the R in SARS

A patch of clover-like redwood sorrel fills the picture. Each plant is a cluster of three heart-shaped leaves drooping downward in direct sunlight. My sister told me about a plant identifying app called Picture This. I can finally identify plants for people without having to make something up!


I started my career in public health. In school I wanted to be a doctor, but I hated memorization and preferred working to studying. My first public health job was in disease intervention. I spent my days tracking down people exposed to HIV and syphilis. At the health department, I latched immediately to the all ways we try to help people. We operate behind the scenes and appear when people are at their most bewildered. We emerge from the fabric of a collective society to offer people our ears and a hand. Even the mere threat of infection can make people feel helpless. It can feel like they’ve landed in the bleakest possible future. We try to lead them out of that bleakness into a more realistic and thus brighter world.

When my friends went overseas to support the Ebola outbreak, I was desperate to join them. I tried explaining this desire to my then-boyfriend, now husband. The public health archetype is a scientist rushing towards the danger without fear. Being on the front lines feels thrilling. You are changing the world on the most granular level: one person at a time. I joined the response but I was thousands of miles from the action. But even from my vantage in the emergency operations center I felt the thrill of the chase.

I work at a food bank now. Those public health ideals have stayed with me, though we only fill short-term needs here. When Coronavirus hit, the familiar adrenaline of the response returned. Our threadbare safety net looks even more tattered in the face of mass layoffs and social distancing. This weekend I’m coming down from about three weeks of non-stop planning. We don’t know how long this disease will spread. A week ago we didn’t know for sure how it spread. We are creating infrastructure at a rapid pace. We are unsure of what is coming. I pivot every time the response changes.

This week I had to take a step back from the front lines. I’ve had asthma for most of my life, but I forgot about all that when the number of COVID-19 cases increased. Another food bank director told me he sent home sick all his staff in the “high risk” category of the infection. It knocks out people over 60 and those with chronic disease, including asthma. In an instant I realized I was at risk (my husband said, “uh.. yeah, hello?”). Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome isn’t an abstract disease. I don’t need anything severe or acute attacking my respiratory system!

As a person who wants to help, I’m conflicted being the person who needs help. Even though my risk of catching the infection is low, it’s higher than I think. So now I’m working from home full time. Still busy (so busy), but not in the office. I’m helping to lead a response even though I’m off the front lines. I can make a difference without taking up a hospital bed.

I’ve seen the camaraderie created during a response, and I’ll miss the bonding that will happen. But even at home, I am living through this pandemic. I’m still trying to make a difference. I’m in the bleakness with others who are at higher risk of COVID-19. I can still help people survive while we find a way out.

In a few short weeks, the scope of our response has changed. People most at risk were already navigating a rigged system. We already know that we moved too slow when the crisis began. For most people, we’re only a month in. There’s no telling how long it will last.