Mike McCormick: Virus in the Northwest (Early March View)

Virus Dispatch From The Northwest 

by Mike McCormick

ON MARCH 3, WHEN MY WIFE KATY and I landed in Seattle off a flight from Anchorage, concern about the spread of the coronavirus was ramping up. We had arrived in Seattle three days before Katy’s scheduled minor procedure at the Swedish Hospital so that we could enjoy the city. We had tickets to see jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, dinner reservations at Dahlia’s Lounge, and plans to walk though parks and visit museums.

We knew most of the area’s virus cases had emanated from a single nursing facility in Kirkland, Washington, more than ten miles from downtown. We understood that the percentage of people who were sick was infinitely small; in a metropolitan area of over a million people only a few dozen people had tested positive. Our chances of getting sick were miniscule.

Even still, we were on high alert on our light rail ride from the airport to downtown. We took the most isolated seat. I was careful not to touch any surfaces. I cringed when I saw a passenger cough into his hands.

When we entered our hotel room, we wiped down all hard surfaces with a sanitizer. We slipped pillowcases we carried from home onto our hotel pillows. When we went to a nearby Italian restaurant and told our waitress about a recent trip to Tuscany, she froze. She asked when we had been in Italy. When we assured her we had been there in early October she let out a sigh of relief.

Back in our room, we watched the Celtics melt down against the Nets and monitored the returns from the Democratic primary. We remarked on our view of the Space Needle, of the city lights and skyline.

We both slept well.

When I woke, I sought the latest virus news. I discovered that the virus was spreading in the community. Nobody was certain how or where it was being transmitted. Anyone over sixty should stay home. People with underlying health issues should stay home.

Both Katy and I are well into our sixties. I struggle with both asthma and high blood pressure. I’ve long been prone to anxiety. I immediately recognized that I am in three high-risk categories.

Also, I was having a strong case of déjà vu. Almost one year ago to the very day, Katy and I had arrived in Seattle where we enjoyed a couple of delightful days before boarding a plane for Tucson.

On our second day in Tucson, I felt weak. By the third day I was coughing so hard I went to a clinic. I was diagnosed with pneumonia. That evening, even after loading up on drugs, I couldn’t arrest my cough. Katy drove me to the emergency room. I was quickly admitted and I spent three nights bedded down there. When I was discharged, I waited ten days before flying.

Remembering that ordeal and considering the breaking virus information, the thought of two more nights in downtown Seattle lost all appeal. I didn’t want to risk a concert or a restaurant where I could be exposed to germs from people sitting close by.

Katy and I headed to Port Townsend, a community in Jefferson County on Puget Sound about two hours from Seattle, where we maintain a 432-square-foot cottage. We could avoid all crowds, walk beaches, and enjoy the beauty of flowering cherry and plum trees.  We’d planned to spend twelve days there after Katy’s procedure anyway; traveling there a few days early would not be a huge hassle.

Taking the ferry from the tony suburban town of Edmonds to Kingston on the Kitsap Peninsula, we admired the snow-hung Olympic Mountains.  Surf scoters and Barrows goldeneye ducks paddled near the dock. A kingfisher rattled by. Seven great blue herons stood still and stiff on a breakwater.

We turned on the car radio. The public radio station broadcast nearly non-stop virus news and information. The count of infected Washington people was still rising. Jefferson Country confirmed its first positive test of the virus. We heard  a new recording by a local singing group urging everybody to wash your hands

We dined out with our friends Bill and Renee at a restaurant with tables spaced well apart. We did not hug or shake hands as we usually did when we greeted.

Our friends were nervous because they had attended a Seattle garden show the week before where they had hugged acquaintances and shook more than a few hands. Bill is well into his 70’s; Renee is over sixty. The virus had been loose in the community for over a month when they attended the show. We had learned that symptoms seem to be taking five to fourteen days to manifest themselves. They felt fine but erred in the side of caution in our visit since only nine days had passed since their possible exposure.

Thursday morning, our third day in Washington, we walked along a beach and counted close to two hundred brandt geese. Black bellied plovers, dunlin, and sanderlings scurried at our feet. Katy found chitons and a bright red starfish. A seal gazed at us as we sauntered by. For a time, all thoughts of the virus disappeared.  We stopped at the Port Townsend co-op for groceries. As we entered we took a hand sanitizer to wipe the shopping cart handle. When we exited, we took another to wipe our hands. We stocked up on staples. We felt ready to stay home for two weeks.

We listened to more news. Vice President Pence visited and complimented Washington Governor Inslee on Washington’s preparation.  The Governor’s preparedness and the degree of coordination amongst multiple layers stood in marked contrast to what we had witnessed at the national level. We were shocked, but not surprised, when President Trump responded to Pence’s reports by calling Inslee “a snake.”

Katy and I greatly appreciated how easy it was to find clear, coordinated, updated news online and on regularly scheduled press conferences. We appreciated the clear messages advising us to stay home. Likewise, it was good that the state government was discouraging large gatherings. When Northshore School District closed the doors to 23,500 students–opting for online learning and teaching–we applauded the forethought.

Growing up Irish in the Acre neighborhood of Haverhill, Mass., I was taught to plan for the worse but hope for the best. The state of Washington’s cautious approach to the escalating virus crisis was right in line with thinking that had been long ingrained in me.

Organizations, government agencies, and corporations acted in concert with the government. Microsoft and other companies required employees, whenever possible, to work from home. Discussions on how to help non-salaried workers began to emerge. Conferences and some concerts were cancelled; promoters offered refunds. When we checked the library’s hours so that we’d have ample reading material, we learned that the library had been shut down.

The night before Katy’s procedure, we heard that a vendor at football game tested positive. Washington Senator Patty Murray announced that people could get infected on a visit to the grocery store.

Each new bit of negative news triggered concern. We could not put the virus out of our heads for long. New reports recommended that people over sixty or with underlying conditions avoid long flights and cruise ships. Domestic airlines were considering a reduction of flights. Community lockdown possibilities were discussed.

Sitting alone at the kitchen table, I decided to check flights to Alaska. I discovered a pair of first row, first-class tickets to Anchorage on Saturday afternoon at a decent price. I reserved them for twenty-four hours..

I asked Katy to think about if she’d like to abort our Washington stay. The first class ticket would enable us to fly with minimal exposure to germs. We would wipe down all surfaces once we got on board.

Katy’s procedure the next day went smoothly. As we headed onto the ferry for our trip back to Port Townsend, she announced that she wanted to return to Alaska. She was tired of thinking about the virus and wondering if we should be in Washington. If things got bad and reached full pandemic proportions, she didn’t want to be stranded. Better to be in Alaska with our young-adult son, in our home where she could work on quilting projects. Better to isolate in a full house than a tiny cottage.

The airport drive was easy. Traffic was the lightest we’d experienced in decades. We sped through security. The flight was delightful.

We’ve been back in Alaska now for three days. So far, there have been no positive tests for the virus here. Alaska Governor Dunleavy was quoted as saying that the virus is just a glitch. Stores shelves are empty of hand sanitizers, wipes, and hand soaps. I am having trouble getting prescriptions filled.

It’s spring break for public schools. The School District is deep cleaning classrooms during the hiatus.

Large events, including the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, are being held as usual.

I remember autumn days of my New England youth when hurricanes battering southern coastlines were predicted to hit Hampton Beach. I always wondered when and how hard they’d hit. I learned then that no matter how good the weather forecast was, I could never really know what would happen.

—Mike McCormick (c) 2020