Photo by Photograph by Joe Deegan
“The surest way to provoke an immediate return to total lockdown,” says nurse Mary Ketchem, “will be for people to stop social distancing. The death rate will skyrocket.”
On the rare occasions that he leaves his home now, Robert, who wishes to remain anonymous, notices many people failing to maintain social distancing. It concerns him, because he has two underlying medical conditions that make him especially vulnerable to the ravages of Covid-19. Several years ago, at age 57, he retired from a State of California supervisory job in the field of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.
Mandryna, iStock, GettyImages
The risk of being exposed to the coronavirus makes Robert wary of the latest moves in San Diego to open businesses further. Many are saying now that a revived economy is just as important as beating Covid. According to Robert, however, “public health and safety has to be the priority. The economy takes second place.”
Opponents to the extent of lockdown we’ve experienced often charge that we never closed up business when flu epidemics came along, as happened in 2017-18, when 60,000 Americans died. But we’ve been living with coronavirus for only three months, and 75,000 Americans have died already. “Research has shown,” argues Robert, “that the virus is a lot more contagious than flu strains.”
“Given their large populations, California and San Diego have done a good job keeping the numbers of Covid cases relatively low. And the reason is that we put lockdowns in place earlier than most other states,” says Robert. He thinks that to break out of the lockdowns now would severely jeopardize what has been accomplished here.
Of the three nurses I spoke to, Marie Krivitz is the most supportive of opening up business and rolling back the lockdown, at least minimally. “Actually,” she says, “I’m on the fence.” She worries about people’s mental health.
That’s the message Mary Ketchem wants people to heed as businesses are opening up. Ketchem works as a nurse for Sharp Memorial Hospital in Kearny Mesa. She understands the need to open but is glad that it will be done slowly in San Diego, “in tiers.” A recent story she heard about a group of friends having house parties in Chicago horrified her. “The surest way to provoke an immediate return to total lockdown,” she says, “will be for people to stop social distancing. The death rate will skyrocket.”
Ketchem is one of three Sharp Hospital nurses I spoke with regarding the advisability of businesses and their employees getting back to work. Not one of them totally opposes the opening, as long as it remains slow and measured. Rather, they each emphasize the need for people to continue to social distance, wear masks in public, wash their hands afterward, and stay home as much as possible.
“Covid is not a flu,” says Angela Pamintuan, an ICU nurse. “I’ve cared for plenty of flu patients, too, and Covid is much worse than the flu. It’s a beast.”
Ketchem’s primary assignment at Sharp is to prepare patients for surgery, including elective surgeries that the Covid tragedy has sidelined temporarily. The preparation includes some “detective” work, she says, to make sure no hidden conditions pose too great a risk for the operation. Prospective patients must be tested for coronavirus, too.
To those who want to rush back into the pre-Covid normal so they can save their old lifestyles, Ketchem answers: “You can get a new job if you ever have to. But now I see people in their thirties dying. It’s very disturbing. Americans have little patience and short attention spans.”
Perhaps we find the old Jack Benny joke about the robber who holds him up in an alley so funny because we are all a little conflicted ourselves. The robber aims a gun at Benny and demands, “Your money or your life.” Pressed again after a pregnant pause, Benny says, “I’m thinking it over.”
Tony Daniels is a partner in The Barbecue Pit on University Avenue in North Park. He is about as hardnosed as you can be in wanting to strictly continue the lockdown which, he tells me, has caused his company to lose 80 percent of its business. He says “I don’t think our dining room should open just yet.”
Worried about mental health
Ketchem’s colleague, Marie Krivitz is assigned to pre-op as well, although her job focuses more on what patients can expect in the progress of their treatment.
Often, both Ketchem and Krivitz leave their usual location in the outpatient pavilion to serve on the Light Strike team that uses ultraviolet light to put the coup de grâce to any remaining traces of coronavirus after the rooms of former patients have been disinfected by more common means. No humans may be present in the rooms at the time, so two robots — named Roxie and Drew — are placed inside to deliver the light from every angle, which the team says “Covid-19 doesn’t stand a chance” of surviving.
Of the three nurses I spoke to, Krivitz is the most supportive of opening up business and rolling back the lockdown, at least minimally. “Actually,” she says, “I’m on the fence.” She worries about people’s mental health. “We are social beings,” and need to interact personally with others more than we might always acknowledge. In addition, there are those who no longer have jobs and “are going through great stress and anxiety about their inability to pay bills and the possibility of losing the roof over their heads.”
She believes that folks should not obsess over how loudly the media plays up the pandemic. Still, Krivitz warns that the protective protocols need to be followed strictly. Along with most of us, she notices, when she is out and about, a worrisome sign that the mandate to wear masks is being blown off by many. More testing for the virus needs to be done as well. “Why aren’t we nurses tested?” Krivitz wonders.
“All in all, though,” she says, “San Diegans have done well, a lot better than in a lot of other places. So, at least continue social distancing.”
Covid is a beast
Angela Pamintuan, age 37, looks daily into the faces of dying patients as she works her shifts in the Intensive Care Unit of Sharp Hospital Chula Vista. She is in her fifth year as an ICU nurse. She understands the clamor to open the economy and is sympathetic to those who are suffering financially. But the financial disaster, she says, could very well become worse if we don’t first get a firmer handle on the pandemic.
“There are still way too many critically ill Covid patients coming into the hospital every day,” she tells me.
I ask Pamintuan what she thinks of the objection I often hear that plenty of flu victims die every year, but the government doesn’t shut down the economy over that. “Covid is not a flu,” she says. “I’ve cared for plenty of flu patients, too, and Covid is much worse than the flu. It’s a beast. And it doesn’t only get old people. It chooses who it wants. We can help flu victims at least a little by giving them Tamiflu. But that doesn’t do anything against Covid. The Tamiflu for Covid is social distancing.
“Still, we are learning better techniques the more experience we get treating the pneumonia the virus brings about.” Pamintuan cites “proning,” or rotating patients onto their sides or stomachs, a practice that allows their lungs to more efficiently supply the blood with oxygen.
Lost 80 percent of his business
It’s no surprise that nurses would place a higher priority on saving lives than revitalizing economic life. I wanted to see if restaurant owners shared the same viewpoint. I prepared myself to go on a long hunt. But the first owner I met surpassed even the nurses.
Tony Daniels is a partner in The Barbecue Pit on University Avenue in North Park, a couple blocks west of 30th Street. He is about as hard-nosed as you can be in wanting to strictly continue the lockdown, which, he tells me, has caused his company to lose 80 percent of its business. He has been waiting for some government commercial stimulus money for several weeks already.
However, today, as he does every day now, Daniels waits deep in his restaurant for customers to come in for take-out. He and I look back toward the street over two long empty tables with chairs on either side.
“I don’t think our dining room should open just yet,” Daniels tells me. “The virus is still spreading and a lot of people are dying every day, so they need to do more testing and keep people indoors until they find a cure or get the virus down. I support what the government is trying to do.”
A little further west down University, Marco Sotomayor comes to the bar window of Breakfast Republic to see if I want to order something. He tells me that prior to the lockdown he was earning $80,000 a year as the restaurant’s general manager. Now he pulls down $13 an hour. “But I’m loyal to the company,” he says.
“It’s too early to open. The city is only going to allow us 25 percent capacity anyway, and that won’t be worth buying the food we’d have to have on hand and hiring back much of our staff.”
By email, Sotomayor’s boss Johann Engmann tells me that he’d favor opening, but that he has “fixed costs” whether he opens at 100 percent or 30 percent “occupancy.” At 30 percent, he wouldn’t be able to cover those costs.