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Leimkuhler: Coming to terms with coronavirus

We are in the midst of a global health crisis the likes of which our generation has never seen.

Yet, unlike the events of 9/11, when most everyone remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when terrorists crashed two passenger jets into the twin towers, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the exact moment the current coronavirus pandemic derailed life as we know it.

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In late 2019, 17 years after a respiratory virus known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome first appeared in China, reports of a new, yet similar viral illness originating in Wuhan, China began to trickle into the news. The first death associated with this new virus was reported in January.

Around the world this news may have initially been met with some measure of detached sympathy and curiosity. We had seen this before. SARS, despite quickly traveling to 29 countries, causing large outbreaks throughout the world, and ultimately causing the death of 774 of the 8,098 infected people, was contained relatively rapidly, caused no deaths in the U.S., and has had no known transmissions since 2004.

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And so, upon learning about this new virus, the general public may not have felt any real sense of urgency. Rather, many of us may have responded to the news with a collective shrug and simply carried on with our busy lives.

Then, in early February, news outlets reported that the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship with more than 3,000 people aboard, had been quarantined in Japan. While the ship was docked in Yokohama, Japan, businessinsider.com reported that the initial 10 cases of the novel coronavirus ballooned to more than 700 over the course of its two-week quarantine, including 44 passengers who were flown back to the U.S. and were required to undergo and additional 14-day quarantine.

News of the cruise ship in Japan is what initially caught my attention. My daughter, an Ohio University freshman and a member of the university’s world-renowned marching band, the Marching 110, was slated for a 10-day tour of Japan in May with stops in Kyoto and Tokyo, and a performance in Disneyland. The rapid spread of the virus on the cruise ship gave me the first inkling that the 110’s trip abroad might be in jeopardy.

By the end of the month, it was a certainty.

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On Feb. 27, Japan announced it had closed schools until the end of March and, the next day, Tokyo Disney Resorts reported that it had closed both of its parks due to the coronavirus. I sent my daughter a text with a link to the article on the park closures and asked if there had been any updates regarding the band’s highly anticipated tour. At the time, the tour was still a go, the band directors echoing the naïve hopes and expectations of many: that the situation would likely resolve itself within a few months.

Instead, the virus triggered massive outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and Italy, and by Feb. 29 the U.S. had reported its first death on American soil. Five days later, on March 5, Ohio University officially canceled the band’s tour, along with all other international programs, and, from there, the dominoes quickly began to fall.

On March 8, some 60 million Italian residents were placed on lockdown. Three days later, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic and President Trump banned travel from 26 European countries. By March 13, the U.S. had declared a national emergency over the novel coronavirus outbreak.

An undated photo provided by the National Institutes of Health, a transmission electron microscope image of 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. The coronavirus, which appeared in China in December 2019 and has stricken more than 83,000 people around the world, killing nearly 3,000, has already exposed significant vulnerabilities in the ability of the U.S. to respond to serious health emergencies.
An undated photo provided by the National Institutes of Health, a transmission electron microscope image of 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. The coronavirus, which appeared in China in December 2019 and has stricken more than 83,000 people around the world, killing nearly 3,000, has already exposed significant vulnerabilities in the ability of the U.S. to respond to serious health emergencies. (National Instittues of Health via The new York Times)

Meanwhile, many colleges had already commenced their spring breaks. By the time Italy was on lockdown, my daughter and three of her friends were already in Florida. Four days into their trip, WHO declared the pandemic and Ohio University instructed students not to return to campus.

With the university closed and spring break extended, it made no sense for my daughter to drive back to her Ohio with her friends — all of whom are Ohio residents — so she decided to remain in Florida with her grandparents, who had hosted the group during their spring break. Adding to that decision was the fact that we had a recently purchased a car in Florida that needed to be driven back to Maryland.

While some people were ransacking store shelves — panic-buying hand sanitizer and stockpiling toilet paper — I was mulling how best to get my daughter, and the new car, home. Various driving and flying options were considered, but when my own trip to Sedona, Arizona was canceled out of an “abundance of caution” — a phrase which, given the circumstances, has quickly become part of our nation’s vernacular — my schedule was suddenly wide open.

For better or worse, and possibly because, like many, we were still operating in a state of denial — we were, after all, still four days away from nearly all U.S. states declaring a State of Emergency — I changed my Southwest reservation from Phoenix to Tampa. When Maryland announced it would be closing its public schools, I booked two additional tickets for my younger daughters and the three of us breezed through a deserted BWI terminal and were among a mere 40 passengers aboard the nearly-empty 175-seat aircraft.

Throughout our travels, we bathed in hand gel and wore gloves on the flight as a reminder not to touch our faces or eat with our hands, and arrived in sunny Florida where, it seemed, the majority of residents were oblivious or indifferent to the rapidly evolving health crisis.

Editor’s note: This column is the first of three in a series about the coronavirus.

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