Living in the COVID-19 Capital of the US
By Phuong and Ayumi
On March 12, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) to be a pandemic. In light of the rapid progression of the pandemic, and especially in the presence of a lot of public anxiety, we felt the need to post our experiences living in Seattle, the “COVID capital” of the US. As we are not experts on virology and epidemiology, please look for information about the disease from resources such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO.
Ayumi: Labs have been encouraged to list necessary personnel as ‘essential staff’ so that they still have access to buildings and lab spaces during a school-wide closure. Non-essential staff are encouraged to stay home. This may include rotation students, undergrads, and anyone who doesn’t have an ongoing project that must be immediately handled. I am listed as essential staff so that I can complete ongoing projects. There was talk of halting experiments, but to suddenly stop at this point would cause significant loss of data, materials, and funds. My lab goes about the day very carefully. Luckily, we do not share a large cubicle space and offices hold 1-3 people each. This reduces the amount of contact we have with others. We have been practicing social distancing. I had an entire conversation with a lab member and he was 20 feet away from me. I was having a chat with another lab member and didn’t realize I was stepping closer to her. She politely told me I was less than 6 feet away from her. It’s a faux pas at the moment! I took two big steps back and we carried on with our conversation. There are some amazing people in my lab who have health conditions which would put them at significant risk of harm if they were to get COVID-19, so we are all being extra cautious.
I take the bus to campus, and when I get off the bus I rub my hands with hand sanitizer. The first thing I do when I get to my building is wash my hands thoroughly. Before and after I am in the lab running experiments, I wash my hands. Before and after I eat lunch, I wash my hands. I can’t stress enough how important this is! Even when there isn’t a pandemic, we should all be washing our hands (I can't believe this needs to be said). I’ve invested in a good hand moisturizer; regular hand washing can be drying.
I only go to the lab when necessary. If I don't have experiments to run for the day, I work from home. This usually involves reading scientific articles, writing, and drinking lots of coffee, so I can’t complain too much. If I do have experiments planned, I only stay as long as necessary and then promptly leave. We have been encouraged to wrap up our current experiments, and if possible, to not start any new ones until further notice. My experiments take 2 weeks to finish, but soon I won’t have any other lab work to do. According to r/gradschool, there are grad students at many universities who feel significant pressure to stay in the lab through this crisis. I am very fortunate to say I haven’t felt any pressure to stay in the lab. I simply want to get my work done as thoroughly and efficiently as possible,without putting anyone in harm’s way. My PI has encouraged us to stay home if we have any concerns, and for that I am grateful.
Phuong: Our program offers a system called ‘rotations,’ where first year graduate students have the opportunity to work in a different lab every quarter to determine our future lab homes. Fortunately, my rotation project was already winding down, and I had presented my research data just days prior to the official announcement of UW’s shutdown. My PI (and many other PIs at UW) have been encouraging their students to pause their work and stay home if possible. I am grateful to be part of a community that understands the health risks and prioritizes students’ and staff members’ health. My PI sent the lab an absolutely hilarious email titled ‘aaaa chu,’ where he asked all of his lab members to stay home. He is older, and out of respect for him, only the people with time sensitive research are going into the lab. Research is definitely hit hard by this pandemic, but we all support each other in making sure that we are prioritizing wellbeing above all else. Grad students and undergrads notify each other whenever news breaks of another student falling ill or showing any symptoms. We all make sure to be transparent to each other if we are feeling unwell. Many of the students who don’t have essential or time sensitive experiments are staying home. The PI I will be rotating with next quarter (keep posted to see how next quarter’s rotation will pan out, in light of this chaos!) has set up video conferences for each lab member to optimize ways of getting research done at home, rather than in lab. For the most part, every PI I have heard of at UW has been very understanding, and again, I am grateful to be part of an empathetic community.
Phuong: The University of Washington announced that all classes and exams were to be taken remotely off-campus starting March 9, 2020 due to concerns about COVID-19. Given that there were still two weeks left of the quarter (including finals), you can imagine what an adjustment this was. I still had 2 assignments, 2 papers, and 1 final exam to take! Luckily for me, I have always been the type to prefer studying at home over the library or at school. That being said, here are a couple of things I do to help myself concentrate on work at home:
Clean my workplace: It’s so distracting to work somewhere surrounded by clutter! Having switched to online classes was a wake-up call for me to finally organize the mess that was my desk. Clear desk, clear mind!
Designate a study area: One of the worst things about working from home is that...you work from home. As a student, something I struggle with is having a work-life balance. Sometimes research can follow me home. It’s even harder when you’re practically ordered to stay home. I’ve reorganized my apartment so that I have a ‘study corner’ where I restrict myself to working only at my desk. Desk is for studying, everywhere else is for Netflix ;)
Study at the right times: Not having to physically be in class doesn’t mean I can sleep in until 1PM every day. I still have to attend lectures. I still have assignments to turn in. I make sure to wake and work during normal hours to maintain a semblance of work-life balance.
Walk: Fresh air is good once in awhile to clear your head, ya know? I try to stick to low traffic areas, and I walk with a mask on.
Meal prep: Here’s the thing. I’m a huge snacker, especially when studying and especially when I have snacks available to me at home 24/7. Meal prepping ensures that I have easy-to-access food that I can easily prepare rather than grabbing the nearest chip bag. Stay tuned for future blog posts about meal prepping and some great recipes from us ;)
Hopefully some of these things might help anyone else who is taking virtual classes! It’s definitely a different experience taking classes virtually, and it can take some time to transition into figuring out a studying plan that works for you. These are just things that I have found helpful, but if you have any other tips that you like to use, please share with us in the comments!
Ayumi: I was already finished with most of my school work by the time classes were cancelled. I only had a paper revision and a final left. When UW announced that finals would be online, I'll be honest; I kept my fingers crossed and hoped that my professor (who has disdain for technology) would cancel our final.
Cut to: Ayumi procrastinating and not studying all weekend.
As luck would have it, my professor cancelled the final.
I finished up that paper revision and thus completed my second quarter of grad school. The president of UW announced that classes will remain online until April 24th. I am not sure how this will affect the courses I’ve signed up for. We will be hearing more about this mandate next week. I for one am interested to see how professors will handle going fully online!
Ayumi: I am not so concerned for myself as I am for my friends and family. My mom is immunocompromised, and I worry every day that she will get sick because of someone who doesn’t care if they expose others. I have wonderful people in my life who are older, have diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, or some other health condition. When I am going about my day, I try to keep them in mind while I am taking precautions. Many of them don’t live in Seattle, so I imagine I am preventing the disease from spreading to someone else’s mom, dad, relatives, teachers, or friends.
There was talk this past Friday about someone in our department being sick, and they are currently being tested for COVID-19. We are all holding our breath and hoping they do not have the virus. Confirmation would likely lead to our labs closing their doors. A labmate informed me that they weren’t feeling great and would keep me updated on if they just had allergies or if they were developing a cold. Because of these two concerns, I haven’t left my apartment this weekend and had to cancel plans with friends. As of today, my labmate does not have any symptoms but I am still taking precautions. It’s better safe than sorry!
A number of plans this weekend have been cancelled. Our program’s annual Visitor’s Weekend was cancelled. Visitor’s Weekend is when prospective students are flown out to our campus for a few days. They meet with faculty and current grad students, and get to explore the city. It is a right of passage for many students, but it is not worth the risk of sending these visitors back with an unwelcome stowaway. In lieu of an in-person visit, we are doing Zoom meetings with prospective students. My high school math teacher and his wife were planning on having dinner with me, but they have cancelled out concern for their health. Two lab members from my undergrad labs were planning on visiting, but they had to cancel their flight.
Finally, I want to address some of the things I’ve seen on social media. Seattle is not some lawless wasteland of marauders trying to steal toilet paper. I’ve seen many acts of kindness, and I’ve yet to see anyone fighting over supplies. This certainly happens--violence in times of panic can be common and troubling. But there are plenty of good, calm people out there. Despite the outbreak, life goes on. Grocery stores have a few items missing, but for the most part remain stocked. People proceed in an orderly fashion to cashiers. They say “please” and “thank you”. Friends still meet up for coffee, they just sit six feet apart and do their best to not touch their faces. There are fewer people on the buses these days, and we keep our distance as best we can.
To the people who believe everyone is overreacting and point to outbreaks such as H1N1 and Ebola: the goal is to have people believe, in hindsight, that we all overreacted. According to the CDC, H1N1 killed over 12,000 Americans in a year. That number would have surely been higher if we had not taken extra precautions. Ebola could have easily killed many more if the world was not on high alert. These “overreactions” are what will save many people during this outbreak. Take it seriously. Not ‘steal toilet paper from a stranger in the store’ serious, but enough that you recognize the severity of the consequences if we are not vigilant. Public health officials are in a terrible position. If they successfully curb outbreaks by informing the public, they are accused of causing a panic. If the public does not listen and many people die, they are accused of not properly warning the public. They can’t win! The only victory is in saving human lives. So please, listen to public health experts.
Phuong: My plans this weekend have definitely been affected by this pandemic. As Ayumi mentioned, I am more concerned for the people I interact with than myself. My PI is older, and my boyfriend has asthma and works with immunocompromised people. I have many loved ones who are immunocompromised and are at risk populations, so I try my best to be responsible when interacting with others. I have pretty much stayed cooped up in my apartment all weekend and plan to continue to limit interactions with others as much as I can. Since it is finals week anyway, I suppose I don’t have an excuse to procrastinate on my assignments anymore! I had plans to attend a Seattle food truck festival this week that I had been excited for since I heard about it a month ago. However, given the circumstances, I’ve decided to cancel my plans and to practice precautionary measures staying away from large crowds of people. During my time at home, I’m making sure to support local businesses who are hurting right now (my own parents own a small business, so I understand how hard it can be for small businesses to make ends meet during these times). I order take-out whenever I can, and always from local restaurants in the area. In light of the situation, many restaurants all over Seattle have taken measures to increase employee education on sanitation and handling, and to ensure that employees are not coming sick to work. Some restaurants have also taken this opportunity to pivot to delivery-only menus, so you can support them through this method as well. This pandemic presents a very difficult challenge for restaurants and local businesses as people become more and more anxious, so I am happy to support them in any way I can. I encourage those to go shopping or order food at local businesses to support them during these hard times.
As more anxiety grows over COVID, I have seen a lot of support in my community to respond to it. Grad students and lab members have kept each other informed about any symptoms they are experiencing. Just yesterday, I heard from someone in my cohort that someone from our program is being tested for COVID and experiencing respiratory symptoms. We are waiting to hear back, hoping the person is okay. During times like these, it is critical for us to be transparent and support one another to prevent spreading infection. This is especially true since many of us work in the same lab spaces or attend the same classes. Several departments have canceled visitation days to accepted applicants in response to this pandemic, and have instead moved the recruitment events to online. This is definitely the best call, as it is imperative that visitors to UW don’t get infected and proceed to bring the infection back home.
It’s important for us to remember to stay calm, and be responsible citizens practicing sanitation and health guidelines. Most importantly, please remember to stay safe and practice health guidelines outlined by the CDC. There is a lot of miscommunication out there, Helicuties, so please try to be cognizant of where you are getting your news. Stay calm, and wash your hands!
What is spreading alarmingly faster than the virus is the racism against Asian communities, which is most often rooted in fear and misconceptions. The virus happened to have originated from a province in China, just like how the swine flu originated from the US or Zika Virus from Brazil. We encourage you to be mindful of your thoughts and actions as they play a tremendous role in perpetuating very harmful stereotypes. A pandemic does not mean you should forget your humanity, please treat others with respect and empathy.