It was like living at the edge of chaos: The day coronavirus came home

(Solomon Jones for WHYY)

(Solomon Jones for WHYY)

The day coronavirus came home was unremarkable except for one fact. It was my wife’s birthday.

I’d neglected to grab a card for her in the days leading up to March 20, but this year, unlike in previous years, I had a legitimate excuse. The world was turning upside down. Malls were closed. There were new government restrictions being implemented daily. People, including my wife, were afraid. It was like living at the edge of chaos.

Purchasing a birthday card for my wife would provide a little slice of normalcy, so I took a slight detour on the drive home from my job as a morning radio host, and pulled into the parking lot of a Rite Aid on Ogontz Avenue, just five minutes from my house. I’d visited the store a thousand times before, but this time, there was something different about it. There were tents in the parking lot, white men standing around in dark glasses, a car emblazoned with the name of a security company, and a chain link fence surrounding it all. I knew that this was somehow connected to coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19. Now that this site was being erected in my community, coronavirus was connected to me.

The site, which officially opened at 9 a.m. on March 23, will provide drive-through testing. Only first responders and health care workers who are providing direct patient care will be eligible to be tested for the virus there. Operating from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, the site will serve as a pilot, according to a statement. Rite Aid is providing the service as part of the White House COVID-19 Response Working Group in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human services.

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It’s strange to see the trappings of an emergency health care intervention so close to home. But more than that, it’s unnerving, because the news surrounding coronavirus is so grim.

The day before this new testing site opened, there were more than 32,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States. At least 400 people had died, and ever more ominous predictions of increased fatalities were being broadcast ‘round the clock on seemingly every network.

Perhaps that’s why it was no surprise when Philadelphia, like other localities across the nation, was placed on lockdown after a stay-at-home order by Mayor Jim Kenney. That order was instituted the same day the new testing site opened. According to a statement from the mayor’s office, the stay-at-home order prohibits “all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a single household or living unit … except for the limited purposes permitted by this Emergency Order.”

In addition, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has shut down non-essential businesses across the state. That order, in conjunction with the mayor’s order, is designed to keep people from spreading the virus through close contact. Experts warn that such contact could create a sudden surge in coronavirus cases that could overwhelm the medical system and increase the death toll.

Death toll. Those two words seemed distant and abstract before I drove into a parking lot just minutes from my home and saw a test site for novel coronavirus. But now the virus, and all that comes with it, is a part of my community, a part of my experience, and a part of my life.

Coronavirus came home for me with the presence of that site. I only hope it won’t come closer than that.

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