniors, were kicked out when the school closed 6 weeks early. One will graduate -or maybe she had already graduated, we don't know. The other has to attend summer school to graduate, but we don't know if they will even have summer school. She's not sticking around until Christmas to complete classes, because her husband graduates in May in France.

    Otherwise, yeah, everything is fairly normal here.

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    1. My mom was the same in her final years. My sympathies to you and your family for the predicament.

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  6. Santa Rosa, California. On Sunday our local paper announced that the libraries would be closed till at least April, starting the day before. Would've been nice to get a heads-up so I could stock up on the next six months of reading for my book group. Oh, well, at least I have next month's book: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, which is weirdly appropriate for the current situation. It's about what happened after Hurricane Katrina, when the staff at Memorial Hospital had to make life-and-death decisions during the period when resources were dwindling and no rescue was in sight.

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  7. Toronto, Ontario. Sunday morning I felt as if I'd won the lottery: in our basement I discovered a trove of toilet paper (18 rolls!) that, with the lot we bought a couple of weeks ago, should see the two of us through the next four months. We continue to visit the St. Lawrence Market every week, and though there seem to be fewer people there now it is still easy to buy whatever we need. Grocery stores, on the other hand, are just insane now and we're trying to keep away from them. Keeping watch on medical facilities, because I have eye surgery scheduled for three weeks from now; so far the clinic is staying open. We have had to cancel our weekly Tuesday-evening party because a dozen and a half is too many people in one (small) space for now. Like so many other commenters here, we were caught out by the abrupt closure of the public library system... but we can still sign out e-books online, and our own library still contains a couple of thousand volumes despite a half-decade of downsizing. Currently reading Charles Emmerson's "Crucible," which is 600 pages and so will keep me occupied for a few days. Bottom line is that for we two, social distancing doesn't make that big a difference: we're retired, and aside from that Tuesday-night thing we don't see many people.

    I really agree with you, Stan, about the surreality of this experience. I keep asking myself, Is this what it feels like to live through An Historical Moment? It doesn't feel momentous so much as it just feels ... odd.

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  8. So far our public library is staying open. (Knock wood.) But the public schools shut down starting today, and my university shut down last week. My kid's university shut down two days before that. We brought him home last night.

    We're pretty well stocked on food, and I has just gotten a shipment of TP in (I buy by the crate, because it's crazy cheap that way) so we're fine there too.

    But my husband works as a public school substitute, so he's out of a job now. :(

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  9. Took my last rip to Disney World on Friday the 13th. It was surprisingly crowded but not it's Spring Break crowded. Saw many people wipe down their ride vehicles before sitting down and using an insane amount of hand sanitizer on their hands while also seeing people clearly not caring about germs at all and not washing their hands. I really didn't want to leave at the end of the night because it's my happy place and I don't want to think about how long it will be until normal returns. They've closed the parks till the end of March but they terminated the college program and international program so it seems likely they are expecting to be closed for much longer. I am so worried about how people are going to make ends meet here! I can expect less traffic on my commute home this evening I suppose.

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  10. I'm retired, so no real change to my routine. My husband is still working, but has been on a scheduled vacation since last Friday.

    As we've lived in south Florida, for the past 34 years, we're accustomed to keeping non perishables in quantity year round so that prepping for hurricane season doesn't require panic buying if a storm is threatening. We're fortunate to have plenty of storage space in our house, so when tp goes on sale, I buy it as well as always keeping a big supply of Kleenex on hand. And I try to keep a good supply of soup and canned veggies on hand to supplement what we have in our freezer.

    Our local Publix is valiantly trying to keep up with demand, but the other day it was super busy in all areas of the store. A couple of weeks ago I anticipated a big demand and bought a couple of multipacks of Lysol wipes at, of all places, Lowes. As the saying goes - "it's not my first rodeo" - when it comes to disaster anticipation shopping.

    I haven't seen any rude behavior associated with the shopping crowds in my area and hope that continues.

    The school districts in Broward, Miami Dade and Palm Beach counties have cancelled school this week and are on Spring Break next week, but the districts are continuing to provide breakfasts and lunches for students in need and Comcast is offering free internet to students that don't have it for I believe 60 days so that they can keep up with school work.

    Like Miss C, I have a 94 year old mother in a nursing home in another state, but she has been there for a year, so it is not an unfamiliar place, fortunately, as none of the family there can now go to visit her. The nursing home advised that they do not have any cases of Covid 19, so isolation for all of them seems best at this time.

    Wishing everyone a safe passage through these tumultuous times.

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  11. i liken this to a hunkering down for a two week blizzard, or a two week hurricane. maybe longer? it has that same feeling - the dread wait of 'when will it happen? when will it end?'.

    I-)

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  12. Adding my two cents from British Columbia, Canada. I have spent the winter living at our local ski hill which just announced that its last day is today (about three weeks early). It's a good spot to be from a social isolation point of view. My walks are in the woods and it was -24 here the other day which I am assuming would kill any COVID-19 viruses lurking outside.

    My daughter is in first-year university across the country. She flies home tomorrow -- and it's been a whirlwind for her. We found out yesterday late afternoon that she needs to be out of her dorm by Sunday which changed the plans to have a friend take care of her belongings for a few weeks. Rapidly found a storage locker and booked a minivan taxi to move her stuff. Her flight leaves at 5:30 am tomorrow and she should be home by noon PT. I am anxious to get her home and into social isolation (though we might be driving each other nuts within a few days).

    Her courses will continue online for the next few weeks. It's unknown now how exams will function -- or if they will occur.

    My husband manages manufacturing plants throughout the world (China, Dubai, Canada). He really feels that his head office (US-based) had their head in the sand after his plants in China were shut down due to the virus. The head honchos just didn't seem to think it would come to the US. Totally unprepared. The good news -- the plants in China are fully back at work now. They ended up being shut down for about six weeks. Last one is now fully back as of yesterday.

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    1. From the WHO: "There is no reason to believe that cold weather can kill new coronavirus or other diseases."

      Interesting that China is entering a recovery phase. One difference from the U.S. is that China has a manufacturing-based economy, so plants that were shut down can now be cranked up. The U.S. by contrast is largely a service-based economy. Expect a much longer recovery phase economically in this country.

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    2. I am the above anonymous from BC.

      I suspect you read Kottke? He had an interesting post yesterday on a presentation by Stanford professor of neurobiology and bioengineering Michael Lin. "This is an excellent 31-page PDF presentation (Slideshare) on what we know about COVID-19 so far and how to deal with it, with extensive references to the latest research (as of 3/15)." The research suggests that as with the SARS Coronavirus from 2004, this virus is temperature sensitive and the graph seemed to indicate so (but I am definitely not a scientist).

      https://kottke.org/20/03/excellent-presentation-on-the-latest-covid-19-research-hygiene-tips-and-treatment-options

      re: economic recovery. Yes, we will be living through interesting times watching the recovery and the long-term changes in the economy both globally and in the US.

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  13. We're in Tampa Bay. We moved Mother from her memory care facility of two years to one much closer to our home. so we could visit her more often. Two days later, all elder care facilities were placed on a 14-day lockdown (critical personnel only) by Medicaid directives, and the following day, the Florida governor expanded that to 30 days.

    My daughter and her family are visiting from Texas for spring break, and learned yesterday that the schools will be closed indefinitely. I guess if their employers close offices, they could stay longer.

    My husband is already working from home. I have an admin position in child welfare, and my agency remains open, at least at present. He and I are concerned that my continued office work with people making community visits could result in my bringing illness into our home.

    Oddly enough, I am a bit less anxious now that our community leaders seem to be taking this more seriously

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  14. Greetings from Europe (WHO's Covid19 epicentre) but Ireland so somewhat periferal. Having had a general election that resulted is a 3-way tie among mutually antipathetic parties, the incumbent crowd is managing the crisis . . . quite well and quite pro-actively it must be admitted. Like the US, we have a predominantly service-based economy taking in each other's washing and giving houseroom and tax-breaks to all the Internet Monsters. >10% of the workforce [hospitality and Stuff shops] will be workless by this w/e but The Man [in the person of Minister Regina Doherty] has streamlined the process of getting "Pandemic Unemployment Payment" of €200/wk for six weeks, for anyone who was in work, say, last week and now isn't. So at least there is money for food if not to make the rent. One of the local supermarket chains has designated 9-11am as vulnerable folk shopping time to give them first dibs on the toilet paper. Our many undocumented aliens (including many Filipino carers) are being told that they will get treated if they get sick without having their papers scrutinized. In that sense it's a sort of Christmas truce. At 223 cases in a pop of 5 million we're about 3 days ahead of USA. On personal note, we live on a teeny-tiny farmlet with our 19 sheep: the wild garlic is showing life so we'll be okay for food with mutton dressed as navarin d'agneau. Plenty of moss if the zombies rustle all the TP.

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