Vassar students expected to spend the last week of March settling back into campus life. Now, the majority instead remain at home, quarantined and social distancing in response to the ongoing global pandemic. With the United States now serving as the global epicenter of COVID-19, Vassar students who remain in areas with outbreaks of over 5,000 cases find their day-to-day lives significantly altered.
Although COVID-19 has impacted all 50 states, New York, California, New Jersey and Michigan currently face the largest number of cases. The toll changes daily, with Washington State, Massachusetts, Florida and Illinois also facing over 5000 cases. COVID-19 is spreading exponentially in New York in particular, where there are now over 67,000 confirmed cases. A Vassar student currently quarantined in her New York City home in Harlem, Delila Ames ’22, shared via email how her proximity to a mass outbreak has forced her family to not only practice social distancing, but to also take great precautionary measures when re-entering their home.
“It feels impossible/inevitable to avoid contracting COVID-19 here in Manhattan as our neighbors, friends and families continue to report more confirmed cases in their communities,” she wrote. “I wear a bandana and rubber dishwashing gloves (everywhere is sold out of disposable masks and gloves) when I leave the house, I wash everything after being outside, I minimize my interactions with anyone not inside my home and I try to not to leave my house.”
In urban areas across the country, families must undertake similarly strict measures to avoid contracting the disease. In Washington state, one of the first US states to accumulate a large number of COVID-19 cases, Lucy Brown ’22 described the similarly rigorous measures her family takes to protect those living inside their shared home.
“When we come home, we wash our hands, sanitize the doorknob and anything else we brought outside the house (phones, keys, wallets). We also usually change our clothes,” said Brown via email.
Despite these seemingly tiresome precautions, families who have not been impacting are the lucky ones. For those with someone who has fallen ill, finding access to testing and medical care proves challenging.
The students mentioned that overwhelmed medical systems and the lack of available testing create barriers for those seeking treatment. “I do not have access to testing, for some reason New York has not made much progress on obtaining test kits … There are hospitals within walking distance to me, but lines out the doors and ventilators are going quickly,” described Ames.
A student living in Upstate New York, Alison Bond ’22, detailed via email that her community has a relatively smaller hospital with only 113 beds, meaning testing availability is limited.
“Only those who are severely ill are being tested for COVID-19. Their physician must refer them for testing to the county health department” she wrote.
Brown explained that testing is not openly available to the public in Seattle, as tests are only granted to individuals who have been hospitalized with symptoms. “There’s a lot of talk right now that Seattle area hospitals will soon be overwhelmed, with cases increasing exponentially,” added Brown. According to U.S. News, Seattle hospitals have been preparing for worst-case scenarios and an overflow of patients.
However, not all highly affected states have overwhelmed medical systems. A resident of Southern California, Sophia Jahadhmy ’22, explained that although California has nearly 7,500 confirmed cases, COVID-19 has not spread nearly as much as it has in other states due to California’s early shelter-in-place order. This has resulted in less strain on hospitals, although testing is still not easily accessible for the public.
“We don’t have a lot of tests and the hospitals are being picky about who is allowed to get tested,” stated Jahadhmy.
Beyond testing shortcomings, the virus has instilled a sense of constant anxiety in those living in highly affected areas.
“People around me are experiencing differing levels of panic. My mom is completely paranoid and hyper aware of germs (as she should be), while other people in my neighborhood [Harlem] are still congregating together outside, playing music, smoking and living life as if nothing is wrong,” said Ames.
Brown described a growing level of unease in Seattle.
“I haven’t seen a lot of panic, but I would say that people are definitely on-edge. There are several confirmed cases in my grandmother’s building, which has been stressful for our family. This situation is unlike other public challenges because it’s something that we’re all aware and fearful of, so it can feel pretty intense,” she shared.
The anxiety surrounding the virus led many to stock up and hoard supplies from grocery stores, leaving behind an inconsistent availability of supplies. While availability of products has declined in recent weeks, practices such as hoarding and over-purchasing have exacerbated this issue.
“How well the grocery stores are stocked depends on each market. Something I’ve noticed is that some neighborhoods (the wealthier ones) tend to have inconsistent food availability. I speculate that this is because people in those areas have the means to buy more food for the future” said Brown.
However, stores have responded to the danger of people shopping in crowds and panicked customers over-purchasing. In Jahadhmy’s community, stores have been vigilant about cleaning and limiting the amount of people who can enter at once. She continued, “Shelves were emptier two weeks ago when panic first rose around the virus, and now stores are limiting how many items each customer can buy.”
Other consequences of the virus have disproportionately harmed lower-income communities. Jahadhmy explained that business closures left many in California unemployed, therefore increasing financial strain on individuals during an already difficult time.
“ I’d say the main way [COVID-19] affected things is increased unemployment and reduced services. It’s been hard for people and many in our community who are suffering from loss of jobs,” she said.
However, she explained that public apprehension surrounding COVID-19 has started to decline in California because the quarantine has proven effective in slowing the spread of the virus.
“People here are definitely experiencing panic, however it is lessening as time goes on. Because our governor was so ahead of the game in shutting stuff down, people are starting to feel more normal and accepting of the situation.” Jahadhmy continued, “Also, people are realizing that social isolation works—the number of cases here aren’t rising as much as in NY, so it seems worth it to continue to quarantine.”
While social distancing continues to help slow the spread of the virus, Ames noted the challenges of living in quarantine. She described the paradox of being forced to slow down and stay home during such a stressful time.
“Trying to use this time to hit pause and do some more of the things we love is hard when the overwhelming emotions are paranoia, panic and hopelessness” said Ames. “This is just such an unprecedented situation, pretty much no one alive has experienced a pandemic before and certainly not in our current globalized and interconnected world.”