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Wack: Personal experience highlights good, bad of where we are with COVID-19 | COMMENTARY

My family and I recently had a COVID-19 experience highlighting both the good and bad of our current situation. The good news is that everyone is doing fine, and the guidance given by our public health officials appears to be spot on, and very useful for guiding daily interactions. The bad news is that we are still far, far behind the rest of the world adapting to the reality of the pandemic, and outside of Maryland, things are going to get much worse before they get better.

Over two weeks ago, I met with some family members to help clean out our mother’s house since she died in April. We moved boxes, loaded a truck, mostly outside, mostly distanced, and not wearing masks. The next day, one of those family members (we’ll call him “Tim”) went to work, an open office environment with cubicles, and by the end of the day didn’t feel well. The next day he had fever and congestion.

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Three days before we were all together, “Tim” attended a business meeting where seven people, none wearing masks, sat around a conference table in a closed room for several hours, then shared a meal at a local restaurant, all in the same booth, no masks, no distancing.

Within five days, all seven people at the meeting were sick, and one by one, they began testing positive for coronavirus. “Tim,” suspecting the truth, informed the rest of us in the middle of the week, and by the end of the week, he, too, was positive.

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Two people from my household had a direct exposure to “Tim” — myself and one of my children. Neither of us had symptoms at the time we found out about the positive result of our family member. Fortunately, neither of us had been out with others to any great extent, with one important exception.

This is where it gets interesting, and the continued failures of our system become evident. Between the four households unwittingly exposed by “Tim,” we also have three other family members who are medically fragile: elderly, multiple medical issues, some with immunosuppression issues because of medications. Who should be tested? Who should isolate?

It gets more complicated. Before we knew about “Tim’s” symptoms and test, my child had a brief visit with my 84-year-old mother-in-law; for her the infection could easily have been deadly. However, for that interaction, everyone wore masks, there was no direct physical contact, it was outside, and everyone distanced. Is this kind of secondary contact significant?

A week after the exposure, everyone in my household obtained COVID-19 tests. Mine came back within 48 hours, but only because I’m a healthcare provider, and it was negative. My child who was exposed with me is also negative. Two of our other family members are still waiting for their result as of this writing. More than two weeks after exposure, we all remain symptom-free.

Cases continued spreading from the initial meeting. “Tim” found out he probably infected two additional people in the office the day he first had symptoms, bringing to nine the total for that cluster.

Here’s what we can learn from this experience. Duration of exposure, location, and proximity appear to be the most important variables. Prolonged contact in close quarters, especially indoors with poor circulation, is a very high risk activity, especially without masks. This is in line with what public health officials are advising.

Conversely, contact outdoors, especially with distancing and masks, appears to be relatively low risk.

Fortunately, “Tim” is slowly recovering. He never required hospitalization, but more than two weeks into the infection, he has no energy and feels wiped out all the time. This is not just the flu. Everyone else remains well.

Testing capacity is still grossly inadequate. We are now half-a-year into this crisis, and the general public still waits an excessive amount of time for results, crippling any effort to contain the virus. Contact tracing is better, but still inadequate. We still have no coherent policy about isolation.

Masks and distancing work, so keep up the good work, Carroll County. If we continue following the guidance of our state and local public health officials, hopefully we can keep at bay the worst of the horrors descending on the rest of the country in coming weeks.

Dr. Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

For any member of the community who would like to submit a guest community voices column for publication consideration, it should be approximately 700 words and sent to bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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