A Reporter Comes Face to Face With the Swine Flu

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On April 27, I took a taxi to Fresh Meadows, Queens, to cover a press conference on the swine flu virus.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was outside St. Francis Prep, the Catholic high school where dozens of students had been felled by the bug. I planned to take some notes, interview a few passersby and head back to the Midtown Manhattan bureau of The Post to write a news story. Instead, my editors asked me to report on an afflicted family and the fears of neighbors, and so I did.

I went to a hospital and talked briefly with a row of ailing kids from St. Francis Prep who were sitting outside the emergency room with face masks dangling around their necks. I ventured into a special education school nearby and asked a few teachers and an administrator their concerns -- only to learn the following day that students and staff at the school, PS 177, had fallen ill and that the school was closed.

In short, I wandered through zones of contagion, and I did so without a mask.

And by Wednesday afternoon I had started to cough. Long, wheezing coughs. Was this a first symptom of swine flu? I checked my notes on the kids of St. Francis Prep. One girl said it had started with a headache. A boy said he had first noticed a sore throat. I wiped sanitizer over the phone after using it, but decided not to overreact.

On the way to dinner at the home of my friend Emma, I couldn't stop coughing. When she opened the door, I avoided her kiss, washed my hands and confessed my fears. Her look said, "What are you doing in my house?" I suggested I leave, but Emma, always gracious, said, "Of course not." I suggested I move to the far end of the table, and she did not protest.

Emma was already worried because her husband, Matthew, a reporter for the BBC, was in Mexico covering the flu outbreak there. Now, in Brooklyn, I was potentially insinuating the infection into her dining room. The two of us ate at opposite ends of her long wooden table, as though we were part of some wealthy but distant family. On the way out, I used her hand sanitizer to rub down all the doorknobs and light switches I'd touched.

Time to Panic

By Thursday morning, I was worse. I woke with a hacking cough, a headache, a sore throat, aching muscles and diarrhea. I checked in with Emma: Could it be something we had eaten? She felt fine. But my symptoms worsened throughout the day. A nurse suggested I see the doctor Friday.

Meanwhile, working from home, for the fifth day in a row I went out to report on the flu. The New York City tally of confirmed cases (then 49) was far lower than the hundreds that officials knew to have been taken sick but not tested. Was the virus moving much faster than was widely understood? Was the sickness so mild it didn't much matter? To what extent were our fears influencing our reactions? To what extent were my fears influencing my interpretation of my symptoms?

The world was panicking -- and blaming. Egypt had begun to slaughter its swine, absent any evidence they had ever carried the virus. The U.S. pork industry suggested other names for the virus: perhaps "North American flu." The Israeli deputy health minister, who wanted to keep Jews from having to utter the word "swine," suggested calling the virus the "Mexican flu." Mexican officials noted that some of the hybrid virus had come from European and Asian pigs. Various Asian officials, who had shouldered the blame for SARS, claimed this one was not their fault.

In Singapore, the government instituted mandatory temperature checks of schoolchildren and suggested that companies take the temperatures of their employees. In Hong Kong, an entire hotel was quarantined after one guest was given a flu diagnosis. In Japan, health inspectors boarded planes from North America and pointed thermographic guns at passengers.

And in New York, the American epicenter of the outbreak, Duane Reade drugstores were running out of hand sanitizer.

A friend e-mailed, saying she couldn't find a surgical mask and needed to get on an airplane.

"You could just wrap a bandanna around your face," I suggested. "You'll look like a guerrilla fighter, which is a much better look than an airline passenger afraid of disease." Then I saw a Web site advertising surgical N-95 masks disguised as bandannas (http://www.flufashion.net).

There were other attempts to profit. A company contacted me advertising "Germy Wormies," a kind of handkerchief shaped like an armband that supposedly prompted kids to cough into their elbows and avoid spreading germs onto their hands. Yet another company announced that it would give out more than 400,000 free hand wipes on the streets of New York.

Going Viral

That evening, my temperature crept higher, though with a reading of 99.9 or 100 degrees, I wasn't even sure if it counted as fever.

The next day, I told my doctor all about my symptoms and my risky tour of Queens, and underwent a physical exam. My doctor said I probably had a mild case of swine flu and prescribed the antiviral agent Tamiflu and quarantine. He took a swab. (We haven't yet gotten the results.) My mind skipped through all the people I had been near since Monday: The woman who had touched my arm in conversation at the New-York Historical Society. The photographer whose hand I had shaken. The grocery clerk who had accepted money I'd placed in his palm. Had I put them all at risk?

After his diagnosis, my doctor started treating me differently. We fumbled at his door as he stepped ahead to open it so I wouldn't touch the handle. At the elevator, he rushed over to press the down button so I wouldn't have to.

Though exhausted, I decided to walk home across town, to avoid infecting busloads of people. Heading east on 14th Street, I saw a white-haired woman with tired eyes, and a baby in a sling on his father's back. I moved away from them. Strangely, it seemed that my very person might be dangerous. My 118-pound body -- slight, familiar, harmless -- might be weaponized.

An Iranian acquaintance e-mailed that he was in New York for a day and would like to meet. I imagined grabbing a coffee with him on his way to the airport and reading a few days later that Reza was the first case of swine flu in Iran. I could be the vector who transferred the disease to the Middle East. I told him I couldn't make it.

That night my body ached all over. My head hurt, my cough hurt more and my stomach seemed to steadily gurgle.

The next morning, though, I felt better. Some friends volunteered to drop provisions outside my door -- and then make a hasty retreat. One friend suggested visiting with a mask on, and another proposed we take a walk in the open air at some distance from one another.

I whiled away the weekend on Skype and the phone, sending e-mail and text messages like a junior high school kid who's not allowed out, and resting in between like an elderly person easily winded. On Facebook someone posted a picture of the H1N1 virus. It was a collection of gray coagulate lumps. Together they looked like sickness. I didn't like to think of that inside me.

"You're a hero," said my friend On. By staying in your bedroom, you're saving the world from plague, he said.

I thought about that. In my mind's eye I saw a Google map representing not only the locations of people who have H1N1, but their transmission lines.

These lines of who passed the virus to whom would make a picture of urban connections, and of global ones. I had started out careless, wandering into multiple paths of the virus. But if I had contracted it, I was lucky; in me it acted weakly. And in the time it took me to get sick and recover, global fears of a deadly pandemic had waned. It seemed the virus was being contained.

All over the world were people like me, waiting in hotel rooms and airports and cramped apartments for the virus to run its course through their bodies, and stop there.

Comments: shulmanr@washpost.com.

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