Traveling On The Verge Of A Pandemic: A Graduate Student’s Visit to D.C. For Hill Day
Japanese cherry trees were gifted to America by Japan as a sign of friendship in 1912. Planted around Washington D.C., these trees bloom and release their sweet scent for only a few weeks in the Spring. There is no better time to visit Washington D.C. than during this blossoming. So, imagine my disappointment when I arrive in the capitol city and I am immediately confined to my hotel room.
I left for Washington D.C. when there were few cases of COVID-19, but my university had sent out warnings the night before my flight on March 7 that domestic travel was strongly discouraged. I was going to Washington to discuss science policy and animal research with congressmen, my meetings had been booked, and there was no sign of cancellation. Then, Senator Ted Cruz cancelled his appointment (I later found out he was self-quarantined), Italy went into lockdown, and international flights were being cancelled, and people on the airplane were obsessively rubbing on hand sanitizer and wiping their tray tables with alcohol wipes. My Uber driver said that their stores ran out of toilet paper (just like back home in sunny San Antonio) and she carried antibacterial wipes to clean between rides. This was getting real. While I had arrived a few days earlier to sightsee, I decided to quarantine myself in my hotel room until the meetings. I saw happy people skipping down the street while I slowly ate my room service meals with discontent.
On “Hill Day,” I took an Uber in lieu of the subway, trying to minimize my contact with potentially sick people. To no avail. In both the Senate and the House, my meetings in tight rooms included sniffling and sweating staff members who were obviously sick and trying to push through the day as if there wasn’t a global pandemic around the corner. Gross. Many congressmen had started trying to quell the spread beyond the “no handshakes” policy.
Herein lies the problem. I don’t know how many people were just ill from a cold or allergies and how many had the dreaded coronavirus. No one knows. There aren’t enough tests. The last time I checked, there were only 58 people tested in all of Bexar county (population 1.9 million). At the time of writing, many people are having trouble getting tested (aside from celebrities, politicians, and athletes who can afford it). As a precaution, I self-quarantined once I got back home. Many people are asymptomatic carriers, and if I picked up the virus from Congress or the airplane, I didn’t want to be responsible for spreading it. This only compounds the problem. My peers and I are terrified for our elderly parents who think this is no big deal since there are so few people who have been confirmed with the virus. It’s hard to explain to them that this may be worse than what we see on the surface due to the lack of testing and the number of asymptomatic carriers. Videos of Italy’s obituaries have surfaced, showing pages and pages of victims (see the video here). This is real.
Sitting at home, working from my desk, I worry about my peers as well. Recent reports have mentioned that younger adults, between the ages of 20 to 40, who have no underlying conditions have shown up in the ICU and as low as 1 in 5 may require hospitalization. In labs across the country, PIs, admins, and other staff have already started to self-quarantine and work from home. Many graduate student and postdocs are working frantically to tie up their research as a total shutdown looms, although the option to work from home is mostly decided on a per lab basis, determined independently by PIs rather than direction from university leaders.
While this may work in the short-term, the transmission of the virus has already begun and the risk must thoughtfully be weighed on finishing one more western blot or one more PCR versus escalating the pandemic that may overwhelm our healthcare system and our mortuaries. We may be weeks away from having pages of obituaries filling our local newspapers like we have seen in Italy. My hope is that we can work together to mitigate the spread of this novel virus so that by the time the Japanese cherry trees bloom next spring, I can walk around D.C. in confidence that the pandemic is no longer a threat.
About the Author
Angie Olson Dorigatti, a student in the Biology of Aging discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program. She is a graduate student in Dr. Veronica Galvan’s lab where she is working on research related to Alzheimer’s Disease at The Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies. This trip to Washington D.C. is part of her work as an ASPET fellow.