A few years ago, I was as sick as I can ever remember being. I had a cough like the startled bark of a tiny puppy who has swallowed a squeak toy. It hurt, and it went on for weeks and weeks.
I’d feel the sensation of this cough creeping into my throat and instinctively brace myself, holding my breath and clenching my teeth. Inevitably, it would come anyway, in the form of a 20-second coughing jag that left me breathless and gasping with my head in my hands.
At first, I thought it was just a bad respiratory infection: a common cold made more challenging by my moderate asthma. The fact that I was feverish and low-energy seemed to support this hypothesis. But after three trips to the doctor and three chest X-Rays in as many days, it turned out to not be so obvious. With the equivalent of a puzzled shrug, my doctor prescribed me antibiotics and steroids.
When people die from COVID-19, it happens because of severe respiratory distress, usually in people with existing breathing complications. This also makes them more likely to get the disease.
I spent the better part of the next month coughing on the couch. My fever went away, and my energy improved, but my voice was reduced to a craggy croak: a sign that my coughing had caused damage to my vocal cords, which would eventually require voice therapy to address. I went back to my doctor, who sent me to an allergist, who had a hunch and ordered a blood test.
Five weeks later, the test results came in. What I’d contracted was pertussis, also known as “whooping cough.”
When I tell people I had whooping cough, most people say they thought everyone got vaccinated for that. That’s true; it’s part of the DTAP vaccine that our children get, and I had a booster myself several years ago. But the whooping cough vaccine is like the flu vaccine: it only makes symptoms milder, it doesn’t make you totally immune. You can still catch it. And for someone like me, whose severe asthma complicates any form of respiratory illness, even “mild” pertussis made me fear for my life.
Which is why COVID-19—the new novel coronavirus currently in a pandemic stage around the world—scares the pants off of me.
This is a justifiable fear. When people die from COVID-19, it happens because of severe respiratory distress, usually in people with existing breathing complications. This also makes them more likely to get the disease.
In a recent USA Today interview, Dr. Thomas File, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, agreed that it would be more possible for someone with asthma to get sick with COVID-19, the rapidly spreading variant on coronavirus. The World Health Organization takes it a step further, noting that “people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.” A recent Chinese study found that COVID-19 can stay in the air for up to 30 minutes, live on surfaces for days, and infect people sitting up to 15 feet away… twice as far as the recommended “safe distance.” And the Chinese Center for Disease Control estimates someone like me, with respiratory disease, has a 6% chance of dying from this virus: three times higher than the average mortality rate of people with COVID-19.
The lack of control that I have over this virus is terrifying.
My asthma already makes me extremely careful about respiratory illness. I take daily preventative medication for asthma, rigidly follow a vaccination schedule, and follow every at-home respiratory care protocol possible at the first sign of a cold. But the lack of control that I have over this virus is terrifying.
People don’t think something as common as whooping cough can happen to them in this day and age, let alone a 1918-style pandemic. But it can, and at times like this, people who downplay the threat and ignore the social contract towards communal good heath aren’t just playing with their own lives: they are risking the lives of people like me.
Yes, I am taking precautions. Yes, I am washing my hands like it’s my job, singing “Happy birthday” twice each time to make sure I’m doing it long enough. Yes, I am trying not to touch my face. Yes, I am taking my vitamins and Emergen-C and eating well and trying to get enough sleep. But I have two children and a business to run, and this pandemic could last for months. I can’t seal myself in my home, and it’s not enough for me to take precautions. Everyone has to take precautions. I guarantee the life of someone they care about is at stake.
It’s not enough for me to take precautions. Everyone has to take precautions. I guarantee the life of someone they care about is at stake.
Please take care of your own health. Please wash your hands like it’s your new hobby. Please stay home when you have a cold. Please advocate for telecommuting, and do whatever you can to support causes like paid sick leave for all employees. Please cover your mouth when you cough, with a tissue or your own elbow. Please don’t shake hands.
Please help me. I’m afraid coronavirus could kill me. Because it is already killing people like me.