Surely, I was just being paranoid. I’d been feeling kind of sore and cruddy all day, but that wasn’t so uncommon for a Sunday after a long week of work. It was our first weekend of serious social distancing, and it was impossible not to think of the coronavirus, even though it hadn’t yet seemed to really hit Baltimore, where I live with my wife. I continued feeling worse, and after she fell asleep on the couch, I decided to take my temperature. When I took the thermometer out of my mouth and looked at the digital readout, I was overwhelmed with terror: 102.3 degrees.
We hadn’t thought much about how to isolate one of us from the other, but just that morning, we had vaguely decided that, if one of us got sick, they’d quarantine in our extra bedroom. So I had the presence of mind to move into action before I entirely freaked out or collapsed: I took the sheets off our bed and the clothes I had been wearing and threw them in the washer. I grabbed sheets for my quarantine bed and the toiletries I would need. I wiped down the bathroom with Clorox wipes. Then I called my wife on her cellphone in the other room and woke her. I covered my head while she got a few things she needed from the quarantine room.
That was the last time we would be closer than 30 feet for two weeks. Since hospitals are overwhelmed, most people who suffer from COVID-19 will be told to quarantine at home. That self-quarantine will be far safer and more comfortable for everyone if people work out a plan before anyone their household falls ill.
When I called, my doctors said I wasn’t high-risk enough to get tested. Because of the lack of tests, our information about the virus is so limited: If we knew who had it and who didn’t, it would be far easier to manage quarantine around our families. If my wife had it but was asymptomatic, we could have acted differently. But we don’t know. And so they best they could do was to tell me I should act as if I had COVID-19 and self-quarantine — without giving a lot of guidance as to what that meant, except that I needed to be fever- and symptom-free for 72 hours before emerging.
For the next 11 days, I was only vaguely aware of time. My case was “mild,” but I was as sick as I had ever been, and I couldn’t have moved much had I wanted to. I spent more than 23 hours a day in bed, which I left only to take a bath or go to the bathroom.
Because we hadn’t really prepared for this, my wife did without a lot. Her clothes were all in the room I was in. Because of her contact with me, she wasn’t going anywhere, but washing and rewashing the same set of clothes again and again for two weeks was no fun. We should have had “go-bags” ready — not only for a possible trip to the hospital, but also with things we might need in our house in case one of us was quarantined. The stuff in the bathroom, like her extra contacts, was even less accessible because that’s where I did most of my coughing in the middle of the night.
I have mild asthma, so I occasionally have coughing fits, but those first few nights were like nothing I had ever experienced. I would hack, and it would feel as if my air passage was narrow and blocked, but there was nothing yet to cough up. I tried sleeping sitting up. Eventually, a nurse friend suggested I regularly take Mucinex to break up the mucus, and it was a game-changer. I started coughing some stuff up and could breathe a bit better. But when the fits came on, the general sense of fear and panic made it much worse — and harder to regulate my breathing again when the coughing began to subside. At least three times, I was certain I would have to call an ambulance.
In those moments, I sometimes wept. But I realized that, isolated in my room there, I was the least alone I had ever been: The entire world felt the same fear and terror I did. There was a certain grim comfort in that.
I also had never felt closer to my wife than I did in that room, away from her. Our loft made it easier — if she stood on the landing of the stairs, we could see each other from about 30 feet apart. That was how we “celebrated” the 20th anniversary of our first date, smiling at each other across space. Otherwise, she would bring food to the door and take my dishes away later.
After a week, it seemed my fever had gone away. I was not nearly so exhausted, and my cough had subsided. I was overjoyed. But I would remain in total quarantine until I’d cleared my 72 hours. Good thing I did. The next day, the symptoms came back, as bad as before. This seems to happen again and again to people who have the virus, but it’s easy to forget: Everyone might not have all the symptoms they’ve read about at once, and when symptoms seem to subside, people figure it must have been a cold or a flu and it’s fine to return to everyday life. A good friend with whom I’d been comparing symptoms made this assumption and sat and watched a movie with her family — just before her symptoms hit again and she was hospitalized for pneumonia and finally tested (it will still take several days for the results).
In many cases, total isolation is impossible. Due to limited space, people will have no option but to expose those they love. (My wife and I are lucky to have an extra room and an extra bathroom, and we don’t have kids we had to care for — or protect — while I was sick.) Others who do have resources are choosing to risk infecting loved ones. The spouse of at least one celebrity who tested positive for COVID-19 said she was going to stay beside him, even though she was negative. To me, that is insane: I would not wish the symptoms I suffered on most of my enemies — and surely I would not put the person I loved most dearly at risk unless I absolutely had to.
Because it is so difficult to safely self-quarantine, especially for those experiencing homelessness or living in cramped spaces, several cities, such as Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have worked out deals with hotels to quarantine patients who show COVID-19 symptoms but don’t need to be hospitalized. Here in Baltimore, the city is turning a municipally owned Hilton into a hospital, but there are no public plans to use hotel rooms, which are largely empty, to help people keep to themselves. If we want to save lives, we need to think of better ways to use spaces like hotels to isolate those with “mild” symptoms to protect their families. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, for instance, that the patient use a separate bathroom, when available, but gives little guidance for when that’s not an option other than wearing masks, washing hands and cleaning surfaces.
Finally, on Sunday, two full weeks after entering, I exited my quarantine room. We are still keeping our distance and being cautious, and I’m not leaving the apartment. Even so, it was almost shocking to be able to move around again — and begin to think not just about the consequences of the virus in my body, but of the virus in the world.
The main thing I’ve realized through this isolation is that there is no such thing as isolation. It is an illusion. Right now, we all have to be alone because we are so together. That is true of social distancing, of course. But it’s even more true of self-quarantine, a voluntary separation from those we love the most. It is because of that love that we need to make plans when our heads are clear — about what to do when the virus strikes us.
Baynard Woods is a writer living in Baltimore. His book “I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad” will be published by St. Martin’s Press in July. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.