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Coronavirus Contract Tracing Chaos After Our Backyard Dinner

It started with a text. Or perhaps it was the phone call. Or perhaps its more accurate to say it really started the week before, when my husband mentioned that his cousin S., who lives far away, would be visiting the area and wanted to come over for dinner in our Hudson, N.Y., backyard, and I paused.

“Don’t forget, my parents come next week,” I said.

But by the time the day came for S.’s visit, the desire for normalcy had pushed past thoughts of safety, and she arrived wearing a mask. She spent the next couple of hours in our backyard eating takeout Thai and talking without a mask. Then she put it back on as she left.

That was on a Wednesday. My parents pulled into town on Sunday. We got the text on the following Tuesday that S., who asked that only her first initial be used, had tested positive for the coronavirus. Unbeknown to us, she had taken a test two days before she ate in our backyard, and now, more than a week later, the results had come back.

In that moment, all of the months of pandemic headlines converged into a single vanishing point. This was a moment that required strong, clear guidance.

But the two pillars of the Covid-19 response, testing and contact tracing, are a well-documented mess in the United States. It was left to us — the 17 people whom S. had come into direct contact with between the date of the test and the result, and the many more who had come in contact with us and then with others — to do it ourselves. That came to almost 70 people.

It’s worth exploring our time as citizen contact tracers to get a sense of what is happening across the country, and what will continue to happen, and why it is likely to get worse, as schools and churches and bars and restaurants snap open and close while the virus continues to fester. My own family is white and privileged; we have access to doctors and sick days and smartphones. I can’t imagine how much worse our situation would be without those things.

When I first heard the news about S. testing positive on Tuesday afternoon, my mind immediately spun. Could we have transmitted the virus to others? Although my husband and I and probably our children had Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic and may have immunity, the science is far from settled about how immunity works or if you can be infectious. And we had seen plenty of people since S.’s visit.

We have two babysitters, Alicia and Tami, who come into our house at different times during the day to watch our young children, and they both live with people who have compromised immune systems. Not only that, on Thursday, the day after we had seen S., a friend from Brooklyn had come up for lunch in our backyard. That evening, we had gone to a drive-in movie with two other friends, Antonia and Bradley. On Friday, the same couple had Alicia babysit for their 2-year-old.

And then, of course, there were my parents, both in their 70s. My father has diabetes. They have been extremely careful, and in my mistaken idea that having dinner with my husband’s cousin outside without masks was no big deal, I had jeopardized their health.

But not just theirs. My babysitter Alicia’s mother, who also has diabetes, works as an assistant for a close friend of ours in her 80s. That friend lives with a partner who is in her 60s. They are all now quarantining themselves, as are a smattering of other people with whom they have been in close contact. Alicia and her mother immediately went to get tested, as did Antonia’s family, but results wouldn’t come back for five to seven days. But because symptoms typically appear within four to five days of exposure, we opted not to get tested because of the delays in getting results.

At the same time, my friend Antonia, doing the right thing, told her son’s day care about his potential exposure, and he was promptly barred from returning to day care for 14 days or until he got a negative test result. “I’m so sorry,” I texted weakly, “2020 is the worst.”

The next day brought more confusion. First, S. took a second test, this time one that provides a rapid result, and it came up negative. Perhaps optimistically, she texted the group on Wednesday and said that based on the negative tests of her family and the opinion of her doctor, it was very possible that the first test was a false positive.

Then our 8-month-old daughter came down with a fever and some diarrhea. These are the symptoms of most childhood illnesses. They are also symptoms of Covid-19. It seemed impossible to imagine that she had the disease — she had gotten sick with the rest of our family in March — but we were not able to get tested then, and she had not had an antibody test as my husband and I had later, though we assumed she had it because we did.

So again, we were back to circular conversations about potential odds of infection. My parents had been hugging and kissing her for the past four days, as had our babysitters and, by extension, everyone they came in contact with. My volley of text messages started again.

In the chaos of 2020 America, we are left to seek out wisdom wherever we can. And with conflicting messages — the president saying one thing and most public health experts saying something quite different — we have been left to follow our own internal compasses.

Alicia got tested and stayed home. Tami, my other babysitter, didn’t feel the need for a test; the risk of exposure seemed small to her. My physician father thought that if he had been exposed, well, nothing could change that. Our pediatrician sighed empathically as I told the rambling story and advised me to focus on treating my daughter. Without fast, accurate testing, she said, she was being forced to give advice blindfolded, with her hands tied behind her back.

Now it’s Thursday. More text messages, more questions. Should my parents leave immediately or has the die been cast? Both babysitters will be paid for the rest of the week — but for how long after that?

My mother, as I type this, is taking our son on a walk down the block. She won’t come in contact with anyone, but should we be strictly quarantining now, no outside activities at all? What is paranoid and what is reasonable behavior? I know that by revealing what we did and didn’t do, I am opening myself up to criticism for not taking the safest route at all times. And that criticism is probably justified. Certainly, much of it is currently playing in a loop in my head.

At the same time, there is a vacuum that should have been filled months ago. We should have contact tracers, not just my husband’s worried cousin and her phone. We should have clear protocols. We should have faster results from testing. We should have … something.

We could live in President Trump’s fantasy of out of sight, out of mind. If S. had not gotten tested, no one would be concerned. But because we have that one fact — that her initial test came back positive — I am left to try to comprehend the meaning behind another fact, that a week after we saw S., my baby has a fever and stomach trouble.

The next few days will be filled with uncertainty as we wait for the virus to appear — or not — in the most vulnerable of my family and friends. Until my parents and the 70 or so other people now joined by text stay healthy for 14 days, it won’t be clear whether this was a false alarm or the beginning of another, worse narrative.

As texts and phone calls with news of other positive tests for the coronavirus go out again and again across America, others will be put in similar positions of anger, pain and doubt, and some percentage of those people will end up in a hospital. This spring, as the curtain dropped on New York City, we were alone and frightened in our apartment. It’s hard to believe that five months or so later, we are all in roughly the same position.

Reyhan Harmanci is the deputy head of programming at Gimlet Media.

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