03 maskwomanEver so cautiously, North Carolina has begun opening back up for business. Unlike other nations with stronger federal systems, in the United States, each state is making its own decisions about resuming commerce. North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, is following Alexander Pope’s advice to “be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” While other states have opened up more extensively, North Carolina will do so in stages, a strategy that does not please everyone. Heavily armed protesters have appeared on Raleigh streets, begging the question of whether they plan to shoot someone if they cannot get a haircut or go to the mall immediately.

The numbers of people diagnosed with the novel virus all around the world, in our country and our state are astounding and growing, as is the death toll. But numbers, no matter how big they get, are just numbers until each of us puts a face on one of them. That moment came for me earlier this month. A dear friend of more than a decade did not respond to my happy birthday text in April, and I now know why. She was fighting COVID-19 with all her might.                                          

Let’s call her Ellen. She is a 42-year-old woman, happily married with two children, one a freshman in college and the other a rising ninth-grader. In late February, I had enjoyed seeing photos of Ellen and her husband on Instagram, taking their first vacation ever without their children — a cruise. By then, we were all aware of COVID-19 and cruise ships in quarantine, and a shadow of alarm crossed my mind. The cruise was an obvious culprit for the virus, but Ellen came home and stayed home but did not come down with the virus within 14 days. Then came the call that her freshman’s university was shutting its doors because of COVID-19. Ellen and her husband drove five hours to scoop up their student and clear belongings out of the dorm, which was full of hundreds of other students and parents doing exactly the same thing.

Ellen got COVID-19 and was isolated from her family, communicating only through walkie-talkies, and sleeping most of the time until it was clear that she had recovered.

As Memorial Day approaches, Dr. Anthony Fauci, our nation’s top infectious disease expert — and other medical voices — continue to warn of ongoing viral spread, renewed outbreaks, a second wave of infection, and the “needless suffering and death” that will come if our nation opens up too quickly. No one wants to hear this, and we are all stir crazy. We all long for our former “normal,” whatever it was, and we are all anxious to establish something close to it in a post-COVID-19 era.

Our immediate reality is, of course, that we are not in “a post-COVID-19 era.” We remain in the thick of the pandemic, though without its initial urgency. As of this writing, North Carolina is meeting most but not all of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention benchmarks for reopening, and all but one of our 100 counties report COVID-19 infections, and most have had deaths.

Our long-term reality is that each of us will have to figure out our own safety based on our family circumstances, our age, our risk factors and our risk tolerance. Getting comfortable with reopening will likely be different for each of us. For me, at least, and for the time being, it will not include crowds or trips away from home without a face mask. Researchers say a COVID-19 vaccine is at least a year away from proven development, with mass manufacturing, distribution and inoculation more distant yet.

As for Ellen, she is healthy now and just as stir crazy as the rest of us. No nights out with her hubby, but they are thinking about a weekend road trip with the family, masks handy.

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