The sun had yet to rise over Waco, Texas. It was 6am and the last day of driving before Dana and I reached our new home in Austin, Texas. We had been driving for three days that felt like three weeks; through the snow, rain, traffic, construction, and heat of seven states. I shuffled through the parking lot to our parked cars with a backpack full of heavy public health policy schoolbooks, a duffel bag of our clothing and toiletries, my work laptop bag, a purse, and a bulky plastic dog food bin in my left hand that scraped my leg with each second step.
“Of course.” I laughed, staring up at the locked car doors. I realized too late that the keys were back in the hotel room.
Looking back on the long trip I’m surprised by the amount of obstacles that were in our way, and the fact that we were able to overcome them. The most obvious difficulty was that a global pandemic was going on that morphed everything normal about relocating for work into anything but. Every stop we wore a facemask, every time we returned to the car we would wipe our hands with disinfectant, and businesses that would normally be open weren’t. The crisis did help in some unexpected ways (gas was considerably lower, hotels offered no fees or fines for rescheduling or cancelling, and traffic was reduced) but in other ways it proved to be more complicated and difficult.
Not all states that we travelled through were evenly restrictive about COVID-19, but Dana and I were strict for our own sake and others. Michigan, and specifically southern Michigan, had been hit particularly hard by the virus and we didn’t want to take any chances. There is a real fear that we both could be asymptomatic carriers that could potentially expose others or that we had yet to contract COVID-19 and would be exposing ourselves. There’s also the paradox of testing; because not every region in the United States has access to COVID testing, areas that look “safe” could simply not have enough testing to determine the number of cases, and areas that do have adequate testing look like “hot spots”. Without enough reliable tests, we just don’t know.
Prior to the coronavirus shutting down most of our country, Dana studied from home and I worked from home as well – you could say we were learning to cope with quarantine before it became the norm. I work as a graphic designer for a tech company based in Austin Texas, but we lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a year prior to this move. We had been planning on selling our home in Ann Arbor and relocating to Austin to be closer to my coworkers there as well as to enjoy the warmer weather.
As stressful as trying to sell a house is, selling a house in a pandemic that threatens to also cripple the economy is markedly worse. Banks are nervous about lending to buyers, given millions of people who would be in normally stable jobs are now newly unemployed. With Michigan’s stay at home order in place, non-essential workers were also not always available – this meant inspectors, appraisers, and realtors were not always free to move things along with a home sale. There were no safe transactions or timelines, and our simple plan stretched well beyond our estimates to accommodate. We were relieved when our home sale finally closed and we were cleared to finally move. It was turning away from one unknown towards another.
I never really understood what Public Health was until Dana began studying it. My wife is currently studying for her major in Public Health Policy as a fully online student at Kent State University. Since I also work from home, I basically have been auditing the courses- when she watches a video on the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, I am listening in. When she comments on a discussion about anti-vaxxers, I am discussing her reply with her. When she is reading out loud to herself about the woeful state of the American for-profit private healthcare system, I’m also learning it as she highlights line after line.
From what I have come to glean from my eavesdropping there are two basic truths I have come to know. The first is that the people working in Public Health are the invisible heroes everyone in modern society cannot live without. When the architecture of public health is working well, most people don’t even know it exists. All industries, businesses, and people are affected in some way by the policies these essential structures health organizations create, regulate, and act to define. Having a strong Public Health infrastructure makes our entire society thrive and prosper, and the workers that contribute to this noble cause don’t get the same appreciation as the more visible heroes such as firefighters, doctors, teachers, police officers, nurses, and first responders.
The second truth that emerged is that I am incredibly proud of my wife for her passion and dedication to a field so profoundly important.
When Dana began her studies, the world was normal. Nobody was self-isolating, nobody was overly worried about washing their hands, and nobody in our circle of acquaintances was concerned with public health. When COVID-19 began to appear and cause disruptions, Dana and I were watching it with interest and concern. Over time, that interest turned to awe and fear – as the virus aggressively spread internationally and countries began to react in different ways. The coronavirus is impressive for many reasons, but having studied other plagues and a overall history of public health, it made sense despite the overwhelming chaos it was creating. This kind of worldwide disruption had happened before and there are protocols for surviving it as a population.
When family members asked a year ago what Dana was studying for her masters program, there would always have to be an explanation of what Public Health was, citing examples or anecdotes about preventing disease and implementing policy. That has all changed today.
While everyone was sheltering in place in Michigan, Dana and I along with our two golden retrievers were on the road. Dana drove our small Ford sedan with the two dogs in the back seat (Avalo, the calm sensitive one, and Nico, the crazy one) while I drove the 20 foot U-Haul packed to the top with everything we owned. The first day on the road we remained in Michigan, as the fatigue of packing had taken a lot of energy from both of us. We pulled into the Michigan hotel’s lot and I disembarked the truck, striding up to the entrance through stray snowflakes.
In 2017 Dana had underwent a second surgery because of a cavernous angioma that was found in her brainstem at a young age. This surgery was successful in removing the angioma (a small vascular cavern-like structure of blood vessels that can cause neurological issues) but left her with multiple disabilities with regard to her physical sensation, sight, and hearing. One of the most notable consequences of the surgical deficits is Dana’s inability to close her right eye fully; the nerve controlling it was damaged during the surgery and since that time she has been attempting to regain that control. Something we all take for granted, blinking, is an impossibility.
While driving, her eye was constantly drying out causing understandable difficulty. We debated towing the sedan behind the U-Haul, but that then would limit our ability to take the dogs (two adults and two Golden Retrievers cannot all fit in a truck cab comfortably!) and it also would be an incredible feat of driving that neither of us could do. Two cars in a cross-country convoy was the final decision, despite the negatives.
Throughout the trip, and despite each state’s stay-at-home orders, the hotels all were the same. We would enter a spacious modern lobby completely alone – nobody is travelling right now. A masked attendant would enter from behind the front desk to welcome me, check the reservation, issue me my keycards, and direct me to the elevators. I would always ask if it was all right to park the large 20 foot truck across multiple spaces, to which I was informed it was fine each time; the parking lots of all four hotels we stayed at were virtually empty. Then the attendant would politely retreat to the back office, leaving me alone in the large empty space.
Once we were out of Michigan and into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois the weather improved with the sun shining a little brighter. The traffic was light and with COVID-19’s grip on the economy we found ourselves reliant on fast food. At home, without a pandemic occurring and given a choice, we eat cooked meals with minimal saturated fats, sugars, and processed foods. With many dine-in restaurants restricted or closed, we ate three fast food meals in one day for multiple days, which added to our fatigue and lethargy. Grocery stores all seemed to be operating, but without a kitchen to prepare a cooked meal in we were dependent on eating roadside burgers and shakes.
The lack of people was eerie and pervasive wherever we went. The trip was not completely devoid of life; it was like the volume was simply turned down to a murmur. Masked people skittishly walked around each other to reach the restroom or to toss trash away. Common areas at rest stops and hotels had chairs turned over on tabletops to discourage social gatherings, and hallways were quiet with the hum of far off ice machines. Like many downtown regions the world over the animals could once again reclaim the once populated areas- I would take Nico and Avalo on mini-walks through the empty corridors of the hotels to explore where the humans once congregated. Their tails wagging, they hurriedly rounded quiet corners and peered up at vacant stairwells.
As we made our way into Missouri on Day Two it had begun to rain heavily. The water came and went, sometimes so bad we couldn’t see the horizon. Whenever a trucker blew past us, we’d have a few moments of terror where you couldn’t see anything but the obscured grey windshield before the wipers swished it away. On Route 70 it seemed the swamp and the road met eachother on every bend.
Just when we thought we’d never dry out, we finally emerged in Arkansas which seemed windy and dry. Both hungry, we chatted through our phones between the sedan and U-Haul eyeing the horizon for food. It had been many hours already and we hadn’t seen any food that wasn’t McDonalds or a truck stop.
“This place is a food desert” I said to Dana over the phone.
A food desert is something I had learned about while auditing Dana’s Public Health classes. It’s an area where there are no healthy food options readily accessible or available. I had heard the term before but didn’t really understand what it looked like until seeing an example of it in real life.
Learning something in a book or online from a legitimate source is helpful, but not fully informative on its own. It took driving a hundred miles in a straight line past multiple shuttered restaurants and gas stations to exemplify the concept and make it real. The next step in understanding it would likely be meeting those effected by Food Deserts; seeing the human impact of it on health and well being when you don’t have access to nutritious food options.
Concepts about a health policy and a population’s wellbeing are often difficult to visualize outside of the textbook. I would hear a concept like Herd Immunity, as an example, and it made rational sense when described but oftentimes would be complicated to conceive. Herd Immunity is the idea that in a population of people, if enough are immune to a disease (either through natural immunity or a vaccine) then those that are unable to handle a vaccination or are immune compromised within the population will be less likely to contract and suffer from that disease. It’s one of the major benefits of developing and administering vaccines to protect people.
When it comes to the spread of COVID-19 the abstract constructs of Public Health play out in unique and detrimental ways. Certain vulnerable populations are negatively impacted by Health Disparities. A recent CDC report has documented a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups. It states,” Health differences between racial and ethnic groups are often due to economic and social conditions that are more common among some racial and ethnic minorities than whites. In public health emergencies, these conditions can also isolate people from the resources they need to prepare for and respond to outbreaks.”
On Day 3 we finally found ourselves in Texas. Texas would be a tough leg of the trip because the sedan has an issue with the AC. For about two years it developed the strange problem of not being able to run the AC on 80 degree days or warmer – Googling the problem showed that it was likely a issue with the model having a faulty AC Pump that stalled the car. Dallas was on the map ahead, and it was shaping up to be a very hot day for April.
The morning was cool and as our small caravan wound through Texarkana, and I stumbled upon a talk radio program hosted by two angry men. Dana and I are avid NPR listeners and would be classified best as progressive liberals; we both lamented when we would cross an invisible boundary between radio towers and have to begin scrolling through channels to find the local Public Radio station. Intrigued by the station I had found, I turned it up and began to listen. Within minutes I was amazed to learn that both radio speakers were essentially racists. They casually tossed out numerous comments on “trespassin’ Illegals” “foreigner-born Mexicans” and insensitive statements like,“It’s got to be wonderful to be an illegal in Oregon”.
Alongside this, I noticed an uptick in morally judgmental signage. I had seen outrageous Christian billboards in the south on trips to Florida, so it wasn’t as much of a shock as the racist radio station. I was intrigued by the flavor of the billboards though – in large red letters the first one that caught my eye threatened,”WARNING: YOU WILL FACE GOD!”. Another showed a man sobbing into his hands with the statement,”NOTHING IS TOO HARD FOR GOD”. Another few signs showcased anti-evolution messaging, anti-abortion messaging, and probably my favorite of the bunch, a large white billboard simply reading,”REPENT!”
We pulled off the road in Texas to refuel and Dana reminded me that Texas has a must-wear-a-mask policy. I had lost a cloth mask a day back (later discovered in the pocket of a no-longer-needed wool jacket) and approached the gas station attendant to purchase a one time use surgical mask that had been re-bagged in a Ziploc bag. The gas station attendant wore a mask and wiped her station with sanitizer, obviously concerned about the virus. I paid for two bottled waters and a set of two masks for $3.99.
“We have hand sanitizer too!” she offered, pointing to a large cache alongside the register.
“Thank you, but we already have some. We are coming through from Michigan.” She nodded and rang up the water and masks. “It’s pretty bad up there right now with cases.” I mentioned. As of this writing, The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Michigan has risen to 38,210, including 3,407 deaths.
From behind me a masculine judgmental voice entered the chat. “I don’t know what you both are afraid of.” I turned slightly to see a white 20 something kid without a mask standing well within 6 feet of me in line. I looked at the attendant and we both kind of didn’t know what to say.
He continued, “I come from a family of doctors, and this is no worse than the seasonal flu.”
The attendant bagged my products and replied, “Well, my grandmother has a heart condition, and I wouldn’t want to catch this and pass it on to her.” I payed with the card kiosk.
“It’s all being taken out of context. It isn’t that bad and if you look at the facts you’d see this is all a big mistake.” The boy’s voice was condescending. Coaching. Authoritative and loud. I wanted to reply, knowing that all of those things were not true – It wasn’t just like the flu, it isn’t being taken out of context, it is something to be taken seriously. But I also knew it wasn’t worth it to argue with someone who had already made up their mind.
I thanked the attendant and walked away, looking back to see her politely trying to dismiss the boy’s arguments. When I got to the parking lot Dana was sitting with her legs out of the car with both dogs panting in the increasing heat. I explained the exchange and we both sighed about how real it was now – after hearing about people protesting Govenors’ stay at home orders to protect everyone from spreading the virus, debunked conspiracy theories about the virus’s origin in a lab, and people poisoning themesleves after attempting to self medicate with chloroquine it was made real. Like the abstract Public Health policies and concepts, the unbelievable and vaporous stories began to become real.
After making our way through the Dallas heat, Dana and I agreed to stay the night in Waco and make it to Austin the following day. The heat was record breaking for spring, and that was enough to motivate us to retreat to the cool circulated air of a hotel. The next day we could awake refreshed and reach our new home without any issues or extreme heat.
On the news all the talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX were talking about the President of the United States statement on possibly, maybe, sorta, injecting yourself with disinfectant to kill coronavirus (Disclaimer: DO NOT DO THIS.). I flipped over to twitter, and the same song and dance was happening there as well.
COVID-19 has left a mark on all the people living through 2020 without exception, but I believe this decade will be more memorable in the history books as the Age of Disinformation. From our trip through multiple states there was a patchwork of half-truths and misunderstandings, both about the virus and what is valuable within our society. While in some states everyone seemed to be obeying the CDC guidelines to socially distance, close businesses, and wear masks, other people and other states had seemingly no change. Generally there were less people milling about, but much less concern and restrictions. I am convinced that disinformation is the real threat that will define this time period – the fractured realities and truth between different people and topics. The virus is a calamity that has occurred, but the family, friends, and acquaintances repeating truths or conspiracies, and everything in between, will determine the lasting damage.
It’s been three days since we moved in to our new place in Austin, and we are adjusting to the additional space and warmer weather. We are settled in and the trip is over – it’s back to quarantining at home. Despite Texas preparing to lift restrictions this week, Dana and I will still be wearing masks when going out and trying to avoid crowds. The virus is still highly communicable and a lot is still unknown about it- as recent as yesterday the CDC outlined six new symptoms associated with COVID-19. It also has been effecting many young people (previously thought to be relatively safe from the disease’s worst effects) with an increase in strokes. From the Washington Post:
“Reports of strokes in the young and middle-aged — not just at Mount Sinai, but also in many other hospitals in communities hit hard by the novel coronavirus — are the latest twist in our evolving understanding of the disease it causes. The numbers of those affected are small but nonetheless remarkable because they challenge how doctors understand the virus. Even as it has infected nearly 2.8 million people worldwide and killed about 195,000 as of Friday, its biological mechanisms continue to elude top scientific minds. Once thought to be a pathogen that primarily attacks the lungs, it has turned out to be a much more formidable foe — impacting nearly every major organ system in the body.”
Dana has reopened her textbooks and back to reading aloud about Public Health. I’ve been watching the news on low volume in between drawing comics and my daily graphic design work. Ironically, by moving closer to my job I am right back where I started; logging on remotely to Zoom meetings and Slack messaging clients.
Despite the tiresome nature of the trip, it was good to interact with the physical word again and see what things looked like out there instead of simply staying at home watching from afar. You can’t learn everything from reading about it; you have to interact with it. Witness it. Feel it firsthand to really know something. I hope that everyone learns what they need to from this uncomfortable period of time, and is able to grow from it. Otherwise, the next trip won’t be as easy.