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Saunders: Observations from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic

The date is March 31 as I sit down to start this June column — so I know you remember it as a day that put us right in the middle of the dreaded coronavirus pandemic with no peak yet in sight in the United States and with much of the country ordered to stay at home. I wanted to give you some of my observations about the pandemic as the days and weeks progressed.

After going out yesterday (March 30), to the drug store for my scripts but only venturing up to the drive-up window, I went out today in the car to the grocery store. Driving along I seemed to encounter more trucks than cars, another sign of who is an “essential” employee.

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Going out into public places feels somewhat death-defying given the severity of COVID-19. When I went to Safeway I wanted to wear surgical gloves and a mask, but the only mask I had was a bright orange ski mask which I donned outside the store. No one said anything to me about it while inside the store, but when I was headed to my car with my full cart a tall man yelled at me and laughed, “Don’t shoot me!”

Although whole sections of the store were decimated by hoarders, we older shoppers there early in the morning were not timid about taking two or three bottled waters, cans of vegetables and fruit, and other things that might appeal later. This pandemic has everyone thinking that we may never be able to shop again. I was going to get gas — it being cheaper than ever — but then I wondered where I would be going. In fact, my dog wonders why I’m not telling her goodbye and hopping in the car.

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I even had my six-month check-up with my GP/PCP over the telephone. I had taken my blood pressure several times to report the findings to him. I had made a list of items ahead of time and could very easily take notes while sitting at my desk and talking. This method is good if there are no pressing matters, but I think I need to be able to Skype or Zoom! I’m supposed to have a couple of board meetings using Zoom — we’ll see how that goes.

Feeling alone and apart is scary, but we try to stay in touch in other ways. The telephone still works — I don’t have a “smart” phone — so I spend a good bit of time talking that way. And of course, email is the way to go when sending some good “funnies” and “Youtube” entertainment to friends. I even had a very touching and humbling email from a former student whom I had taught in 1974 and who became a teacher herself, earned a doctorate, and now teaches in a university. She had recently “googled” me and thanked me for my inspiration. That made my day!

About the same time I had a phone call from another friend I had made when teaching English at a culinary college. Now living in California, she always called me her “white mother,” a term of endearment that I cherish. Before we were finished talking about our families and enjoying good laughter, her husband, whom I remember fondly, came on the line and had a prayer for all of us. That warmed my heart and soul.

Many days were cloudy and rainy which added to the gloom and doom of the situation. And of course each day added more horrors.

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There were always a few bright lights like neighbors who gave me masks when I could not find any. It became a source of entertainment to watch for the color — black or white or purple or flowered — and type of mask — homemade, store bought, surgical — each person was wearing when I was out walking my dog. Another great source of entertainment — the email jokes that came in abundance.

One of the most disheartening things to watch early on was the 30% drop in the stock market. Especially hard hit in this area are older people who have little time or ways to recoup the losses and who may depend on that money to live. I’m sure many kept daily watch on the market hoping for it to start climbing back toward the 30,000 it came close to in early 2020 after it plummeted to a low of 18,000. Those are the foibles of placing all the “stock” in one’s pocketbook!

One of the most gratifying and satisfying things to come out of this pandemic was the appointment of my cousin, Dr. Deborah Birx, to the White House coronavirus task force, along with her previous mentor, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Having been appointed by President Obama as the worldwide ambassador on AIDS, Deborah was in Africa when the outbreak hit and was brought home by Vice President Pence to serve on the task force. She and Dr. Fauci together have brought the very important scientific focus to this pandemic with very concrete and decisive evidence of what should be done to get this specific coronavirus (COVID-19) under control.

Dr. Birx reminded us of the Influenza of 1918 that killed her great-grandmother and my grandmother. In fact, three days after my mother was born in December 1918, a peak time for the outbreak, her mother died of that Spanish flu, so called because servicemen from WWI were thought to have brought it back to the U.S. from Europe.

While Drs. Fauci and Birx were considering 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the U.S. for our present pandemic, that influenza caused 675,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, that influenza infected 500 million people and caused 50 million deaths. Such a troubling time, and President Woodrow Wilson censored talk of the epidemic; rather, he focused only on the war effort.

We can only hope that Drs. Fauci and Birx can keep our country focused on what needs to be done medically to keep the deaths to a minimum until a vaccine or a cure can be found!

Hermine Saunders writes from Westminster. Her Prime column appears on the second Sunday of the month.

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