Faces of COVID-19, part 3; Twilight, Commercial Drive, end of August

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Colleen Jackson, 61, used to have nightmares about “headless bodies and rushing cars through unknown deep dark parks and asylums.” She could feel the virus swell her brain, and that’s how her brain dealt with it.

She had been at a live musical performance in early March, sitting across from someone who was talking to someone who had just returned from a four-day trip to New York City. A few days later, she thought she had gout because her toe mysteriously swelled and turned purple. Then she volunteered to take the tickets at a popular Central New York music festival. That was the weekend; she woke up on Monday feeling like she had been “hit by a truck.”

“I’ve never been that ill in my whole life,” Colleen told me. “Extreme chronic fatigue, shortness of breath. Sometimes I slept for twelve to fifteen hours at a time. Extreme swelling in my extremities. This virus is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life, and I am a two-time cancer survivor, and I have asthma because I was exposed to asbestos as a child.”

She went to bed each night, genuinely afraid that she might not wake up the next morning. 

“I felt like there was an elephant on my chest,” she told me in a phone interview. “My entire respiratory system…it felt like I had inhaled shards of glass. It felt like ripping up and down. No congestion, though, the cough was deep and painful, and dry.”

So she called an Uber and went to St. Luke’s Hospital, whoever treated her was dressed in what she describes as a “hazmat suit.” So little was known about the illness then. Colleen developed symptoms at a time when tests were only available to people who were health care workers and those who had traveled to China. Unlike the other people I’ve written about, she never had a positive COVID-19 test. However, her doctor of thirty-four years diagnosed her based on the symptoms and treated her condition as COVID-19. 

At one point in our interview, she took a deep breath and noted the fact that the music festival took place at the same time the National Basketball Association suspended their 2019-2020 season. 

“I worked the door, two hundred people passed by me,” she recalls. “No masks, no gloves.” 

Colleen knows of at least two people who were at the event who were later diagnosed with COVID-19; she is sure at least one of them died.

At that point, people around here were just beginning to take it seriously, but it still seemed like something that was only happening in places we saw on the news. No one wore masks in stores, and all the stores were still open. Schools hadn’t yet shut down in Upstate New York.

I think back to that time and remember teaching one of my last in-person English Language Arts (ELA) classes. I didn’t have my own classroom, and the bell was about to ring, so we were packing up and getting ready to leave.

One of my students called to me and gestured toward a big bottle of hand sanitizer.

“I’m all set,” I said, thinking how the smell of hand sanitizer can give me migraines. 

“This stuff is going for one hundred and twenty-five dollars a bottle on Amazon,” my student said.

“…well, in that case!” I laughed and pumped some of it into my hands. 

Soon after that, the schools closed and went to remote learning.  

Now that schools are about to reopen, I reached out to Rocco Migliori, Westmoreland’s Superintendent of Schools. He describes the school’s reopening plan as a community effort that began back in April as well as the biggest challenge he has faced in his twenty-eight years in administration.

“We collected input from all the stakeholders,” Rocco told me in an email interview. “We studied what worked well when we went remote in March and what didn’t work well, talking with staff about what they would like to see, talking with kids about their experiences with remote instruction, etc.”

The school ended up collecting “a ton of data, information, comments, and questions.” 

He collected some of that data by organizing an innovative “Summer Bus Tour” where he went out to several locations around the district to meet with students, parents, and community members to listen to their concerns and find out what they’d like from the school when it reopens next week. Additionally, they were in constant contact with Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. and Phyllis Ellis, the Director of the Oneida County Health Department.

“Over 90% of our community wanted in-person instruction to resume,” he told me. “So we went to work and created a good solid plan that hopefully allows kids to feel some sense of normalcy again.” 

Rocco is confident that he can do this safely, following all the protocols of the Center for Disease Control, the New York State Department of Health, and the Oneida County Department of Health, but won’t hesitate to return to a remote model if safety, once again, requires it.

“We hope it won’t come to this,” he said. “In the end, it’s important to help our kids get back into a routine, to see their friends, and to get back into the lifestyle they once knew.”

Gradually we’re all getting back to that. Last Friday, my husband Jim and I were excited about getting back to a regular fitness routine, so we joined the Fitness Mill, which reopened its doors last Monday. We’ve both been looking forward to this day for many long months. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve thought gyms and health clubs should have been classified as “essential.”

Alex Carbone, the owner of the Fitness Mill, agrees. 

“It is essential for mental, as well as physical, health,” he told me in a phone interview. “It’s important to stay healthy [during the pandemic].”

He believes that so strongly that he’s started a program where people who sign up can get their first three months free while they recover financially. The reopening was a long and careful process like it was for the schools. 

“We received the guidelines, and we pulled our crew together,” Alex said. “We installed touchless sanitation stations as well as touchless dispensers for soap and paper towels. We installed a whole new filtration system with filters approved by the state. We always wear masks, we take temperatures at the door and ask people questions about the four standard COVID symptoms.” 

Members also are required to sign into and out of whatever room they are using. Because the exercise areas (the cardio and weight rooms) and the overall square footage of the facility is so big, the Fitness Mill can allow 110 people to exercise at a time, and so far no one has had to wait or reserve a time. This number is compliant with the 33% capacity limitations the state has required for gyms and fitness center reopenings. 

I asked if anyone has objected to wearing a mask or complying with other safety precautions. They haven’t, he reports.

“They’re nothing but positive, happy, and thankful that we reopened,” Alex said. “They’re enthusiastic and appreciative of the hard work that allowed us to reopen and be compliant with the state.”

After the health club, we headed to the pavilion at the Cherrywood Community in New Hartford, where a crowd of masked volunteers gathered to assemble red-white-and-blue campaign signs for Congressman Anthony Brindisis.

Jim tried to get me to use hand sanitizer. I said no, I was cross thinking he had used too much and that it would give me a headache. By the time we arrived, the group had already assembled eight hundred signs in less than an hour.

“We can’t get away from COVID,” Sonia Martinez said as prepared to leave with her stack of signs. “It’s slowed things down, but we’re all pumped up for Anthony!”

She said that because of her age and pre-existing conditions, she has to be especially cautious but that, as a representative of the local Latino community, participating in events like this were important to her. 

“This is what I like to do,”  Sonia said. “I am very civic-minded. I enjoy being with other people like me.”

The gathering was the first large public event Bonnie Zweifel has participated in-other than the several Black Lives Matter gatherings that have taken place this summer.

“The last campaign I canvassed every single weekend of the summer and for a week before the election, obviously we can’t do that this year,” she said. “These kinds of events are wonderful.”

“During this difficult time, a lot has changed about traditional campaigning,” Congressman Anthony Brindisi told me in an email interview. “It isn’t about if you’re a Democrat or Republican, we are all Americans first, and this pandemic has highlighted that we can put politics aside and work together.”

He said that he’s stayed connected with constituents and has been focused on making sure communities in his district have what they need to get through the crisis. 

“I always need to be listening,” he said. “Anyone with a positive message is welcome to join [us] and help get the job done.”

I took my stack of signs, and we left to go eat at Applebees. We’ve been there a few times already. But, this was the first time we’ve ever had to wait for a table. I thought that was a good sign.

On my phone, I listened to the interview I had just done with Bonnie at the sign-making event. She said that by having so much time to herself, she has prioritized what’s important to her. 

“I am focused more on how to care for people who are the foundation for how we live,” was how she put it.

I thought about the people I’ve been interviewing for these columns, and I agreed to use the hand sanitizer. The smell didn’t give me a headache. Instead, it took me back to that morning in March when I was with my student, and it was he, a wise sixth-grader, whose eyes got big when he told me the surprising monetary value of hand sanitizer. I remembered us laughing; we laughed every day; we laughed all the time. My eyes watered, not from the sharp rubbing alcohol odor, but because it’s been six months since I’ve laughed like I do when I am with students, in a classroom.

It was getting dark when we left Applebees. The signs for all the stores encircling Consumer Square began to glow their beckoning bright colors over the parking lot. I looked across Commercial Drive, the last one to light up said “Well Now.” That’s got to mean something. 

Ron Klopfanstein wants to hear about your experiences with COVID-19. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein

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