The Boring Side of Having the Plague

Coverage of the pandemic is all over the media.  Every day we get the latest tallies. Local and national news feature the tragedies that are all too common. A family of 6 all of whom have tested positive, and only two survive. Sometimes someone being discharged from the hospital after weeks on a ventilator. So why this blog? Because people suffer the virus in ways that never catch the attention of the media. Writers need to be aware of these variations.

Many of you are familiar with the name of Kathleen Corcoran, my friend and colleague and occasional guest blogger. She has graciously agreed to share her experience with us all.

It started with a headache, a pretty bad one, like something was sitting on my head. Or maybe it was the insomnia first. Or maybe the headache was caused by the insomnia. Or maybe I couldn’t sleep because my head was hurting. Or maybe I was just doomed to be caught in this chicken and egg loop of which came first for all eternity or at least until the sun came up.

But I didn’t think anything was wrong. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a kid. My posture is terrible, which causes headaches sometimes. I took a couple of painkillers and eventually was lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter.*

(Neither Vivian Lawry nor I are affiliated with or Stephen Fry or with J. K. Rowling. But if anyone knows how to get in touch with Stephen Fry, let me know, and I’ll do my darndest to become affiliated!)

In the morning, my husband went off to work, I drank about ten cups of tea, and everything was normal. Perfectly normal.

I was pretty tired, but that was to be expected after being up all night.

Joints aching? Must be a storm coming. Stupid arthritis.

Skin hurts like I’m wrapped in sandpaper? Probably just didn’t rinse all the soap out of my clothes last time I washed them.

Too hot and too cold and too hot and too cold again? Eh, it’s July. The air conditioner is weird.

Can’t stop coughing? Gee, I must need to sweep under the bed. It’s obviously really dusty down there.

Sore throat? Well, duh. That’s what happens when you cough a lot.

Difficulty concentra-SQUIRREL!

Eventually, the combined efforts of my husband, my sister, and my mother convinced me that I was probably sick, it might be the COVID-19, and I definitely needed to do something about it. The first thing I did about it was to consult Our Lord and Master, The Great Google. My husband left work early, and we tried to find a testing site.

I think I poked the stick too far. I may have swabbed the back of my eyeball.

And that’s when things got really… boring. Following the instructions laid out by The Great Google, I didn’t bother going to a doctor. I answered a bunch of questions online to determine if I was worthy of receiving testing and then to determine if I was worthy of receiving fast testing. The pharmacy told me I could stop by the drive-thru the following afternoon to poke a stick up my nose, and that was it.

Labs are really backed up, so I could expect my test results in about two weeks. Maybe longer. Probably longer. In the meantime, I should assume I had The ‘Rona (as my brother insists on calling it) and behave accordingly. Oh, and don’t bother going to a doctor or a hospital unless I turn blue or have a seizure. And it better be a pretty big seizure.

Contact tracing was easy. Two phone calls. I warned my parents that I was (allegedly) highly contagious with (allegedly) an infection of (allegedly) COVID-19 and thus I may have (allegedly) contaminated my mother and she may have (allegedly) passed on the deadly (allegedly) infection to my father. Allegedly.

Ready! (Disclaimer: this is a picture I found online. I did not put a mask on my dog. She would eat it.)

Thus, I am now in quarantine. I can’t leave the bedroom except for bathroom breaks. My husband can’t leave the house, just in case I’ve contaminated him. He has to sleep on the sofa, keeping an eye on the turtle. We both have to wear masks anytime I open the bedroom door, but my husband covers his face just about any time time he’s not sleeping. Pippin the Wonder Dog has gone to stay with my parents until we’re all allowed out of the house again. Fourteen days of staring at the bedroom walls, unless I’m still sick or my test results come back negative.

I ate a banana. I hate bananas.

My husband put food and tea next to the bed for the first few days, carefully not touching anything and showering immediately after leaving the room. When I could get out of bed, he left the food and tea on the floor outside the door and picked up empty dishes with gloves. For about a week, I couldn’t keep anything down except tea. It’s a good thing I like tea.

Apparently, stealing a towel from a hospital doesn’t mean I get to go to one. Actually, I think it might make them less likely to treat me.

But then I started feeling better. I could sit up, the cough subsided, and I managed to stay awake for more than two hours at a time. My fever hung around for a bit, but it eventually went down. At one point, the thermometer informed me that I had a temperature of 107.3F. As I was staring at the read-out, wondering why all my internal organs hadn’t shut down yet, my husband reminded me to wait until after I drank the hot tea before sticking the thermometer in my mouth. Smart man.

Maybe I can entertain myself by licking the sofa…

Now, I wait. There’s not a whole lot to do in here. I can video chat with the guy on the other side of the door. My goddaughter sometimes reads me stories or demonstrates her spectacular spinning skills over the phone. I spend way more time than I will ever admit on sites like BoredPanda and BuzzFeed. Occasionally, I try to get up and walk around, but it’s only a step and a half from the bed to the door and only half a step from the bed to the wall. Not very conducive to calisthenics.

Billy across the street just turned on his sprinkler. Now I get at least twenty minutes of watching the water spin!

The neighbors lead fascinating lives, as I have discovered by not being creepy at all. I spend a lot of time staring out the window, and I’ve gotten to know everyone’s habits. If the dog next door isn’t out for his morning yard time by 7:30, I worry. Where’s Roscoe? Is he stuck inside? Is he still asleep? When the kids down the street start their evening basketball skirmishes, I keep score. Darren cheats, but Michael is taller and older… I haven’t decided if that evens things out, but Keisha always wins anyway. Yesterday, the recycling truck came by. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like Rear Window, but without the murder!

No hugs from my favorite tiny people

In the meantime, my husband has missed two weeks of work and pay. His boss isn’t sure about letting him back in the shop until all his colleagues are comfortable that he isn’t poisonous. My parents have had to isolate in their house, missing my father’s birthday dinner. All the careful planning my sister did to set up a safe birthday celebration for my father is down the drain (along with all the ingredients I’d just bought to make Beef Wellington for them). My other sister has been stuck watching five kids by herself because I can’t help out. And I had to reschedule an appointment with the DMV. Their next opening isn’t until September.

Was I stupid or cautious? Or perhaps both?

Don’t get me wrong: I am thrilled beyond belief not to be in the ICU, hooked to a ventilator in a medically-induced coma. But I don’t even know if I have COVID-19. Barring some catastrophic development, I will be free to leave quarantine and resume my normal activities tomorrow. If I did have it, I’m no longer carrying anything that could infect people. If I didn’t, I just put a bunch of people through a bunch of disruption and financial hassle for a sniffle.

Yay! Positive! I’m super positive!

Oh hey! An email just popped up with my test results….

Opening…

Logging in…

Finding the right message…

If I tested positive, does that mean I passed or failed? Also, is this going to be on the final exam?

Thanks to Kathleen for sharing her experience. Writers take note: She is living, breathing (thank goodness) proof that the worst case scenario isn’t necessary for one’s life to be turned upside-down.

Freedom! (Keep wearing your mask, unless you are a dog.)

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER(S)

Knowing things about one’s character(s)—even things that never make it onto the page—will keep those imaginary people in character, consistent, well-rounded, and flexible so that new plot twists and turns don’t leave the reader feeling like an entirely new person has been introduced.

They also help in making sure every character is not just a copy of the author, with the same political views, personal preferences, and general outlook on life. Indeed, there are profile pages that have questions about everything from birthdate/astrological sign, to medical conditions, to education, to family of origin, etc. . . 

Which Brings Us to COVID-19

A worldwide pandemic is definitely an unexpected turn (unless your character is a historical tracking epidemiologist)! And rich with complexities. For the sake of better knowing your character(s), consider what the current pandemic would reveal. Remember that traits revealed by current events can be applied by authors to characters dealing with any historical, fantastical, futuristic, or imaginary setting.

Masks

This isn’t as singular as it first seems.  What is your character’s attitude/ behavior regarding masks? And why? Here are several possible choices. The Why is up to you!

  • Refuses categorically
  • Complies reluctantly
  • Will wear only when visiting nursing homes or vulnerable family
  • Embraces masks a good thing
  • Sees masks as just another opportunity to accessorize

What do your character’s masks look like? What quality or grade? Would your character confront someone about wearing/not wearing a mask?

Social Distancing 

Easy or difficult for your character?

  • Ignores physical distance
  • Meticulously maintains a 6’ distance
  • Social distances in public places only
  • Feels safe being closer when outdoors
  • Hugs and kisses family
Hand Cleaning
  • Pays no particular attention, i.e., washes when hands feel/look dirty
  • Cleans hands when entering or leaving a building 
  • Sets up a hand washing/sanitizing schedule, e.g., every hour
  • Preference for soap and water or sanitizer?
Safer at Home
  • Does not leave residence at all; everything is distance communication and delivery
  • Goes out only for medical reasons and food
  • Travels locally in own vehicle 
  • Travels locally in someone else’s vehicle, just driver and character in back seat passenger side
  • Comfortable traveling by taxi, bus, train, or plane with appropriate precautions
  • Travel whenever and wherever, damn the consequences
Alone or Together
  • Does your character live alone? Is that a good thing or bad?
  • Does your character alone get lonely?
  • Does your character living with others experience increased tension and conflict? With partner and/or children.
  • What if your character’s friend/loved one dies?
  • How would your character handle home schooling?
    • (If s/he has no children, consider a distance learning tutor or a character educating him/herself via online resources.) 
Crowds
  • Avoids them like the plague (pun intended)
  • Braves them only for a “good cause” such as civil rights demonstration
  • Would go to a family reunion
  • Would address a crowded room for work reasons
  • Happy to party down
Work 
  • Would your character be able to work from home?
  • Is your character an essential worker?
  • Could/would your character be furloughed?
  • Is your character a business owner, responsible for others?
  • Would your character’s workplace be shut down?
  • Would money/loss of income be a problem for your character?

With But Not of COVID-19

Name Changing 

Would your character have a singular or varied response, depending on what’s being renamed? Consider the timing and speed of public opinion shift in the setting: immediately renaming provinces, shops, schools, and cities per government mandate during China’s Cultural Revolution versus the gradual shift of the capital of Kazakhstan from Astana to Nur-Sultan.

  • Rename schools, named for Confederate “heroes”
    • e.g., Stonewall Jackson Middle School, Washington and Lee University
  • Rename roadways, bridges, etc.
    • e.g., Lee-Davis Highway
  • Rename Washington Redskins team
  • Rename towns/cities
Public Memorials, Symbols 

Confederate flag, paintings, statues displayed on public property.

  • Leave them alone. It’s history.
  • Leave them, but provide context.
  • Remove them to Civil War battlefields or museums.
  • Remove and destroy.

Bottom line for writers: Remember that you are describing your character(s), not yourself. The “why” is important. Did you learn anything about your character(s)?

PSA: WORK CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH, PART 2

Sulfur Mining

In Friday’s blog I talked about the most dangerous jobs in terms of actually dying from accident or injury. These are acute incidents. But exposure over time—what I’m calling chronic hazards—can be just as deadly, often with prolonged pain and suffering. 

In truth, it isn’t always an either/or situation. If they are combined, being President of the United States is the deadliest job in the country. To date, 8 of the 45 presidents have died in office: 4 were assassinated and 4 died of natural causes.

The ill effects of exposure over time is the focus here.

Heavy metals

Not that kind of heavy metal

Heavy metals” and metal compounds are notoriously harmful to people’s health. Some toxic, semi-metallic elements, including arsenic and selenium, are as well. In very small amounts, many of these metals are necessary to live. However, in larger amounts, they become harmful by building up in the body’s systems. People were dying from such exposures long before they knew the causes or had explanations. Of the 35 metals that are of concern because of residential or occupational exposure, 23 are heavy metals. Here’s a partial list.

Arsenic

Common sources of exposure to higher-than-average levels of arsenic include working near or in hazardous waste sites or in areas with high levels naturally occurring arsenic in soil, rocks, and water. Arsenic released by human activities is triple the exposure from natural sources.  Most paints, dyes, soaps, metals, semiconductors, and drugs contain arsenic. Some animal feeding operations, pesticides, and fertilizers also release arsenic to the environment. 

Occupations with high exposure:

  • Alloy manufacturing
  • Carpentry
  • Chicken and swine farming
  • Electronic manufacturing technicians
  • Electronic waste disposal
  • Pesticide, insecticide, and/or herbicide applicators
  • Smelter operator or engineer
  • Glass manufacturing
High arsenic levels in drinking water causes health problems in areas of India, Bangladesh, China, and other countries.

Symptoms of lower arsenic exposure include nausea and vomiting, reduced production of erythrocytes and leucocytes, abnormal heart beat, pricking sensation in hand and feet, damage to blood vessels. Prolonged exposure leads to skin lesions, internal cancers, neurological problems, pulmonary disease, peripheral vascular disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes mellitus (Type 1 and 2). Many of the effects are irreversible. There is no effective treatment for arsenicosis. Exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause death.

Beryllium 

Beryllium Strip Mine

Elemental beryllium has a wide variety of applications. Occupational exposure most often occurs in mining, extraction, and in the processing of alloy metals containing beryllium.  

Industries and occupations include:

  • Aerospace
  • Automotive parts
  • Computers
  • Construction trades
  • Dental supplies and prosthesis manufacturer
  • Electronics
  • Industrial ceramics
  • Laboratory workers
  • Metal recycling
  • Mining of beryl ore
  • Nuclear weapons
  • Precision machine shops
  • Smelting foundry
  • Tool and die manufacture
  • Welding
X-ray of a patient with Berylliosis

Beryllium causes sensitization and lung and skin disease in a significant percentage of exposed workers.

Cadmium 

Chocolate sometimes has dangerous amounts of cadmium. I’m going to cry.

Cadmium is an extremely toxic metal commonly found in industrial workplaces, particularly where any ore is being processed or smelted. Several deaths from acute exposure have occurred among welders who have unsuspectingly welded on cadmium-containing alloys or with silver solders. Beware jewelry makers!

Cadmium and its compounds are Group 1 carcinogens as classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It can cause both acute and chronic effects: high toxic to kidneys, bone mineralization, osteoporosis, lung damage. Smokers are more susceptible to cadmium intoxication. The biggest contributor to human cadmium exposure is fossil fuels, 33%.

Hexavalent Chromium

Green snow caused by leakage from a an old slurry tank in Pervouralsk in Siberia.

When chromium is in a valence state (+6 oxidation), it becomes hazardous to health. Calcium chromate, chromium trioxide, lead chromate, strontium chromate, and zinc chromate are known human carcinogens. An increase in the incidence of lung cancer has been observed among workers in industries that produce chromate and manufacture pigments containing chromate.

Such exposure is likely in these jobs and industries:

  • Welding and other types of “hot work” on stainless steel /other metals that contain chromium
  • Use of pigments, spray paints, and coatings
  • Leather tanning
  • Operating chrome plating baths

Besides cancer: when broken skin comes in contact with any form of chromium compound, a deep hole will form; also targets respiratory system, kidneys, liver, and eyes. 

Lead 

The brain is most sensitive to lead poisoning.  Symptoms may include abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, irritability, memory problems, inability to have children, and tingling in the hands and feet. It causes almost 10% of intellectual disability of otherwise unknown cause and can result in behavioral problems. Some of the effects are permanent.  In severe cases anemia, seizurescoma, or death occur. 

Occupational exposure to lead is one of the most prevalent overexposures. Industries with high potential exposures include:

  • Construction work
  • Most smelter operations
  • Radiator repair shops
  • Firing ranges 

Outside the workplace, the main sources of exposure to lead occur from contaminated air, water, dust, food, industrial emissions, and soil, or consumer products such as paint, gasoline, toys, and cosmetics.  Lead-based makeup was used in Ancient Greece, but became especially popular when Queen Elizabeth I started using it to hide her chickenpox scars. It killed her. Symptoms prior to death include hair loss, skin welts, and inflammation of the eyes.

Mercury 

All except this form

As far as I can find, all forms of mercury are hazardous.  Common occupational sources of mercury exposure include:

  • Mining, production, and transportation of mercury
  • Mining and refining of gold and silver ores 

High mercury exposure results in permanent nervous system and kidney damage. Depending on the specific form of the mercury, symptoms include shyness, tremors, memory problems, irritability, and changes in vision or hearing; lung damage, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, skin rashes, increased heart rate or blood pressure; depression, memory problems, fatigue, headache, hair loss, etc.

Mercury poisoning—a.k.a. mad hatters disease—wasn’t nearly as fun as the tea parties in Alice in Wonderland.  Mercuric nitrate, used to make felt, is extremely toxic, and breathing the fumes all day, every day resulted in uncontrollable twitches and tremors, as well as emotional changes, mental decline, kidney trouble, and respiratory failure. As early as 1757, a French physician noted that hat makers seldom lived beyond 50 years, and suffered ill health long before that.

Pregnant women are advised to limit their consumption of fish, especially fatty fish because of mercury buildup.

Toxic Exposures That Aren’t Metals At All

Anthrax 

The bacterium Bacillus anthracis causes anthrax, usually lethal to humans. Inhalation anthrax is caused by breathing in spores and has an especially high fatality rate. Person to person spread is rare.

Bacillus anthracis is an unfairly pretty bacterium

Anthrax infections occur naturally in wild and unvaccinated domestic animals. It is contracted primarily from livestock—which is another way farming, ranching, and large-animal veterinary practice can be hazardous to your health.

Asbestos 

Asbestos Miners

Asbestos is actually a group of naturally occurring minerals that are resistant to heat and corrosion.  Things made of asbestos will not burn—and therein lay its appeal. 

Ancient Greeks and Romans knew about it. By the 1850s, French firefighters wore uniforms of asbestos cloth. In the period of hoop skirts, asbestos fabric seemed the perfect solution to skirts ignited by open flames. 

Men who mined the ore, women and children who prepared and spun the raw fibers into cloth, all developed asbestosis, scarring of the lungs. This led to chronic shortness of breath, increased risk of some cancers, and eventual death.

Asbestos Lady was a Marvel villain who frequently fought the Human Torch

Asbestos is a heat-resistant fibrous silicate mineral. Besides being woven into fabrics, it is used in fire-resistant and insulating materials. Brake linings, pipe insulation, and house shingles were common uses for asbestos.

NBC caught this image of the Dominion building imploding.

Heavy exposures tend to occur in the construction industry and in ship repair, particularly during the removal of asbestos materials due to renovation, repairs, or demolition. The recent implosion of the Dominion building in Richmond is one example. It was in need of renovation and building a new building was less expensive than trying to remove the asbestos.

Lung cancer from asbestos

Asbestos is well recognized as a health hazard and its use is now highly regulated by both OSHA and the EPA. 

Formaldehyde

Naturally occurring formaldehyde in pears is not enough to make you sick.

Previously mentioned in the context of harmful clothing, formaldehyde is a chemical (composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) formed when burning methane. It is used to make other chemicals, as a disinfectant, and as a preservative.  In spite of numerous adverse effects, it’s still widely used.

Formaldehyde poisoning is caused by breathing the fumes, either by working directly with it or using equipment cleaned with it. It can also be absorbed through the skin. Short-term effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and/or skin rashes.  Long term, it is well known to be a human carcinogen. Workers exposed to formaldehyde, such as funeral directors and embalmers, are at increased risk of leukemia and brain cancer. 

Inhaling above 50ppm concentration of formaldehyde can cause severe pulmonary reactions within a short period: pneumonia, bronchial irritation, and pulmonary edema. Lower concentrations cause coughing, wheezing, and bronchial asthma, sore throat, and red irritated eyes.

Ionizing Radiation 

Natural sources of ionizing radiation include radon and uranium. Types include alpha- and beta-decay, X-rays, and gamma rays. They can strip atoms of electrons, damaging DNA. At high enough levels, it kills instantly.

Occupational settings with ionizing radiation:

MRI technician
  • Medical and dental offices (X-rays)
  • Hospitals and outpatient treatments centers (radiology, computed tomography, nuclear medicine, radiation oncology, interventional fluoroscopy or radiology, cardiac angiography
  • Veterinary facilities
Sendai Unit 1 was the fits nuclear power plant to restart in Japan after the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi.
  • Nuclear power plants and their support facilities
  • Nuclear weapons production facilities
  • Industrial operations (testing materials or products)
  • Research laboratories
  • Manufacturing settings and construction
  • Air and space travel and transport operations, especially at high altitude
  • Fracking for oil and gas well development

Radium 

From the play Radium Girls at Skidmore College
From the movie Radium Girls (2018)

All isotopes of radium are highly radioactive.  Radium, in the form of radium chloride, was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. It glowed, and quickly became popular in Europe. Various companies produced radium-based luminescent paint. It was used to make glow-in-the-dark instrument panels and watch dials, among other things. Women and girls (as young as 11) were hired to paint the watch faces, and were encouraged to twirl the brush tip between their lips to get the finest, most precise point—and with each lick of the brush, they swallowed radium.

Some of the girls had a bit of fun with it, painting their nails, teeth, etc. just because who wouldn’t want to glow in the dark? Between the paint ingested and applied and radium dust in the factories, soon the workers glowed as they walked down the street. Radium was in their clothes and under their skin.

Early research using radium to kill cancer cells had been a success, and soon the public thought radium was a cure-all. Doctors started experimenting with it for everything from tuberculosis to lupus, and quacks started touting products for acne, baldness, impotence, and insanity.

LD Gardner began marketing a health water he called Liquid Sunshine. The market was flooded with radium toothpaste, cosmetics, children’s toys, and theatrical costumes. Fortunately for consumers, radium was so expensive that many products didn’t contain real radium.

X-rays of radium poisoning patients

When workers got sick, they got sick slowly. Most of the girls became truly ill in their 20s. Radium is absorbed into the bones just like calcium, and then the rot starts. Some suffered chronic exhaustion first. But for many, it started with teeth falling out one by one. When rotten teeth were removed, their gums wouldn’t heal. Sometimes the jaw disintegrated at the dentist’s touch. Not surprisingly, bad breath was common. Skin became so thin that the slightest touch would cause open wounds. Skin ulcers formed for some. Pregnant women had stillborn babies. Death came slowly and painfully. Bones became honeycombed and crumbled, limbs were amputated, the girls became anemic, bedridden, and unable to eat.

By the late 1930s, enough were dead or dying that they got national attention—but never did they get compensation. One controversy was over whether all of this was caused by radium: how could one element cause such diverse problems?

Because it is so good at killing cells, today the Royal Society of Chemistry says the only appropriate use for radium is targeted cancer treatments.

VISCOSE 

Viscose is a thick orange-brown solution made by treating cellulose with sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. It’s used as the basis for making rayon and transparent cellulose film. 

It was developed in the early 1900s. Fumes emitted during manufacture drove workers insane. They suffered horrific bouts of mania. Historian Alison Matthews David said that one factory put bars on the windows so “workers, demented from carbon disulfide exposure, would not jump out.” Such exposure also leads to Parkinson’s disease.

Many household products contain chemicals which may be harmful to the environment or hazardous to your health if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin.  They should be used and disposed of according to instructions on the packaging. Common examples include:

  • Drain cleaner
  • Laundry detergent
  • Furniture polish
  • Gasoline
  • Pesticides
  • Ammonia
  • Toilet bowl cleaner
  • Motor oil
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Bleach

Writers: Consider all the ways occupational exposure to these products could be harmful to janitors, maids, housecleaners, etc. Consider how they might be used to cause intentional harm. And consider how they might bring serious harm to toddlers.

Self-Destruction

Sometimes the job does not cause death in a direct way but by creating such stress that the employee turns to self-destructive behaviors.

Suicide

Edouard Manet – Le Suicidé

Nothing says self-destruction like taking one’s own life. From 2000 to 2016, the suicide rate in the U.S. population of working age (16-64) increased by 34%. Suicide rates for employed men are three times higher than for women. FYI: the occupations with the lowest suicide rates are education, training, and library. The Bureau of Labor Statistics uses only 23 classifications of occupations; thus, for example, college teachers and library archivists are lumped together.

Among the BLS categories, the one with the highest suicide rates for men was construction and extraction. This includes everyone from boilermakers to electricians to hazardous materials removal workers. 

For women the category was arts, design, entertainment, sports and media. This category includes everyone from artists to singers to athletes to court reporters. I find these categories too broad to be helpful.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a more refined basis for comparison. 

In 2018, according to an article in PhRMA, American health-care workers were committing suicide in unprecedented numbers. Some are expecting a tsunami of suicides caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Their depression and PTSD rates are five times higher than within the general civilian population.

Alcohol Abuse 

No construction workers were inebriated in the making of this photo. That’s water.

The top three professions with heavy alcohol use are (1) mining, (2) construction, and (3) the accommodation and food services industry. Arts, entertainment, and recreation are 4th.

A 2012 study in JAMA found that 25.6% of female surgeons and 13.9% male surgeons showed symptoms of alcohol addiction. These surgeons were more likely to report feeling burned out or depressed, and/or to have made a major medical error within the previous three months. 

Among lawyers 29% in their first decade of practice report problem drinking behavior; 21% of lawyers in their second decade of practice have alcohol use disorders. Lawyers in law firms abuse alcohol at the highest rate. Overall, 33% drink problematically, 28% suffer from depression, and 19% exhibit symptoms of anxiety.

Drug Use/Abuse

An estimated 10% of health care professionals abuse drugs, about the same as the general population. However, doctors are more likely to abuse/misuse prescription drugs than their patients. They use prescription drugs to manage physical pain, emotional distress, and stressful situations. Psychiatrists and emergency room doctors used drugs most, surgeons and pediatricians the least.

Accommodation and food service workers leads all other industries in past-month illicit drug use and past-year. There is no one drug these workers abuse most, including both depressants and stimulants. 

Miners are more likely to use illicit drugs (5%) than opioids (1%).

Smoking 

The highest prevalence of smoking was among workers in the accommodation and food services industries (28.9%), followed by construction (28.7) and mining (27.8%). The lowest rates were in education services (9.2%).

COVID-19 Adds Hazards

Current circumstances have made already hazardous jobs worse; professions that used to be relatively safe now carry a constant risk of infection. Similar shifted dynamics have occurred with pandemics throughout history, though the specific risks and professions vary.

Workers With Added Risk

Many professions already at risk for acute or chronic health problems are experiencing even more danger. Here are a few of the workers society has finally started to recognize as essential to function in the face of

Healthcare: Nearly every member of the healthcare profession has added stress now, whether from direct contact with infected patients or from increased workload as their colleagues shift to other departments or fall ill themselves. Separation from family and friends to avoid spreading infection adds to the mental strain as well as removing one of the major sources of relief. Add in longer hours and the very real threat of becoming infected, and it’s no wonder mental health experts are predicting a sharp increase in suicides and PTSD among healthcare workers. These extra health hazards are affecting everyone from home health aids to hospital janitorial staff.

First Responders: Paramedics and Emergency Medical Technicians face all the risks associated with healthcare work, but they also have to work in extremely high-stress situations. Firefighters, police officers, medical pilots, National Guard, dispatchers, emergency chaplains, etc. now face the additional risk of infection in every interaction they have with the public. Budget cuts in many areas have caused layoffs, adding extra stress and longer hours for other employees. Firefighters, who often double as medics, generally spend 24-48 hour shifts in close quarters when not responding to calls.

Food Production: Employees at every stage of the chain producing food for tables are facing added risks of infection and added workload. The people who harvest crops (already backbreaking work in its own right) often face the additional health threats of close living conditions, lack of access to regular medical care, and frequent moving among regions.

Employees at meat processing plants face similar external health risks, with the additional infection burdens of longer shifts in close-packed factories, and a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment. Some of these people have been ordered to continue working in the face of Health Department concerns and their own fears for their health.

Cargo Transportation: Relatively empty roads reduced the risk of vehicle collisions temporarily, but drivers faced added risks from longer hours, longer routes, and additional delivery pressure. For every driver who becomes sick or stops driving to take care of family members, other drivers take on additional work to cover routes. In addition, drivers now face a risk of infection at every pick-up, delivery, and rest stop.

Workers With New Risk

Many careers formerly considered relatively safe now come with risks entirely the result of the pandemic. Massive layoffs have put extreme performance pressure on remaining workers as well as adding the constant risk of economic uncertainty. Those deemed “essential” to the continued functioning of society as we know it often face threats of retaliation if they don’t remain at work. And still, these careers tend to be among the lowest-paying jobs in the US economy. They often lack proper safety equipment, paid sick leave, adequate health care, childcare options, and numerous other ways to mitigate risk and stress for themselves and their families.

Bottom Line: Many people/characters have little or no idea of the hazards their jobs hold for their health, both short and long term. Tension, illness, and death possibilities are nearly limitless! Consider an entire family’s suffering.

ALCOHOL: OTC MEDICATION?

Stress and alcohol go together like peanut butter and jelly—a burger and fries, mac and cheese, bread and butter, mashed potatoes and gravy, milk and cookies, or any other iconic duo you can think of. Yes, they can be separated but—oh, so often—you don’t have one without the other.

I started thinking about this when the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front page story (above the fold!) about liquor sales in Virginia. You will recall that ABC Stores have remained open as “essential” services. And according to numbers from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, sales now hover around $22 million a week. 

In March, as the social distancing began, the ABC stores had more than $30 million per week.  Sales in April 2020 were up about 15% over a year ago. The article goes on to identify the top selling brands for the state and for the Richmond Planning District (City of Richmond, Henrico, Goochland, Hanover, Chesterfield, and Powhatan counties). I was less interested in the rankings than in the sheer volume!

Alcohol consumption is up all over the country. To look at one other location, in Tulsa, OK, one liquor store reported that looking at sales March 15 to April 15, liquor sales were up 56% and beer 48%. Compared to a similar date in April of 2019, one-day sales in April 2020 were up by 100%. 

According to one store owner, buying habits are changing in that people are buying more at a time, shopping more during the day and less in the evenings and on weekends.

In order to facilitate buying alcohol, providers are offering digital ordering and delivery, curbside pick-up, hosting, hosting virtual tastings and/or cocktail hours. And some are branching out by stocking hand sanitizers and face masks. Virtual cocktail parties among friends and families are now common.

If your aim is absolutely perfect, your cocktail parties with neighbors don’t have to be virtual!

Estimates of the increase in U.S. alcohol consumption from now to the same time last year vary from 25% (WHO) to 55% (Healthcare Home [//healthcare.utah.edu]).

The uptick in alcohol consumption is not solely a U.S. phenomenon. The World Health Organization has issued statements urging countries world-wide to try to curb drinking during the current pandemic. They cite several health reasons to try to control excessive alcohol consumption. No matter how bad a situation is, excess drinking can always make it worse!

Magic Snowman Tea is guaranteed to be 100% alcohol free.
There are other substances one can turn to in times of stress. This is one of my favorites.

Also according to WHO, alcohol-related deaths number 3 million every year—before the pandemic.  And the WHO now has the added difficulty of trying to quash the misinformation that has circulated to the effect that drinking can make someone immune to the COVID-19 virus and/or cure one if infected. The presumed medicinal value of alcohol has a long history (see below), perhaps with roots in the dulling of physical pain.

Jackie Chan is a master of Drunken Fist Kung Fu ( 醉拳 )

The link between stress and alcohol consumption is so well established that it’s actually called “self-medication.” In fact, such self-medication can be pretty effective, at least initially, in relieving anxiety and depression. Alcohol is a “downer” (i.e., a system depressant) so if people are wound up, rapid heart beat, etc., alcohol can definitely make those symptoms of stress go down. But as mentioned above, alcohol also depresses inhibitions, increases risk-taking, decreases logical decision making, increases violence, and — after all that — is still likely to interfere with restful sleep.

Being home all day with bored and curious toddlers is a very stressful circumstance.

COVID-19 presents a set of circumstances that are problematic with regard to alcohol consumption.

  • High levels of anxiety associated with the unknown
  • Isolation from one’s usual support system
  • Loneliness
  • Economic distress/job loss
  • Food insecurity
  • Fear of infection/death
  • Mourning the loss of a loved one
  • Stress at having to work from home
  • Stress of having to work in an “essential” job interacting with the public

COVID-19 is dominating today’s headlines, but it is far from unique. Research indicates that alcohol use and abuse increase during and after “violent conflicts”—e.g., wars, periods of martial law, government coups. Other psychotropic substances are also used to deal with psychic strains and trauma, but alcohol is generally the most likely to be readily available, legal, and (at least within limits) socially acceptable.

Totally non-addictive!

During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, bootleg whiskey was viewed as a respectable medicine. At the time, more than half the states in the U.S. had passed Prohibition laws and thus were “dry.” But for medicinal purposes, some officials decided to tap the vast stores of liquor that had been confiscated initially to aid the military, although the Army mostly remained silent about using it. In Richmond, Virginia—reportedly—two railroad cars of confiscated whiskey arrived for the benefit of Camp Lee. Over time, confiscated whiskey was distributed to civilian hospitals, too.

Medical isopropyl alcohol is now available at vending machines in Moscow.

The United States Pharmacopeia dropped whiskey, brandy, and wine from its listing of therapeutics in 1916. In 1917, the American Medical Association resolved that “the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be discouraged.” Even so, more than half of physicians believed it was “a necessary therapeutic agent.” It continued to be available by prescription in dry states. To this day, strong alcohol is prescribed for medicinal purposes in some areas, even by doctors!

Besides the demand for alcohol, the Spanish Flu pandemic shared other characteristics with COVID-19:

  • Wearing masks
  • Social isolation
  • Use of disinfectants
  • Limiting group gatherings, including churches
  • Hospitals and funeral homes were overwhelmed
  • During Spanish Flu the treatment of choice was aspirin, up to 30 grams daily which is a toxic dose; currently, think ingesting bleach or disinfectants.
Bootlegger tunnels in Miami during Prohibition

Bottom line for writers: people use alcohol to self-medicate for stress. The current stressor is COVID-19 BUT consider all the other stressors out there, which might occur alone or in combination with COVID-19: death of a loved one, job loss, divorce, physical illness, mental illness, physical disability, too little money, going hungry, being homeless… Do you have a character who does—who could—self-medicate with alcohol?

W.H.O. Let the Dogs Out?

These dogs are better at social distancing than most humans I know.

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, turtle lover, and dutiful servant of a fluffy tyrant masquerading as a dog.

By this point, most of us have seen something in our lives change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we understand (at least a bit) why things have changed. Our animal companions just see that the humans’ behaviors are suddenly different.

“Humans are staying in these circles, so I guess I’ll stay in a circle. Do I get treats now?”

Despite various quarantine and lockdown orders around the world, animals dependent on humans still need care. Many zoos and animal parks house animals that cannot be released into the wild because they were born in captivity, they are still recovering from injuries, their homes have been destroyed, or other circumstances that prevent them being able to thrive. Animal shelters, zoos, rescue and rehabilitation centers, and emergency veterinarians have adjusted to provide food, socialization, attention, playtime, and everything else to keep their charges happy.

Zoos have closed to the public, but zookeepers are still reporting for work. Some keepers have temporarily moved into the zoos themselves to be closer to their charges and to avoid any chance of carrying any infections into the zoo or home to their families. They’re camping in the cafeterias and staying in veterinary isolation huts.

In Cornwall, England, four keepers at Paradise Park have moved into the original house of the family that owned the property. Other keepers rotate in and out to assist, maintaining a strict schedule so that they are not in the zoo at the same time.

Without visitors around all the time, zookeepers have more freedom to take animals to visit their friends in other areas of the parks.

Because most zoos are making do with skeleton crews, keepers don’t have as much time as they’d like to play with the animals in their care. Many animals have been taking their own tours around zoos to see each other and keep each other entertained. (That doesn’t mean that bunnies have been jumping into the lion pens to say hello.)

The tamer animals have been allowed to wander the parks freely while there are no visitors. Territorial animals like geese have taken over bridges and tried to block keepers from crossing to feed other animals. Many zookeepers report that the more social animals still follow them around during rounds, without any leads or harness.

Some animals have left the zoo altogether and gone to explore the world. Peacocks from the Bronx Zoo took a stroll through Prospect Park.

Police in a closed park in Houston helped a gaggle of ducklings find their way back to their mother.

This cockatoo learned how to sing “Row row row your boat” and loves to sing along with kids who come by her enclosure. Without her backup singers, she has started humming to herself in the quiet. Zookeepers report that they can sometimes hear her start the song by herself but trail off sadly when no one joins in.

Without visitors to interact with, many animals are behaving differently. Keepers try to give each animal extra attention during feeding and rounds, but it’s hard to replace a steady stream of admirers. Some animals miss the interaction and get very excited to see anyone. Other animals feel more comfortable without an audience and venture out of hiding spaces more regularly.

Zookeepers come up with activities to keep animals entertained and socialized. Gorillas who regularly mirror gestures and pose for selfies with visitors are shown videos of people talking to them. Leopards at Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY have to “hunt” for food in cardboard tubes to keep teeth and jaws strong.

Polar bear cubs at Ouwehands Zoo Rhenen in Holland didn’t have to worry about public crowds when they left the maternity den for the first time.

Snakes, alligators, stingrays, etc. haven’t shown any sign that they’ve even noticed a change. However, one zookeeper noticed that some types of fish have become very attention-seeking.

Veterinarians at the Dubai Camel Hospital in Abu Dhabi have kept their enclosures open to treat their patients. After surgery, the very large patients need plenty of space and lots of help to get over that first hump in their recovery. (Ha! I crack myself up!)

Q: Where does the 800 lb gorilla sit for surgery?
A: Wherever the anesthesiologist wants.

Most veterinarians are only open for emergency cases to lessen the chances of spreading COVID-19. The CDC has confirmed that two pet cats have tested positive for COVID-19, but both showed mild symptoms and are expected to make a full recovery. Updated guidelines for interacting with cats and dogs have been posted on the CDC website. Although pets cannot become infected, there is a chance that they could spread virus surviving in droplets on their fur or paws.

There have been no reports of tortoises catching or spreading the virus, which makes them the perfect quarantine buddies!

One of the positive side effects of this awful pandemic has been the emptying of animal shelters. All over the world, people are adopting or fostering quarantine buddies. Shelter managers warn that permanent adoption may not be the best choice for families who will not have the time and resources to continue to care for pets when lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Some pets are not excited about constant supervision.

Some shelters are offering to cover food or vet bills for adopted or fostered pets as an incentive. While we’re all stuck inside, what could be better than spending extra quality time with our favorite furry buddies? They must be loving it, too. People home all day!

Mental health experts recommend furry, feathery, or scaly companions to mitigate the feelings of loneliness and depression some people are bound to develop while self-isolating. Pets can also be a huge help to parents trying to keep children entertained while they are out of school and have no place to run off all that energy.

Depending on the intelligence and motivation of the pet you adopt or foster, they may be able to help you complete some of your work at home.

Therapy dogs who can no longer visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes are sharing their affection and calm over video.

Some therapy dogs are so calm, they sleep through their own swearing-in ceremonies. This is Brody, the newest and sleepiest member of the Bristol, RI police force.

Several localities are under extremely strict lockdown measures that residents are only allowed outside for specific errands, such as walking the dog. If walking the dog is the only opportunity you have for going outside, you might as well do it in style.

Don’t put a facemask on your dog. It doesn’t help anything, and it annoys the dog.

While the zoos and aquariums are closed and everyone is staying home, take a virtual trip. Many parks and zoos have installed virtual tours and live-feeds of animals. These are a few of my favorites.

The World Health Organization has announced that dogs cannot contract COVID-19. All dogs previously held in quarantine will now be released. To be clear, WHO let the dogs out!
Who? Who? Who?who!

HAIR IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

A while back, I posted a blog on hair and what it says about a character—or at least what impression it makes on others. So what can we glean from how a person (or character) deals with hair now that beauticians and barbers are deemed “nonessential”?

As best I can tell, there is a big divide in hair care priority between those who are deemed essential in jobs that require working onsite and those who are staying home. The former are under more pressure to keep up appearances. But both groups include essentially three subgroups: those who are happy to let it all flow, those who try to recreate professional techniques on their own, and those who create entirely new styles to fit the situation.

Go With the Flow

Theses people are doing nothing beyond washing and brushing their hair. The result may be tri-color—for example, dark chestnut coming in, the remnants of highlights, and gray in front or at the temples. Such people may resort to caps or scarves. Over time, ponytails, braids, barrettes, bands, and ties come in handy. And think wigs! They can be ordered online.

Some would claim this choice is tougher for a man to carry off, to the extent that many men are simply shaving their heads. Women are less likely to choose this option.

Choosing to do nothing is sometimes characterized as “giving my hair a break” from chemical treatments and elaborate coiffures.

DIY

Technically, shaving one’s head might be a form of DIY for people who hadn’t already adopted that look. A close alternative is men who have their spouses or partner’s cut their hair, even if they have never cut hair before. Some women opt for this option as well

Some women are cutting their own hair—definitely easier with some styles than others.

But not all households have the basic equipment—hair scissors, clippers, a mirror that allows a steady view of the back of the head. In such situations, what are the alternatives? Think kitchen shears, pinking shears, nail scissors, and safety razors.

Those who color their hair have denuded the shelves of supermarkets and drug stores of home dye. Professionals strongly recommend against DIY color, saying one may severely damage one’s hair. But, hey, it’s only hair. It’ll grow back, right?

A friend suggested to me that I could color the tips of my hair with red food coloring. She said that my hair is so short, it would be cut off soon. It reminds me that when I was in seventh grade a redheaded friend and I experimented with food coloring. She chose green and I chose blue. We (erroneously) thought it would wash right out. So, no red tips. But blue to match my eyes? Maybe.

And that reminds me: so-called temporary hair color is permanent if you have previously had your hair lightened.

DIY may be exceptionally difficult for Black women. The importance of hair care has resulted in a massive industry, worth $2.5 billion at least, including chemical relaxers, braiding services, hair pieces, and so forth. Women may feel uncomfortable wearing “natural” hair, and many more are unable to create their customary look from home.

Rebels

These are the people who have decided hair care is essential and therefore defy the stay at home/social distancing injunctions. Either the client goes to the home of her/his hairdresser or the practitioner comes to the home of the client. Both greatly increase the risk of spreading the virus, of course.

Getting Help

I’m not a YouTube fan, but there are a gazillion (by actual count!) options for videos of home hair care. Recently, salon experts have been posting and advising their clients to take a look. Some salons are delivering professional supplies and equipment to their clients’ homes in sanitized packaging. And some practitioners are setting up video chats with clients to talk them through coloring or braiding their own hair.

Bottom line for writers: How a character responds to the hair care crisis is a clear reflection of personality. Use it!

WHAT’S THE TOILET PAPER PANIC COME TO?

Toilet paper wedding gowns!

Surely everyone out there is aware of the (apparent) worldwide toilet paper shortage. Although people who claim to know say there is plenty of TP to go around, what shoppers actually see are miles of empty shelves. And there’s no denying that the TP panic has led to weirdness.  Lots of weirdness.

Writers note: if anything in this blog is useful for your writing, it’s purely incidental to what I hope is the smile factor. (I won’t be able to reference every individual incident. They’re all over the internet. You can look it up!)

Ingenuity or Desperation

A thief in Eugene, Oregon smashed the entire back window of an SUV to steal two 30-roll cases of TP, along with any miscellaneous valuables within reach. That turns out to be small potatoes. Police in Guilford County recovered a stolen 18-wheeler loaded with over 18,000 pounds of TP.

In Hong Kong thieves held up a supermarket delivery driver and made off with hundreds of rolls. Authorities estimated that the value of the TP was $218 (HK$1700) but could be sold for much more on the black market.

A man in the UK crammed his van so full of scarce paper products that he was over the legal weight limit for his vehicle and had to pay a fine worth more than $370 (GPB 300).

Hoarders and others with a supply have offered TP and other scarce items online at sites like eBay and Facebook Marketplace for extreme prices to such an extent that efforts to curb price-gouging have been put in place. Several customers have had their accounts suspended.

One man jumped ahead of the curve, going to small towns in his area and buying out the TP and hand sanitizer from the shelves of mom-and-pop stores, Dollar Stores, etc., and then offering them online at such excessive prices that he’s been barred and is stuck with a garage full of supplies he cannot sell.

A similar scalper in Australia had his hoard seized by police and donated to local shelters.

Brick and mortar stores have started imposing limits on how many of each item individual shoppers can buy. Once stores moved to control bulk buying—such as limiting the number of packages customers can buy in one day—desperate people took desperate measures. For example, each member of the family going into the store separately to buy the maximum. When Wegman’s limited people to two packages of TP per day, someone bought the TP and then came back ten minutes later wearing a hat and sunglasses and tried to buy more. 

Some people are not happy with the limiting of purchases. Near Richmond, VA, a man arrived at the supermarket check-out with a cart full of paper napkins. When told he could buy only two, he yelled, “F**k you!” then upended the cart and walked out.

The situation has gotten so crazy in some parts of Australia that police are having to guard pallets of toilet paper in stores, handing packages to customers one at a time.

Recently, my endodontist’s receptionist told me that they had locked up their supplies of  toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other items that had begun to disappear. Public restrooms in gas stations, fast food restaurants, and convenience stores have done the same.

Perhaps they should follow the lead of a convenience store worker in Japan. She hung signs with images of eyes and kanji characters in front of the TP to curse the rolls. The symbols imply that anyone pilfering the TP will be hunted down and eaten by a hungry monster. And the pilfering stopped! Never underestimate the power of superstition.

Security cameras were also watching this TP thief at a hotel.

An Internet cafe in Florida posted the following hand-written note in the bathroom: “Stealing toilet paper at this point in time is not funny. I pray that you do not get the virus— But if you do . . . God was watching!” There was no report of the note’s effectiveness.

Once shelves were denuded of TP, people started stocking up on tissues, paper towels, wipes, and napkins. But flushing such things is likely to screw up the plumbing, septic systems, and sewers. City officials in Ankeny, Iowa tweeted the plea to flush only human waste and TP. The city of West Des Moines posted similar pleas not to flush wipes, paper towels, napkins, diapers, feminine hygiene products, socks, dryer sheets, or facial tissue. Johnston, IA, added toothbrushes and toys to the list! 

Iowa isn’t the only place where such warnings are needed. A Tacoma, Washington plumbing company reported an instance of people flushing pieces of T-shirts down the toilet. They routinely give a roll of TP to people who have called them in. 

An Arkansas florist turned his pre-COVID-19 stash of TP into “floral bathroom tributes” just $75 (for about 9 rolls). And TP is becoming a welcome wedding gift.

TP has become such a valuable commodity that retailers are rewarding customers with rolls of it. A pizza restaurant in Milwaukee, offered a roll of TP for every large pizza bought.  Other large restaurants from coast to coast have started similar TP giveaways. And some establishments accept toilet paper in lieu of money!

An Australian newspaper, NT News, included eight blank pages in the middle of the printed pages to be used as TP, complete with cut lines so customers could get the maximum number of squares.

An LA jewelry store decided to use toilet paper as a marketing ploy, as advertised here.

Arcade owners in the UK and Hong Kong have replaced the usual plush toys in claw game machines with rolls of TP. Other similar vending machines offer hand sanitizer and other personal hygiene products to the prize pool.

No doubt, somewhere out there, someone is standing in the median of a roadway holding a sign that says, “Will Work for Toilet Paper.”

On the Flip Side: Acts of Generosity

In Coral Gables, FL, Church by the Glades announced a day and time for people to pick up free toilet paper.

In Summerville, SC, police issued rolls of TP to drivers in lieu of tickets.

NT News, an Australian newspaper, has begun including extra sheets of blank paper in the centerfold, specifically for use as toilet paper.

Traveling/Keller (an Atlanta-based marketing firm) is one of many companies that are temporarily closed. Having enough TP on hand for 1,000 employees, they decided to give it away. Employees threw rolls of TP through the open windows of cars driving by in their “Toilet Paper Tosses” initiative.

On a smaller scale, many people have been offering a roll or two to friends or family in need, going to the store for those who can’t make it out, or donating hygiene products to local homeless and women’s shelters.

The New Currency

Venezualans have experience using toilet paper and diapers as currency, after skyrocketing inflation. It seems the rest of the world may be catching on.

Alternative Methods of… You Know

There is a fatberg under London that is the size of a bus!

There are plenty of other materials with which to maintain your personal hygiene when you don’t feel up to facing the hordes at the stores. Be aware, though: many of these alternatives cannot be flushed. Sewage systems around the world are becoming clogged by “fatbergs” of flushable wipes (that aren’t flushable), paper towels, diaper, sanitary napkins, and all the other alternatives people experimented with.

Stop. Think. 

Do you really need to buy TP right now? Most standard 2-ply, 1000 sheet rolls should last about a week. But for a number tailored to your household, there’s an online calculator for that.

P.S. Police departments around the country are reminding people: Don’t Call 911 If You Run Out Of Toilet Paper. It is not a life-threatening emergency.

What to Do When You Realize You Can’t Return It

Some people have already realized the folly of buying pallets of squished-up trees in preparation for a respiratory illness, but most stores have policies in place refusing returns. Here are some other ideas! (These photos were taken before February 2020.)

Anyone care for a slice of cake?

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Let me be clear, right up front: I hate that we—all around the world—have to endure this pandemic.  But as with everything big and small, it’s fuel for writers.  Nothing ups the stakes like a global pandemic.

There is a long history of authors writing about society-wide epidemics, both real and fictional. One of the earliest examples is the plague in the Epic of Gilgamesh. A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe, is a first-hand account of the Bubonic Plague that devastated London in 1665. More examples of literary illnesses are below some important information from the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

Although you’ve no doubt heard much of what follows, I will nonetheless provide the cautions from the CDC website. According to the CDC, the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, and everyone should TAKE STEPS TO PROTECT HIM/HERSELF.

Clean Your Hands Often

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (twice through the Happy Birthday song) especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. (Remember thumbs, backs of hands, and between fingers.)
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry. 
    • Writers note: at this time, there is a run on hand sanitizer. Suppose your character looks online for a DIY recipe (2/3 cup 99% rubbing alcohol [isopropyl alcohol] or ethanol; 1/3 cup aloe vera gel; 8-10 drops essential oil, optional) and has a panic attack trying to find the ingredients.
    • Writers note: some people are allergic to hand sanitizer and can only use the soap and water method. What would they do if hand washing facilities were not available?
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. 
    • Writers note: on average, people touch their faces 20 times an hour (women typically touch their faces more than men; people with glasses touch their faces more). Consider a non-obsessive/compulsive person trying to follow even these three guidelines. Would thinking about it make them touch their face even more? Or consider a character who chooses not to do these things, or not to do them conscientiously.
Mustache stickers not included
  • If you are NOT sick, you do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a facemask). Facemasks may be in short supply and they should be saved for caregivers. 
    • The two most common types of facemask are those shaped like a rectangular piece of folded paper and those shaped like a cup. The cup-shaped masks are more effective, and they should be reserved for people in the most risk of infection.
    • Writers note: what if someone who needs facemasks can’t get them?
Italians keeping the mandated 1 meter distance

Avoid Close Contact

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. 
    • Writers note: what if the sick person is a spouse or child? Is the child old enough to understand why there are no hugs? Does your character avoid or not? And how does the sick person feel about that?
  • Put distance between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick. The recommended distance is at least 6 feet. 
    • Writers note: what if your character is a health-care provider, first responder, police officer, bus driver, or … ? 
    • Also note: people at higher risk are those with pre-existing conditions (like heart disease, etc.) and anyone 60 or over. What if your character is high risk? 
    • Plot point: what if an otherwise healthy characters becomes an unwitting carrier for the virus, spreading it to someone who would otherwise have been safe?

Take Steps to Protect Others

Stay Home If You’re Sick

  • Stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care. Learn what to do if you are sick.
  • Call ahead: If you have a medical appointment, call the healthcare provider and tell them that you have or may have COVID-19. This will help the healthcare provider’s office take steps to keep other people from getting infected or exposed.
  • Isolate yourself: people who are mildly ill with COVID-19 are able to isolate at home during their illness. You should restrict activities outside your home.
  • Stay at home until instructed to leave: Patients with confirmed COVID-19 should remain under home isolation precautions until the risk of secondary transmission to others is thought to be low.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider:  The decision to discontinue home isolation precautions should be made on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with healthcare providers and state and local health departments.
  • Avoid public areas:  Do not go to work, school, or public areas.
  • Avoid public transportation:  Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis. 
    • Writers note: tension points for employed people (and/or partners and children) are obvious. And what about childcare? And school children who rely on breakfast/lunch programs?
  • But for writers, staying home could be handy writing time!

Stay Away From Others 

Onions are a flu vaccine?
  • Lock yourself in: as much as possible, you should stay in a specific room and away from other people in your home. Also, you should use a separate bathroom, if available.
  • Limit contact with pets & animals: You should restrict contact with pets and other animals while you are sick with COVID-19, just like you would around other people. Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus.
  • When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick. If you are sick with COVID-19, avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food. If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with pets and wear a facemask. 
    • Writers note: how will your character get food, medicine, toilet paper, … ?

Cover Coughs and Sneezes

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Throw used tissues in the trash.
  • Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
    • If soap and water are not readily available, clean your hands with a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. 
  • Writers note: consider a character who is bullied or shunned because of seasonal allergies.
  • Writer’s note: in many countries, blowing one’s nose in public is considered as rude as farting loudly in church. How does a character in such a country stem the drip safely?
  • If you are sick:  You should wear a facemask when you are around other people (e.g., sharing a room or vehicle) and before you enter a healthcare provider’s office.
    • If you are not able to wear a facemask (for example, because it causes trouble breathing), then you should do your best to cover your coughs and sneezes, and people who are caring for you should wear a facemask if they enter your room.  Learn what to do if you are sick. 
    • Writers note: not just any facemask. It must be one that hugs the bridge of the nose and the area around the mouth. So what if a sick person uses the wrong type of facemask?
  • Monitor your symptoms
  • Seek medical attention: seek prompt medical attention if your illness is worsening (e.g., difficulty breathing).
  • Alert health department: ask your healthcare provider to call the local or state health department. Persons who are placed under active monitoring or facilitated self-monitoring should follow instructions provided by their local health department or occupational health professionals, as appropriate.
Pro athletes have said that playing in empty stadiums is eerie and not much fun.

Clean and Disinfect

  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks. 
    • Writers note: would your character do this or not? Or interfere with someone else doing it?
  • If surfaces are dirty, clean them:  Use detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
Cleaning and disinfecting products are already becoming hard to find

Pandemics Past and Present (Fiction and Non-Fiction)

As promised, here are some of the other authors who have written about illness sweeping through society and the ripples that spread out.

  • World War Z by Max Brooks
    • Unlike most zombie narratives, this book follows the entire course of a zombie plague, from Patient Zero to the eventual reconstruction of society. The “historical narratives” are provided by characters from every background and every part of the world. For an extra amazing experience, check out the audio-book, with actors from many countries providing a range of voices and accents.
  • Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
    • Set during the Bubonic Plague in 1666, this is a historical fiction account of a rural English village that quarantined itself to prevent the spread of plague to surrounding areas. The characters and most of the their interactions are fictional, but the story of the quarantined village is true.
  • The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
    • Following the history of Zambia from the end of the colonial era, the author covers in haunting detail the toll that HIV/AIDS has had on the country. She writes from unfortunately first-hand experience of losing an entire generation of Zambians.
  • A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
    • Defoe published this account of London in 1665-1666 as a warning to later readers. He included lists of how many people died in each parish, how entire households were forcibly quarantined, the morning dead carts being pulled through the streets (and what was likely to happen if you fell asleep on the sidewalk!), and lots of individual stories of the people around him in London.
  • The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
    • Young adult fantasy novels and horrific plagues are not common bedfellows (bookfellows?), but Levine has included a twist on the typical hero’s journey, a fabulous protagonist, and interesting side-quests. Still, behind all the heroism and romance is the inescapable dread and death that affects every member of society.
  • Survivors by Terry Nation
    • This was a television series in the 1970s, made into a novel by Terry Grant, and then made into another television series based on the novel in the 2000s. Except for the very beginning, Survivors deals with the aftermath of a pandemic that wiped out most of the world population; characters have to adapt to a society with no law or order.
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
    • This short novel is set around the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and focuses on a young woman falling in love with a soldier, as both influenza and World War I threaten to destroy their entire world.
Patients coming off a recently docked cruise ship and going directly into quarantine

Bottom line for writers: any calamity can be good for writers—both fiction and non-fiction writers. Consider the daily news: quarantined cruise ships, all passengers aboard; quarantines for nursing homes and senior living facilities; schools and colleges closing. And the spin-off of people preparing to be quarantined, causing panic buying of hand sanitizer, disinfectants, toilet paper, frozen foods, disposable diapers, etc., etc., etc.

This is a prescription I can definitely follow!