What counts as coronavirus if we don’t have any tests? What counts as self-isolation if we can’t get away from our kids?

Each country reveals so much about itself by its approach to coronavirus. China pretended nothing was happening—the country with the best disinformation system applied it to the virus. South Korea figured out a way to test 400 people a day using a drive-through system—the country with the strongest video game teams applied their team gaming skills to the virus. And the US had trouble sticking to reality—the country with the most fragile sense of identity elected a President who imagined himself as a savior saying, like a miracle, coronavirus will disappear.

The truth is, the US is now the country most likely to infect everyone else. Maggie McDow traveled for work from Feb. 23 to Mar. 1 with a route that was basically Dulles, South Korea, Thailand, South Korea, London, Dulles. Here’s an excerpt from her summary:

Every other country I had flown through they made announcements on the plane as we were landing. In Thailand there were public health officials randomly testing people coming off of my flight and in all other countries, there were clear signs of what to do if you don’t feel well directing you to people to talk to. In London, public health people even boarded the plane before we could disembark. When I got to Dulles, there was nothing. I didn’t see a single sign, there were no announcements, and I didn’t see anyone checking anyone’s health or a place where people could ask someone a question.

A few days later, Maggie felt sick, so she went to the hospital to get tested. The hospital ran every test but the test for coronavirus. The hospital could not get permission to get a test for coronavirus. The DC Department of Health said that Maggie had not been in South Korea long enough to warrant testing for coronavirus.

The hospital chief of staff got on the phone. No luck. There would be no testing for coronavirus. The doctor told her she should assume she has coronavirus even though they are not allowed to test her. And she should come back if she has worse symptoms because they can treat her even though they can’t test her.

Who knows how many people in the US have coronavirus? But it’s safe to say the number is much higher than our official number. And we are short on tests.

Three weeks ago I went to the ER for my son’s stitches. Twice. Two weeks ago I had trouble breathing and developed a cough. One week ago I went to the ER and said I was worried about coronavirus because the hospital I had been to also treated people who were now in self-isolation.

Everyone at the hospital was nice. They did an x-ray, an EKG. Tested for pneumonia. Everything was negative. I asked why they didn’t test for coronavirus since it thrives in hospitals. The doctor said I’m not in a high-risk category. But there seems to be widespread agreement that when it comes to coronavirus, being in an ER is high risk. The doctor sent me home with an inhaler. Now I know why: There are no coronavirus tests.

I probably don’t have it. But I can tell you that if I were supposed to be going to an office right now, I wouldn’t be going. Because people would think I’m crazy. I have a really bad cough. And I’ve been really tired for days. No one wants to take chances. Because most of us are living too close to the edge—just trying to hold things together.

The hospital bill for me not getting tested for coronavirus was more than $2000. So maybe it makes sense that the Department of Health won’t let anyone get tested for coronavirus—most people can’t afford it anyway. California announced that no individual can be charged to get tested for coronavirus. That might have something to do with Trump not letting anyone get tested. He’ll show California! No one can push around the healthcare industry!

Maybe no one will get tested because no one can agree who will pay for it. Then the US will face being the weak link in the world’s fight for human health. Then, finally, we’ll get healthcare for all. Maybe that’s what it’ll take to create the healthcare reform we really need.

Maybe coronavirus will be the impetus for reform in all sorts of arenas:

The tech industry has been draconian about the refusal to let people work from home. Silicon Valley’s attitude has been Give everything to your job or don’t work here! Of course, that’s the attitude that has been making people think twice before sinking into the hell of startup life. Coronavirus might set a new precedent for the idea that companies can make room for an employee’s home life, and even, god forbid, their family.

The travel industry has continued the absurd practice of booking unsustainable plane travel to sustainable vacation destinations. We are about to see spring break with no plane travel, and coronavirus might have the timing to transform even the most stubborn travelers: If scientists can study climate without plane travel and vogue can put together a whole print issue without plane travel, then maybe you can do stuff you’ve never done before with people you’ll never see again without getting on a plane.

The esports industry will hit a tipping point. Right now eSports are more popular than conventional sports but advertisers have cognitive dissonance.  Parents, too. While advertisers need to spend more money on esports, parents need to let kids start training earlier for esports. That might well happen, though, because coronavirus has meant many teams are playing to empty stadiums, which is a lot like esports, but without the awesome visuals.

Finally, schools will close. And kids will join their just-started-working-from-home parents who thought there would be peace and quiet. I know because I’ve been homeschooling and working for home for ten years. I’ve asked myself many times, what the hell am I doing? Now I know: I’ve been preparing for coronavirus.

37 replies
  1. Andra
    Andra says:

    Thanks Penelope – laser sharp insight and a little spooky. Awesome but terrifying at the same time.

    • Meg
      Meg says:

      I just came to Penelope’s blog because she is so good at assimilation of information. I can’t break it down. I don’t want trump bashing or political fighting, just someone to tell me what the heck is going on.

  2. Windscale
    Windscale says:

    Hi Penelope. Hope you start feeling better soon! I found it interesting that in Italy, where they have had a large outbreak, the government have closed schools and universities in affected areas to try and slow down the spread of the infection. People seem to be undermining that though by grouping children together to share child care – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-51751031. That seems bizarre to me, but modern life and all that I guess…

    I know you’ve written before about the modern assumption that both parents in a family will work. This shows that this is particularly problematic when something like this happens. As you say, maybe there might be some positive social outcomes if this Coronavirus does reach pandemic proportions.

  3. Graham
    Graham says:

    Here in the UK, as befits a country renowned for making terrible decisions that completely misunderstand the complexity of the underlying issues, everyone has panic bought toilet rolls and dried pasta.

    • Alyson Long
      Alyson Long says:

      I’ve been in Asia the last couple of months, since Chinese New Year when this all broke. The tourist numbers plummetted, hotels, planes and airports got more and more empty. My business tanked – I’m a travel blogger. We all had coughs. A lot of people had coughs. Some sounded bad. Every airport, every flight, there were body temperature scanners and questionnaires. But it was fine, no issues. I think maybe we’ve had it too.

    • María Raiti
      María Raiti says:

      That’s because you don’t use bidet. Latinamerican countries might not be immune to coronavirus but at least we won’t have toilet paper shortage!

    • Stephanie
      Stephanie says:

      A friend of mine is a nurse at a hospital in the UK. She was told by management not to wear face masks at work because it would stir panic among patients…

  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    “Then the US will face being the weak link in the world’s fight for human health.” This one sentence stopped me cold. While I’m no fan of our current health system, I worked for a few years on a Medicare contract and let me tell you I don’t want THAT for everyone either. But I was looking at it as a personal matter, or at best a US-society matter — not as a world health matter.

  5. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    People in Hong Kong had lived through the deadliness of SARS first-hand. So they started wearing face masks everywhere they went in January, before HK had its first case. Schools were shut down in the beginning of February. For the first time in HK history companies let their employees work from home despite their love for micromanagement. The rest of the world ridiculed the locals for panic-buying face masks. They were in such a shortage that people started studying ways to make their own masks that have decent-enough barrier properties against germs.

    People lock themselves in their apartments. No weekend socializing, eating out, movie-going, shopping. Schools are closed until Easter. The world’s most touristy, most densely populated city has become a ghost town. But it’s sort of like herd immunity – for the same reasons people yell at anti-vaxxers, we have no tolerance for the “it’s hard to breathe with a face mask on” or “I’m not sick, I don’t need a mask” excuse.

    Hong Kong is now at under 120 cases as of today with nonexistent help from our government that is known for its incompetence. And at the same time we are appalled that governments all over the world are telling their people they don’t need to wear face masks “out of panic.” Being free of symptoms doesn’t mean you don’t have the virus. The virus not seeming to be deadly doesn’t mean it won’t mutate into another “novel” strain that is ten times deadlier.

    Hong Kong lost hundreds of lives to SARS – or, to Chinese censorship. We had no idea there was an outbreak in China, then a Chinese traveller spread it to a dozen of people living in the same hotel and shit hit the fan. We are being obsessive and hyperviligiant because we learned our huge lesson in public health, through trauma and politics.

  6. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Interesting comments. I agree that covid-19 on an epidemic scale is inevitable in this country, and even if countries like China manage to stop local epidemic spread there, people from quasi-developed countries like Italy and the US are likely to cause new outbreaks there. At this point, I think the entirety of efforts in this country may only achieve slowing the inevitable, which in itself is not a terrible thing. There are only so many hospital beds in the US. If covid-19 spreads too rapidly, we will exhaust that supply in short order. It’s better if the epidemic builds more slowly.

    The American Hospital Association is predicting that the larger community epidemic wave will hit in about two months. They expect 96 million cases, 4.8 million admissions, 1.9 million ICU stays, and 480K deaths. There are only about 924K staffed hospital beds in the entire country, and only around 132K of them are ICU.

    Saturday night I shook hands with someone who I know last week shook hands with other people who have since gone into quarantine for covid-19. My wife pushed the same elevator buttons as those folks from Biogen who have it; they’re in the office next door. It’s only a matter of time until we all get it. I wash my hands right after I take off my shoes when I come in the house, but there is no public health in this country, and I hope that when my kids’ school is (inevitably) shut down, it’s brief, because my daughter loves going to school.

    I figure it’s a good month for travel, though. There shouldn’t be many lines…

    FWIW, don’t go to the ER for non-emergency care. Go to urgent care instead. You may be treated quicker. Mass Gen has a nice walk-in clinic in the main building.

  7. Den
    Den says:

    Almost Everything in this piece strikes me as wrongheaded.
    If socialized medicine is so great why isn’t England better off than us? Why did this outbreak multiply horribly in a socialized medicine country?
    No country is prepared for this.
    Trump said some dumb things but that’s all he did. He didn’t cut the cdc budget or do anything to worsen this crisis. He was thinking wishfully like many.
    This isn’t worse than flu and seems to be less contagious. It’s deadly mainly in some elderly and those with other conditions. There are however a few problems.
    The hysteria is affecting us economically. The measures taken are too late too little and are this idiotic imo. The cats out of the bag. Unless this virus doesn’t mutate highly unlikely we’re stuck with it. Maybe the vaccines they’ll likely develop will be better.
    Kids get zonked by flu. So far most kids are NOT zonked by this. They’re likely Asymptomatic and transmitting it. What’s going on now is crazy. We don’t have enough tests or knowledge to halt this. We were screwed on control measures mainly because the Chinese government hid it. They are the face of socialism. Hiding things that are wrong so folks like Penelope (once called useful idiots) can only highlight the positive. China is managed capitalism but their health care is socialized and their government behaves as full on all control communists. Communism and socialism require control. I get sick reading posts so disrespectful to the many victims of socialism. sanders endlessly praised Murderous regimes. He never walked it back. Once we couldn’t track corona virus that was it. If there are thousands of carriers what can we do? We need to pray that most people can endure it ok. The only people who should be especially cautious are vulnerable groups.

    • commentor s
      commentor s says:

      China’s medical services industry is prepay, cash-only. This includes everything from routine check-ups to acute trauma care, such a what is required of injuries sustained in car accidents, to chronic illness treatments, such as chemotherapy. In order to meet unplanned medical expenses, families keep large reserves of liquid cash on-hand or they rely on extended family and friend networks to get multiple small cash loans. China’s health care system is the polar opposite of ‘socialized’.

    • harris497
      harris497 says:

      Nothing in China is free! Your statements are politically motivated as opposed to logic based. What does Sanders have to do with this virus?
      England has a much higher proportion of short-term migration per capita than the US does. It is literally an island that is testing it’s population – much like Italy. We here do not know what we do not know because our heads are in the sand from a testing standpoint. Why does the test have to be home grown?
      Politics only serves to inhibit the wellbeing of individuals when it comes to policy.

    • Graham
      Graham says:

      Don’t really know what you’re talking about Den. The UK is better off than the US. We’ve had half as many cases and a quarter of the deaths. SO FAR. But that isn’t the point, is it? The ability to test and measure is important in any pandemic and the US has no idea about its infection rate. To say it’s no worse than flu is ridiculous because we know about winter influenza but we don’t know about this. I hope your blase attitude turns out to be right, but perhaps we’re better off not counting on the wild assertions of people who don’t really know what they’re talking about (including but not limited to our Prime Minister and your President).

  8. Kirk
    Kirk says:

    What does the WHO and CDC and others say is most important in controlling spread? Testing. South Korea has tested 169,000 people and seems to be getting the virus under control.

    The US has only 75,000 test kits, and the orange-headed dictator says it is beautiful, like the Ukraine phone call. Wall Street had its worse day ever today.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Penelope, I think your wrath is misdirected. It seems to me your major complaint is the lack of adequate number and availability of coronavirus test kits here in the U.S. I submit to you the major offender is the Chinese government. Every country, including the U.S., is downstream. There’s one particularly good article by an Italian journalist (Giulio Meotti) which was published by the Gatestone Institute titled ‘Coronavirus: China’s War on the Truth’. It starts out with and highlights it’s main points –
    “The epidemic has exposed this country completely in its corruption, bureaucracy, information control and censorship.” — Phillip Wu, a freelance writer in Beijing, The Guardian, March 1, 2020.
    Then there are many instances of journalists and activists who told the truth, but who were arrested or “vanished”. The Chinese regime is now even announcing plans to publish a book in six languages about the outbreak that portrays President Xi as a “major power leader” with “care for the people”.
    Italy’s main fatal mistake was trusting China’s regime. Instead of checking everyone — Chinese or Italian — returning from China since January, Italy kept its borders open. We are now dealing with tens of thousands of Italians under quarantine….
    The idea that the coronavirus might be related to Wuhan’s virus research laboratory is considered by some a “conspiracy theory”, yet China’s refusal immediately to accept help from the US Centers for Disease Control understandably arouses suspicion.”
    I will add my own damning fact here – the Wuhan seafood market where the coronavirus is claimed to have originated was demolished a week ago. The bottom line is there is very little transparency by China to determine the source and nature of this virus from the very beginning when they became aware of it. It was something they thought they could contain on their own with no help from the CDC, WHO, or any other organization or country. China prides itself on their long term outlooks and strategy. They made major mistakes will this coronavirus outbreak. Their brand has just taken a major hit. They lost trust with their customers and affected supply chains to boot. Businesses and customers alike will adapt and make changes that don’t include China. The United States is a good country, has a strong economy and will come through this event – better than China.

    • Tracy
      Tracy says:

      What good is a strong economy when hundreds of thousands of school kids in the US rely on schools to feed them – which is one of the factors affecting the decision to shut down schools.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        The decisions to shut down schools is not based on the economy. It’s based on the health and well-being of the students. Decisions to shut down schools are mostly (if not almost exclusively) determined at the local level with advisement from the federal and state governments and their applicable agencies. School kids will be fed with help from the government whether they’re going to school or staying at home temporarily as a result of this virus.

        • Not here
          Not here says:

          Mark, you seem to have a lot of faith in our institutions, to not only know when and how to shut down public institutions such as schools, but to find and feed poor, hungry, and very small children sequestered at home. Maybe you should spend some time at schools, at poor homes, and at the places that feed the poor. Then maybe you’d have less faith.

          • Mark W.
            Mark W. says:

            Not here, maybe you should try being less snarky. You know nothing about me, about what I know, and most of all anything about my faith in our institutions. What I do know is you like to take cheap shots sitting safely behind your keyboard with no intention of having an honest discussion.

        • Bostonian
          Bostonian says:

          Nitpick here, Mark. The decision to shut down schools isn’t based on the health and well-being of the students. Kids don’t tend to catch, or suffer from, this coronavirus because the receptors it latches onto are developed in puberty. The kids themselves would be fine going to school.

          Schools are being shut down to slow the spread of the epidemic among the general population. That will slow the rate at which the most vulnerable populations (the old, those with heart conditions) get infected.

          I know a college that is letting the students stay on campus, but has sent away its professors to teach the students remotely.

          • Mark W.
            Mark W. says:

            You’re right Bostonian. If I could edit and change one word in my response above, I would change ‘students’ to ‘population’. Indirectly, though, the health and well-being of the students are being looked after by looking after the health of those people who provide for them – the older population. And as you say, it’s to slow down the spread of the epidemic. Some schools in the area have closed temporarily. The school district where my niece attends is still open for now. They’re closely monitoring the situation locally and have set up some contingency plans according to my brother.

  10. Den
    Den says:

    Not bringing up
    Bernie out of nowhere. There’s a Bernie love fest on here by a lady who knows he’d aim to shut down homeschooling. Also she 1:1 tutors her kids, solicits donations from fans, and may be poor relative to her old life which she never seems to stop obsessing over and she’s so competitive I think like someone else suggested she wants socialism not to equalize (good luck with that) but to bring others down. It’s trite but politics of envy covers many people. She hasn’t exposed her bright older son to Milton Friedman maybe he’d get a wider perspective. China is NOT private medicine. You probably go to private clinics. It was once fully socialized though rural folks were always screwed. Now it pays the insurance of almost the whole population if they can’t get it. I wish we did that. It’s a mix of public and private because they were in transition. They are communist run they just see unlike Americans with blinders that capitalism ameliorates poverty. If everyone is better off why is inequality bad? It’s better that everyone is much lower? You won’t solve education problems with more government. 90% of schools are public failing huge numbers of kids. Notice they are failing inner city kids and poor rural whites. The unions are a disgrace you can’t fire bad teachers. You really can’t failing schools in Chicago are highly funded but throw more money at them. In life as Penelope would tell you failure means you fail. But bad schools can’t fail here. Bernie would make sure of it. Penelope would never use these public schools she wants to fix. Too busy paying for endless tutors. I think her son will do fine. She’ll probably pay for tutors when he goes to college too. Maybe she can hire someone to help with his job after and I’m not kidding. I have a friend who pays programmers abroad to do his hardest work. He’s a programmer. Whatever p says she is providing her sons with a fine education. Little male role modeling and no Penelope you are not a man however many times you tout this. I don’t find anything about your whole persona Manly and most men I know don’t break down as you seem to regularly. I’m not insulting you. I think you get that women are on average far more emotional. I don’t think you claim to be manly for any other reason than to self promote as industrious. Women can be industrious. It will always be a choice between that and kids. You can’t do both. You can’t physically do both well. Anyone who says you can is lying and they need to live that lie fine. Everything is a trade off. The Chinese government caused this entire catastrophe. Had they taken containment measures earlier we likely could’ve contained this globally. They’re doing now what they should’ve initially done instead of detaining those sounding the alarm.

    • Graham
      Graham says:

      Den. You wrote “I don’t find anything about your whole persona Manly and most men I know don’t break down as you seem to regularly. I’m not insulting you. I think you get that women are on average far more emotional.”

      Here you show yourself to be a total prick full lof the sort of toxic masculinity that gives men a bad name. Perhaps you’d be better off not talking about things you don’t understand or, if you insist on being so insulting, don’t write, “I’m not insulting you”. By the way, I am insulting you.

  11. Aurora Moore
    Aurora Moore says:

    China may have ignored it for a couple of weeks, but once things accelerated the government took extreme measures and showed that containment is actually possible. They probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives by forcing the entire population of Wuhan to stay inside for a month. In contrast, the US the approach has been 1) blame China, 2) pretend it’s not that bad, 3) poorly coordinate fragmented systems and 4) move to mitigation before attempting containment. Companies and school leaders are on their own in deciding their policies. Freedom and fragmentation has its drawbacks when compared to authoritarian centralized control in the containment of this virus.

  12. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Does anyone here remember the swine flu epidemic? When it was? Where it started? How many people in the U.S. were infected? How many American people died? Who was the U.S. president at the time? What measures were taken to stop it? If not, you might want to spend a few minutes on it.

  13. reen
    reen says:

    Just to verify your point – the US must have _waaaay_ more cases of coronavirus than is being reported. In Australia (where testing is free btw), tests were limited to those who have symptoms and had travelled to China, South Korea and Italy. But the new cases cropping up in Melbourne can predominantly be traced back to those who travelled to the US (eg https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-11/melbourne-school-closes-after-coronavirus-diagnosis-for-staff/12044594). At least we get paid sick leave and no massive healthcare bills to deal with as well…

    • Questions
      Questions says:

      I’m curious what you and your countrymen are thinking about the U.S. and our desire to spread this virus willy-nilly, for I don’t know, as long as the virus is able to circulate in the U.S. Do you think eventually countries will quarantine U.S. travelers before we’re allowed to interact with citizens?

  14. Milf
    Milf says:

    Fever and cough are symptoms of coronavirus. Wearing a mask is to prevent viral droplets from entering your body, so it is not for sick people to wear a mask. Healthy people should also wear a mask to prevent it. When you need to isolate yourself, it is best to be in a different room from other family members.

  15. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I have what I believe is a good article ( https://www.chron.com/news/article/Inside-the-coronavirus-testing-failure-Alarm-and-15178203.php ) on this coronavirus testing failure dated April 3 and titled ‘Inside the coronavirus testing failure: Alarm and dismay among the scientists who sought to help’. It does contain many details while being pretty much summed up by the following – “We have the skills and resources as a community but we are collectively paralyzed by a bloated bureaucratic/administrative process,” Marc Couturier, medical director at academic laboratory ARUP in Utah, wrote to other microbiologists on Feb. 27 after weeks of mounting frustration.” My hope is lessons are learned and we’re better prepared in the future.

  16. I Fashion Styles
    I Fashion Styles says:

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