CNBC Reporter Ylan Mui with her kids.
Source: Ylan Mui
The letter that arrived in my mailbox from the local public health department sounded definitive:
“This person has been cleared to return to normal activities without restrictions,” it read.
I received it three weeks after I got sick from the coronavirus, and it was supposed to serve as an official declaration that I had won the battle against Covid-19. The buzzer sounded. Game over, my clenched gloved hand raised in the air!
But the outcome doesn’t feel quite so obvious to me. How can I return to “normal activities” when almost all of those activities are still shut down? What “restrictions” are now safe for me to abandon — especially considering there’s debate on what those restrictions should be in the first place? Does this mean I can ditch the mask at the grocery store? Or does it just give me permission to leave the house?
I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., which the White House has flagged as one of the next potential hot spots. Across the country, more than 580,000 people have been infected with the virus in America, according to data from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. More than 23,000 have died.
But nearly twice that number — more than 40,000 infected patients — have recovered. And like me, many are trying to figure out what comes next.
As our nation’s leaders begin to contemplate when and how to reopen the economy, those of us who have survived the virus could hold the key. President Donald Trump is set to launch an “Open the Country Council” on Tuesday, and the administration is reportedly hoping that at least some businesses can resume operations on May 1. But Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health has cautioned that the economy won’t turn back on like a light switch, while Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell warned against a “false start.”
Whatever the date, the arc of the rebound will depend not only on broad public policy decisions in Washington, but also individual choices of Americans about their own next steps. And I’m quickly learning there’s no road map for my recovery.
My symptoms started about a month ago: achiness and exhaustion so severe that I could barely get out of bed. A dry, hacking cough that made my chest sore. And a stubborn fever that reared its head every night for two weeks.
It was the sickest I have been as an adult. That’s saying a lot. As a mom to three young children, I have battled some pretty nasty bugs. After six days, I finally was able to get tested. A week later, my results came back positive. By that time, my husband had fallen ill, and the kids all complained of similar symptoms. Our doctors told us to just assume that everyone had it and stay at home until we all felt better.
I consider us fortunate: None of us had to be hospitalized. I still have a mild cough but mostly feel like myself. My husband can exercise again. The kids throw the Frisbee in the yard nearly every afternoon. My family recovered.
While we were sick, we had to isolate ourselves from the world. All the experts agree on that much. But it’s not clear when we are supposed to reenter society, much less how.
My primary-care physician told me we could start leaving the house after three days with no fever — in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the public health department didn’t send me a clearance letter until my eighth day without a fever. And the guidelines from the World Health Organization are even more stringent, calling for two weeks of quarantine after my symptoms resolve.
My family decided to play it safe and stayed holed up for the full two weeks. Now that that has ended, I feel like there’s no guidance at all. We’re just winging it, making up the rules of recovery as we go.
“The frustrating thing, of course, is there’s no answer,” said Dr. Jeremy Faust, who works in emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
In the best-case scenario, he told me, my family and I now have the super power of immunity. The antibodies in our bloodstream mean that we can ditch the masks. My kids could be the first to return to school and day care, the first ones back on the playground. My husband and I could venture out for date night at one of our favorite restaurants without fear.
We could be the start of the herd.
“You might assume that people like you … are great resources,” Faust said. “Go shopping. Do the stuff we need to do. Take public transportation.”
Intellectually, I know this is the medicine the economy needs. JPMorgan is forecasting a devastating 40 percent decline in GDP this quarter. Economists estimate the unemployment rate is about 13 percent, the worst reading since the Great Depression.
But personally? I don’t feel superhuman. I still feel scared.
One of the key metrics to watch is “consumer confidence in the public health response,” said Melissa Kearney, an economics professor at the University of Maryland. “That’s not a usual economic indicator.”
Because my husband and children were not approved for coronavirus tests, I am not totally sure that they had it — especially the children, who experienced mild symptoms. To put it another way, it’s possible that they had some other virus, which would mean they’re still vulnerable.
That’s why new blood tests for immunity-granting antibodies are so important, Faust said. Then I could know for sure that my whole family has the weapons we need to fight the disease. The CDC has begun rolling out what are known as serology tests, and some private companies are reportedly using them as well.
But no one has reached out to us about them — not our doctors or our county health department. I have no idea how to get one for myself, much less obtain them for my family.
And even if we have immunity, no one knows how long it would last. On Monday, the World Health Organization warned that it’s unclear whether recovered patients could get sick again from the virus. That may be especially true for my children. Since their cases were not as serious as mine, they may be more susceptible to reinfection.
“My guess is you are not contagious,” Faust said. “The real money is when did your kids get it and how long were their courses?”
Navigating a new normal
So while federal and state officials deal with the big picture, our family is trying to navigate our own new normal.
For the first time in a month, we decided to get takeout for dinner. But my husband donned a mask and gloves to pick it up, as much to protect others as to protect ourselves.
The Easter bunny (aka Grandma) managed a contactless delivery of the children’s basket. But we’re still worried about coming too close to her, even by social distancing standards, so we just waved at them from the driveway.
Then there’s the pile of Amazon returns sitting in my dining room. Is it safe to return them yet? Or could I be seeding the virus into the shipping system, undermining the warehouse workers who are already worried about their safety?
I fully acknowledge that mine are small problems. But they underscore how the virus has forced us to rethink the minutiae of our daily lives, how many tiny decisions need to be made before the big problems can be solved — not just for us, but for the circle of family and friends around us, and the friends and family around them, and so on.
In fact, there’s a book on my nightstand right now that I had recommended to my neighbor. Could I loan it to her? What if I just stuck it in her mailbox? Heck, would she even want it?
If I gave it to you, would you take it?