Full episode
Transcript

698: The Test

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

For so many people now, it's not a theoretical thing. It's here, this new virus. And they're having to deal with that fact. Lots of people are trying to do the right thing.

But it's not so clear what the right thing is-- like Luis, who works in construction in Long Island. When he got tested and learned he had coronavirus, he went back to where he was living. He shared a house with several other migrants. He's an asylum seeker, here from Central America.

And he immediately told his landlady because she's pregnant. He didn't want to put her or anybody at risk. She said he had to leave. So he decided to isolate in the only place he had-- his car.

He parked outside of a 7-Eleven. He didn't even want to go inside to get water because he didn't want to infect anybody. This is a voicemail message he left for the woman handling his immigration case.

Luis

[SIGHS]

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Ira Glass

At this moment, I feel like I don't know what to do.

Luis

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Ira Glass

I've isolated in my car because I don't want to contaminate more people.

Luis

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Ira Glass

I don't want people to go through what I'm going through.

Luis

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Ira Glass

It hurts to tell the truth. It hurts.

Luis

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Ira Glass

You have no idea how much. He says, I haven't left my car. I've been cooped up here. If I didn't have a conscience, I'd be out there. But no, I don't have that kind of heart.

Luis

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Ira Glass

Zora heard this message, and she also tried to do the right thing. She found him housing to ride out the illness. Among other things, an epidemic, a plague, a contagion is a time that we're tested. And we rise to the occasion, or we don't, or we can't.

Anthony Almojera very much wants his team to rise to the occasion. He's the vice president of local 3621 of the EMS Officers Union in New York City. EMS, emergency medical services-- it's part of the fire department.

His job title is lieutenant paramedic. And besides the stuff he does for the union, he manages a crew of 50 EMS workers. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, they were short hundreds of EMS workers in the city. So they were overworked before. And it's even more so now.

Like this past Tuesday, Anthony worked a 16 hour shift at a station in Brooklyn, watching 911 calls come in. He talked to my co-worker Miki Meek. A typical day before the coronavirus outbreak was around 4,000 calls. This past week saw the first big spike.

Anthony Almojera

I worked last night at 1:00 in the morning-- after we had just clocked in, 6,500 plus calls at midnight. At 1:00 in the morning, there were still 274 jobs holding. That's 274 jobs in the system that, at the moment, don't have an ambulance to get to them.

Mika Meek

So these are people that have called 911, but--

Anthony Almojera

Right.

Mika Meek

--no one's been able to be dispatched.

Anthony Almojera

Right.

Mika Meek

And how does that make you feel, when you see that you have that many call still in the queue?

Anthony Almojera

It's a little frightening because, you know, to have been many calls holding-- just to give you some perspective-- yesterday, it was 6,500 calls-- it was the most we've ever done.

Mika Meek

Ever?

Anthony Almojera

Ever, yeah, even including 9/11.

Ira Glass

Later that morning, he was in an ambulance and went on a call near Coney Island. A man had phoned in about his wife. He came home and found her on the floor. Call type said fever, cardiac arrest, COVID case.

Anthony Almojera

And the husband is outside. And they're both health care workers. The patient was somebody who worked in a nursing home, and the husband works in the hospital. And she was sent home Friday with fever and remained feverish throughout.

So I'm sitting there, talking to the husband. And he stated to me, yesterday, he called where he works to say he wanted to stay home and take care of his wife. And they told him he couldn't because he's an essential employee, that the hospital is short staffed, and he needed to come in.

And at the moment, he judged that his wife wasn't critical. You know, she was feverish and stuff. But OK, she'll make it through the night. Then he came home and found her dead.

Ira Glass

Found her dead, he's saying.

Mika Meek

[SIGH]

Anthony Almojera

For 17 years, I've been going on these calls of cardiac arrests or other traumatic things. And it's never been an issue for me to go up to the family member when we can't do any more, and say, I'm sorry. And then I put my arm around the patient's family member. You know, I let them cry into my shoulder, I've hugged them, anything along those lines to provide a moment of empathy and sympathy.

Yesterday, when I went outside because he happened to be outside, and I saw this man's grief in his face, and I saw him just break down and how he felt guilty about not being there, and I had to stay six feet away--

Mika Meek

Hmm.

Anthony Almojera

I couldn't kneel next to him like I have with other patients in the past. I couldn't put my arm around him because I'm concerned about my health because there's a high potentiality that he has it as well. And I just watched him. And it's the first time, in 17 years, that I actually got back in the truck and I cried.

Mika Meek

I'm sorry, Anthony.

Anthony Almojera

No-- thank you.

[DING]

It's-- I'm sorry again.

Mika Meek

No, what's--

Anthony Almojera

That was the crew members. Yeah, I have about 60 messages that are unopened at the moment. Anthony, I tested positive. What do I do? Anthony, my wife tested positive. What do I do? They're all in that general nature.

Ira Glass

He's worried. How many of his crew won't be available soon? Going by numbers he's seen in other places, he figures half of them will end up quarantined.

Right now, in Anthony's crew of 50, six people are already out. The entire crew, all 50 of them, have been exposed to somebody with COVID-19 at this point. In the past, the policy for New York Fire Department EMS workers was, when you're exposed to a contagious virus like that, you weren't supposed to come to work.

But the policy changed about a week and a half ago. Now you stay home only if you're actually showing symptoms. Anthony thinks it's because the city is so desperate for EMS workers right now.

Anthony Almojera

So if they can squeeze another five or six days out of you before you become symptomatic, I think that's what their motivation is.

Mika Meek

It's not said explicitly. But the crews are short. They need workers. You guys are essential.

Anthony Almojera

It feels we're expendable. Now, listen, I don't believe that chief of EMS feels we are expendable. I don't want to put that on her.

Mika Meek

Mm-hmm.

Anthony Almojera

But it feels, overall, by the department and the city that we're just going to keep putting you out there because we don't have any other options, because we didn't properly prepare for this.

Ira Glass

Spokesperson for the fire department told us that EMS workers are expected to show up if they've been exposed to the virus because at this point in New York, all EMS personnel have likely been exposed to the virus. Right now, EMS workers don't even have a way to get tested to see if they have the virus, just like the rest of us. And Anthony estimates they're going to run out of N95 masks in less than a week, this coming Friday, April 3.

Mika Meek

What are you telling your workers right now?

Anthony Almojera

Well, the tough thing about this is we all signed up for this, you know? In a pandemic, that is EMS' time to shine, right? Treating viruses is what we do all day long. You name it, you know, HIV, hepatitis, meningitis. This is what we do.

But in order to do it effectively, we have to believe that when we're out there with the potential of dying, getting hurt or seriously ill, that if something happens to us, we're going to be taken care of. And the consensus among the membership is that's not going to happen.

Mika Meek

The feeling is we're not going to be taken care of.

Anthony Almojera

Yes.

Mika Meek

What do you think the next couple weeks are going to be like?

Anthony Almojera

Oh, we're not even to the halfway point here. You know how they keep talking about flattening the curve?

Mika Meek

Mm-hmm.

Anthony Almojera

We're on the upward tick of that curve still.

Mika Meek

Do you have any workers who are wanting to quit?

Anthony Almojera

No, I haven't had any workers that wanted to quit. I have not heard that.

Ira Glass

Because, like, the virus is here now. It's testing us, all of us, EMS workers, and doctors, and nurses, who are now risking their lives, but also delivery people, postal workers, politicians, those of us who are suddenly out of work, parents who have no talent for homeschooling at all, even those of us who are just on lockdown, worried for older relatives.

We're all being tested. So today in our program, we're going to hear from people who are right in the middle of it now, being tested in pretty extreme ways. Plus, before the hour's out, a call from the future from somebody in China who's kind of on the other side of this thing. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

[MUSIC - "STAY YOUR ASS INDOORS" BY MNEK]

Ira Glass

Throughout this episode, we're featuring original songs that we heard on Instagram created by the British musician and producer MNEK while he's been home alone and social distancing. He's jokingly calling these songs his Corona EP, and they are all him, no backing band, looping his own voice. The songs are part PSA, part pure pop, just a man bringing some light in a dark moment. Now, we turn to Act One.

Act One: The Inside Game

Ira Glass

Act One, The Inside Game-- OK, so this virus is out there. And so many of us are scared to get it and wonder what would happen if we did get it. And honestly, for all the coverage of the illness, we have not heard the people that it's happened to talk at length about that experience very much.

One thing that came up here is-- we've all talked about this-- is what is going on in the homes where both parents get the virus, like how do they manage? And just coincidentally, one of our co-workers, Ben Calhoun, has been worried about his brother-in-law, Elia Einhorn, and Elia's wife, Amy, who are in that exact situation. They were among the first wave of COVID-19 patients in New York City.

Their daughter, whose name is Conwy, is just a toddler. So she is in that period of parenting when a kid needs constant vigilance. Ben recorded a call with them. Amy, who got sick first, was too sick to actually get out of bed.

Elia could drag himself around. But it was pretty rough going. He was sicker than he had ever been in his life, he said. One other detail-- Elia has a history of asthma, so he's at elevated risk. He'd also developed GI symptoms, throwing up, a possible warning sign that a COVID patient is in more danger.

All this is playing out in a 500 square foot New York City apartment. So picture like three rooms and a bathroom. Ben called them in the afternoon. Elia had just gotten Conwy to nap, so you'll hear Elia trying to keep his voice down, trying not to wake her.

Ben Calhoun

What is just like the logistics of your situation in the apartment right now? Like where are you? And where is Amy? And how much are you able to either be around each other or not be around each other, or?

Elia Einhorn

I haven't seen Amy in like a week. Amy has just been in our room the whole time. So since there's one bathroom, she comes out to use the bathroom. And otherwise, like, I just don't see her.

And we usually talk for like one or two minutes. But yeah, Amy is just in our room. And she's really, really sick. Her fever goes up and down and up and down. And just when we think it's gone, it comes back worse, and it's--

Ben Calhoun

But she's just 100% like locked in the room?

Elia Einhorn

Yeah, locked in the room. Literally, I told her lock the door so Conwy can't come in.

Ben Calhoun

But you got to-- you got Conwy down, though.

Elia Einhorn

She's asleep. She's asleep. I am going to-- I just saw Amy. I get to see her like three times a day for two minutes. And I said to her, we are going to have to do such a strict regimen to get this kid back to normal life after this because I am like-- you know, I'm trying to keep her life as normal as possible.

So because she already can't see Amy, she can't go outside-- so I am just like-- I've become the biggest fucking pushover. I said to Amy, she had like a tasting menu before bed.

We usually let her have a little snack if she wants it. She's adding things, having me get up and go to the kitchen and get more stuff. And I, like, can hardly handle getting up to go get her something. It's just like, oh, dude.

So she must have had bites of like seven snacks. And it's ridiculous. But I just wanted her to--

Ben Calhoun

And I can imagine that, as a parent, you're just like-- you're having all these needs that are unmet right now. And right now, you're having a need that I can meet. So let me just throw whatever I can in there.

Elia Einhorn

Exactly, exactly. I looked-- I looked at us. We were reading one of those Mo Willems books, you know that like--

Ben Calhoun

Yeah, like Piggy and the Elephant.

Elia Einhorn

Yeah, we were reading-- I don't know why. But she wanted to read the baby one.

And there's two pages that are mirrors. And I looked at us, and I was like, we look so blazed. We look like college freshmen who just discovered weed and smoked half an ounce, you know.

Ben Calhoun

[LAUGHS]

Elia Einhorn

Me and the two and a half year old look terrible. And I'm wearing my mask, you know, because there's this theory about the viral load getting bigger, you know I mean? With more exposure.

So just to give you sort of a scene report here, it looks like-- think about a normal Brooklyn-sized apartment. It looks like there was 50 toddlers who had an unsupervised birthday party here. So like, from my vantage point on the couch, I'm looking out.

The first layer is like a peg's game, where you push buttons into colors. The second layer is all these 3x2 foot huge Paw Patrol pages to color. The next level is a farm that seems to have exploded. The next level are all the Play-Dohs strewn around the ground because I just can't pick it up.

Ben Calhoun

Do you have all your logistics covered like groceries? How you doing groceries? How are you like-- I don't know, like laundry.

Elia Einhorn

Laundry has been a problem. I'm waiting for Amy to get better because we have to wash it in the bathtub. And I just can't physically do it right now. I can't stress to you how tired I am. I'm like--

Ben Calhoun

You're just too tired.

Elia Einhorn

I'm just too tired, man. I can't sit up that long. And so I'm waiting for Amy to either get better so that she can watch Conwy and I can take longer and do it slowly-- or because, by the end of the day, when Conwy goes to sleep, I'm like fried, totally fried. I can't even stand up.

Ben Calhoun

Because you're the only person doing Conwy, right? You're like--

Elia Einhorn

Oh, yeah, 100%. Yeah, Amy hasn't seen her in a week. It's like I'm just with her like now 24/7.

Ben Calhoun

Do you feel like you've-- I feel like, if I were you, I would keep waiting to feel, like, bottomed out-- be like, is this-- is this the bottom? Is this the bottom?

Elia Einhorn

Yeah, man.

Ben Calhoun

Just like waiting for that upswing, you know.

Elia Einhorn

I keep waiting for it. And I think it comes. I thought it came like four times. And then like, today, I'm the most tired I've been the whole time. So I just don't know.

And it's like, on the one hand, I mean, we have food. We have water. We have electricity. I mean, we have everything we need.

If this is all that ever happens, it'll be a triumph. It seriously will if this is all that happens. It's just the scariest part is, is it going to go into our lungs, you know?

Ben Calhoun

Yeah.

Elia Einhorn

Right when I start to feel better, I think, you know there's these-- it sort of shows it's these ground glass sort of deposits in people's lungs. And I've started thinking of it as like your lungs turning to glass.

And I keep reading these stories out of Wuhan about these young physicians that are like my age, I mean, relatively young physicians that are dying from this. And I had to stop reading them because it's like, I just can't keep reading about people's lungs metaphorically turning to glass. And it's just making me worry too much that it's going to happen to our family.

It's so scary to not be able to protect your family against this insidious element of it. And that's why I-- that's why I emailed you guys that stuff. I don't know if anything's going to happen. And if it does happen, it's going to happen so quick.

I don't have time to deal with anything. I don't have time to deal with getting my affairs in order, you know. So I emailed you and Katherine very perfunctory, like here's-- how to-- what me and Amy want, here's our financial stuff. Here's like-- because I just have no fucking clue.

And that's the worst part. If we could be guaranteed that that wasn't going to happen-- this would just be uncomfortable and fine. We can laugh about it in a different way. But it's the fear that, at any second, one of us could just take really ill and maybe worse.

Ben Calhoun

We're so worried about you.

Elia Einhorn

Yeah.

Ben Calhoun

How do you think that Conwy's doing?

Elia Einhorn

Physically, she's doing fine. But she's showing all of these behaviors about being upset. And she's actively talking about it. Now, like every bed time, she wants me to tell her stories about everybody getting sick, me getting sick, her getting sick, Amy getting sick, you getting sick, and Katherine, and your kids. Everyone in our family getting sick is now part of our story.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah--

Elia Einhorn

We're calling it--

Ben Calhoun

--she's just trying to process it.

Elia Einhorn

--is what we're playing. Yeah, exactly. We tell her it's the inside game. Everybody's playing the inside game right now. And soon, it's going to end.

But for now, this is what's happening. And these are the rules of the inside game. But she keeps saying like, daddy, I'm so tired. I'm so tired.

And we're snuggling a lot. The pediatrician even said, look, if you both get tested positive, you can both just come out. And you can just take off your mask and be around Conwy.

But with all this research about the viral load buildup, we've had an infectious disease doctor that we've been talking to that said, you know, don't do that. You can snuggle her if you need to because she's a toddler. You can't control that. But like, as little as possible, so I try to put her between my legs or have my foot on her just to touch her a little bit, you know.

But it's been sad. I mean, she said to me like, I so sad. I so sad. None of my friends want to come to my house.

[CRIES]

Ben Calhoun

Oh.

Elia Einhorn

Aw, man.

Ben Calhoun

That's hard.

Elia Einhorn

Like, everything that she draws, she's like, this is for my friends. Or I made this for my mommy. This is for mommy.

On the one hand, she's doing fine. And on the other hand, she's really feeling her age equivalent of like really lonely and cut off. She keeps talking to me about how sick Amy is. And I tell her like, you know, mom is sick. But mom's getting better.

And I didn't even tell her I was sick, but she somehow figured it out. And I don't know if it's the mask, or what. So she says, daddy's sick. And I said, daddy's a little bit sick, but he's OK.

I mean, I feel traumatic, feeling so upset about it. But again, it's like-- like, are these the last conversations that I'm ever going to have with her?

Ben Calhoun

Oh, Els--

Elia Einhorn

Oh, man. You're getting the ugly cry.

[LAUGHS]

Ben Calhoun

Oh, dude.

Elia Einhorn

You're getting the ugly cry. I've only let myself cry about it a little bit.

Ben Calhoun

I wish I could do something for you guys.

Elia Einhorn

Oh. You're a regular Barbara Walters, Ben. You're getting it out of me.

Ben Calhoun

[LAUGHS]

Elia Einhorn

[LAUGHS]

Ben Calhoun

Should we have the kids FaceTime tonight? Would that-- would that be helpful?

Elia Einhorn

Yeah, that would be, just for her and for me to just sit down for a minute, honestly. It's like one of the only times I can rest when she's awake.

Ben Calhoun

We can do more of that, too, like if the kids can keep her occupied on FaceTime.

Elia Einhorn

Oh, man. Honestly, you guys are great.

[CRYING]

Now she's waking up. That's the peril of making any noise in this environment. But hopefully, she'll go back to sleep. You guys have been amazing. Just FaceTiming with your kids has been amazing. Yeah, we're just going to have to ride it the fuck out.

Ira Glass

Elia Einhorn with Ben Calhoun, who's a producer on our show. That was recorded a little over a week ago. At this point today, Amy is much better. She's actually up and around.

Elia got a lot worse after that call. But now he's also feeling better. Conwy is presumed to have had a mild case of the virus. She's doing fine.

[MUSIC - "QUARANTINE" BY MNEK]

Act Two: A View from the Park

Ira Glass

Act Two, The View From the Park-- so one of the producers here at our show, Emanuele Berry, got to know reporter Jiayang Fan back when were doing our Hong Kong show this past fall. Jiayang's a staff writer at The New Yorker. Emanuele and she have stayed in touch since then. Emanuele was the editor for a story that Jiayang did here a few weeks ago.

Jiayang has a mom who is in a medical facility in New York City. Jiayang tweets about her all the time. And right now, Jiayang's in the situation that a lot of us are in, worried for our parents, but a much more extreme version of that than most of us are dealing with. Like already, so much has happened with her mom. Emanuele checked in with her.

Emanuele Berry

How are you?

Jiayang Fan

I am trying to hang in there, I guess, is the most optimistic way of putting it.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I follow you on Twitter. I see that you tweet a lot about your mom. But I don't actually exactly know what your mother's ailment is. I just know she's hospitalized. Can you-- what's going on there?

Jiayang Fan

My mother doesn't have control of any part of her body at this point, except for her eyeballs, the movement of her eyeballs. So she is completely cognitively intact and as sharp as she ever has been. But she's imprisoned in a body that refuses to cooperate in any way.

She hasn't left her bed, her hospital bed, except to go to the ICU for the last six years. The only time she's ever seen any sliver of the sky is in those few minutes when paramedics push her from the hospital entrance into an ambulance. So when I visit her, I feel like I'm bringing the world to her.

Emanuele Berry

Her mother, Yao Li, has ALS. She's lived in a facility for the past six years. She always has an aid by her side. Jiayang's apartment is just a three minute walk away.

She visits every day, sometimes twice a day, unless she's traveling for work. When Jiayang visits, they talk. Well, mostly Jiayang talks. Yao Li spells things out using her eyes and an alphabet chart. It's slow. But that doesn't stop Yao Li from expressing herself.

Jiayang Fan

Sometimes she tries to tell me bawdy jokes over the alphabet chart that she spells with her eyes. And it'll take me an hour. And I'll think that she's requesting--

Emanuele Berry

[LAUGHS]

Jiayang Fan

--a medication or that some part of her-- like she'll mention butt, and I'll be like, oh, is her butt hurting? You know, what-- do you have an infection? And it's she's trying to tell me a butt joke. So that's--

Emanuele Berry

[LAUGHS]

Jiayang Fan

So-- so that gives you a little bit of a sense of my mom. She is someone who [LAUGHS] who is relentlessly truthful. Whenever a piece comes out of mine, her first question is, read me all the negative tweets about it. What is the criticism like? What are your trolls sayings?

And I know that sounds absurd and funny. But I think that comes from an immigrant's survival mentality. She wants to know what I need to prepare myself for in order to survive.

Emanuele Berry

So what happened last week? Take me through what happened last week.

Jiayang Fan

Remember, my mother is always-- in the best of times, my mother is a mild infection away from death, in the best of times. The doctors have told me, again and again, she will die of pneumonia. It's just a matter of time.

She's already on a respirator, a machine that breathes for her. There's not that much that can be done. So when I hear news about viruses entering nursing homes, every nerve in my body is on full alarm.

Emanuele Berry

Jiayang once told me that her mother lives for her. But the reverse is also true. Jiayang lives for her mom. They're each other's only family, which means Jiayang is a very active family member at her mom's facility.

The staff knows her. They know how protective she is. So in early March, when she heard about the virus spreading in nursing homes, she called, said, hey, I know it's a stressful time. But could you ask doctors and nurses to wear gloves and masks before getting too close to my mom? She says she could hear the tone in her own voice, anxious and demanding.

Jiayang Fan

This is not a tone I've ever taken with any member of my mom's facility for as long as she'd been there. But I was-- I was unnerved enough--

Emanuele Berry

You were freaked out.

Jiayang Fan

Yeah.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah.

Jiayang Fan

I was unnerved enough about what I was reading that I called first thing in the morning to say that. And I think the staff who picked up, was very annoyed with me and just said-- and basically said, I can't do that. Like, I can't-- I don't-- I can't tell other people here what to do.

And then I think she thought she hung up. She didn't actually hang up. And she said, yeah, Yao Li's daughter just called. And she thinks that, like, we have to wear gloves and, you know, masks like around every patient at the hospital. And there was-- I heard laughter all around.

And then, really, unfortunately, I heard her say-- I still, to this day, do not know who that staff member was. But she said, you know, and they're the ones who are Chinese.

To be frank, I wasn't offended. I wasn't like, oh, my God. This is so racist. I was just worried. I was worried about having offended her. I was worried about offending people who are the first line of defense.

Emanuele Berry

So she put her coat on over her pajamas and ran over to the facility. But when she got there, there were security guards up front and big signs. Jiayang was so flustered she doesn't actually remember exactly what the sign said.

But the message was clear. She wasn't getting in to see her mom. How could she be sure her mom was OK if she couldn't see her?

Jiayang Fan

I became crazed. I was calling my best friend, who were telling me that I wasn't being a rational, functional person. I had a dream about moving my mother to a different planet. I know that sounds absurd.

And it's my subconscious-- I mean, it's my unconscious. So I'm not totally responsible for it. But I think some part of me knew that there was no corner on earth that was safe.

How would that even-- how would that even work with a move? She is on a feeding tube. She's on a ventilator. She's hooked up on so many different whirling machines. In the best of times, a move would be-- would require six people, not including the transport.

Emanuele Berry

Talking to Jiayang, I noticed she couldn't help herself going down these thought spirals, far fetched ways to save her mom, all the things that could go wrong. And I think that's because she can't do anything, and she wants to badly. But there isn't a way out.

Jiayang Fan

Where could she possibly go? Not in my apartment, my tiny, almost studio-sized apartment would not be able to fit all the equipment that she needs. And I wouldn't be-- I would not be fit to care for her by myself.

Then what other facility is safe? Like, what other facility in New York City is safe? What other facility in America is safe?

Emanuele Berry

And so you're basically at a point where you're like there-- I can't-- there's nothing I can-- there's nothing I can do.

Jiayang Fan

I'm basically at the point where my unconscious is dreaming up plants to take my mother to Mars. My mind goes to very strange places, where I think about being told that my mother's ventilator has to be-- that my mother's ventilator is better--

I'm sorry. It's hard for me to even come up the grammar for this because it's so hard. That my mother's ventilator could better serve someone who's younger and healthier.

Emanuele Berry

This hasn't happened. Nobody's suggested her mom give up her ventilator. But she can't stop thinking of the possibility of it.

Jiayang Fan

And then my mind goes down a rabbit hole. I start looking up surgeries where I could give up half my lung, maybe, so that this healthy person can still be saved because-- because it's about lungs filling with fluids, right? And I think, well, if I could save that other person, then my mother gets to keep her ventilator.

And your mind just spends hours in those rabbit holes, which are completely-- it's completely useless, right? Because it's not-- I mean, these are not my decisions. What I'm suggesting is probably totally insane and scientifically, medically impractical.

Emanuele Berry

Jiayang did get a small bit of relief. She managed to get in for one last visit. That was two weeks ago.

Emanuele Berry

What did you guys say to each other?

Jiayang Fan

Because I am her daughter, I'm her caregiver. I am her conduit to the world. I have a responsibility to soothe her panic, not to stoke it.

I said things to her that I think I would've wanted someone else to say to me, which is this is going to be OK. We will get through this. (VOICE CRACKING) I will see you again very soon. I don't know when, but it's going to be very soon. And we will get through this together. But they weren't words that I necessarily believed if I were to be totally honest.

Emanuele Berry

She talked with senior hospital staff. And they told her there's a significant chance that coronavirus will enter the facility, that she should be mentally prepared for what that means. Jiayang thought about staying with her mom, just never leaving that visit, becoming her mom's caretaker.

But her mother's longtime aide convinced Jiayang she'd be more help to her mom outside and promised that she would stay with Yao Li, as long as she could manage. At the time, they were hopeful it would only be a few weeks.

Jiayang Fan

(VOICE CRACKING) I mean, I doubt myself. I don't know if I made the right decision. I think that, if my mom is going to-- if she's not going to survive the illness, then I should be the one in there. And then, I mean-- and then my mind goes to dark places.

I think, well, who cares if I don't pay the rent? Who cares if just everything else goes into absolute madness? All I want to be is with my mom.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, I mean, what do you think your mom would want you to do in this situation?

Jiayang Fan

It was-- it was really hard to leave her. She began crying, just hysterically crying, because I think she knew that, despite my assurances, that it would be a long time before I saw her again. And I think-- I think she would-- I think she would want me to stay safe. I think she would want me to find a way of coping through this crisis without succumbing to it, without being crushed by it.

Emanuele Berry

At the end of February, Jiayang did a story for this show about a Chinese man reporting on the virus in Wuhan. In one of the videos this journalist makes, he introduces us to this guy he calls Ah Ming. His father recently died because of coronavirus. Ah Ming talks about being with his father in the last hours of his life, about holding his hand as his heartbeat drops to zero. For Jiayang, it was one of the most emotional moments in this story for obvious reasons.

Jiayang Fan

His story was one that I thought just contained such pain and terror. That was unimaginable to me at the time. And now, I realize that last Tuesday might be the last time I-- I-- last Tuesday might be the last time I will ever-- I mean, that might have been the last time I saw my mother.

I can't even get the tenses straight. The grammar doesn't compute in my mind. And I thought that Ah Ming's experience was absolutely the most devastating. And then I think about how lucky Ah Ming was.

I know that if my mother contracts COVID-19, she will almost certainly die. And I-- and I also know that-- I also know that, when I get the call from the hospital letting me know that she's been infected, I won't be permitted to go in there. And I can see my mother's window every day. There's a little park that separates my apartment building from my mom's hospital.

And when I stand in the park, I can see her window. I can almost see the orchid that me and my friend brought her a couple of weeks ago. Or at least, I think I can see it. And I think about-- I think about the fact that, when she is dying, if she contracts the virus, those last hours that Ah Ming held his father's hand, maybe-- that maybe I'll be standing in the park, just looking up at her window. Maybe that's the closest-- maybe that's the closest I'll be able to get to her in her last hours.

Ira Glass

Emanuele Berry is a producer on our show.

Coming up, a tiny, tiny virus breaks open a jail cell. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, the test-- the coronavirus is here. There are people who, right now, are forced to deal with it. We hear stories of how they face that challenge. We've arrived at act three of our show.

Act Three: Outbreak Breakout

Ira Glass

Act Three, Outbreak Breakout.

So another way that the coronavirus outbreak has had a huge impact on people's lives-- prisons and jails around the country are starting to release inmates they wouldn't have otherwise, or wouldn't have released as early, anyway, to try to protect prisoners behind bars from getting sick. Correctional institutions, as you can imagine, are Petri dishes of germs and microbes. The latest number that I'm seeing, as I'm recording this, more than 50 inmates at Rikers Island in New York City-- that's just one jail here-- correctional officers there and elsewhere also have the virus now.

So the city is letting 300 inmates go. Right next door, New Jersey ordered 1000 inmates to be released this past week. You're seeing similar decisions like that-- they're not as widespread-- in Ohio, Illinois, Oklahoma, California, and Texas since the crisis hit. In San Francisco, the public defender's office urged the release of, quote, "All people who are immunocompromised or over the age of 60." Producer Sean Cole talked with somebody who made that cut.

Sean Cole

They're really two factors under consideration when figuring out who to release from jail or prison amid the COVID-19 outbreak. One, how severe was the crime? And then, two, how's the person's health? How vulnerable are they? And given these two criteria, one of the best candidates available for release--

Terry Smith

Hello.

Sean Cole

Hi, Terry?

Terry Smith

Yes, sir.

Sean Cole

--was Terry Smith. Hi, how are you?

Terry Smith

--or Ma'am.

Sean Cole

It's-- [LAUGHS] it's sir.

Terry Smith

It's lady?

Sean Cole

[LAUGHS]

Terry Smith

It's sir? OK, yeah, because I-- can you still hear me?

Sean Cole

I can hear you, yeah. Can you hear me?

Terry Smith

OK, I'm trying to get some privacy. I'm going to a spot where--

Sean Cole

I got a hold of Terry at a residential treatment program for veterans called Fresh Start. And they have facilities all over the country. This one, again, is in San Francisco. The court sent him there last week when it became clear that he might be in danger of sitting in a jail cell.

He'd been in the county jail for nearly a year, charged with breaking into a couple of garages, nothing violent. This was just his latest stint on these charges. He's been in and out a few times.

And at 64, soon to be 65 years old, Terry has a whole pileup of comorbidities that might sound a little overwhelming when I list them. He has a seizure disorder, PTSD from serving in Vietnam, and also being abused when he was a foster kid. He's a recovering heroin addict. And most pressingly right now, Terry suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, COPD.

It's a lung disease that already sent him to the hospital a couple of times, which is why he got so frightened when he heard about the thing that's apparently coming for everybody's lungs. Inmates at San Francisco County jail are allowed to watch TV from 7:00 to 8:00 in the morning. So he just saw it on the news.

Terry Smith

We watch everyday. And we saw it get worse and worse. And people started panicking in the jail. And they don't want to panic in jail.

You get a panic in jail, you know what that'd do? Where does that get you? It leads to people, oh, no. We ain't going back to our bunks. We're not-- for three days, we did not eat any meals.

Sean Cole

You didn't eat meals for three days?

Terry Smith

For three days.

Sean Cole

Because you were worried about getting the virus?

Terry Smith

No, well, because so, when they serve the meals, right?

Sean Cole

Mm-hmm.

Terry Smith

So you have a guy who hands you an empty tray. That's one meal. And there's five people who put something on the tray, the beans, and then they put it into the jello, or the salad. So that's five people, including the guy who puts the tray on there, six people.

And then you've got the guy that takes the tray at the end and stacks it up and put it on a cart. Now we're at seven people, right? They're not wearing masks. They're wearing gloves, but they're not wearing masks.

Sean Cole

So you think--

Terry Smith

Also--

Sean Cole

You think they're not taking enough precautions if they're in the jail.

Terry Smith

No, sir. I mean, they're doing the best they can. But I think they should-- those servers should be wearing masks.

There's no hand sanitizer. So no one wants to eat the food. They're scared. A lot of older guys start trying to teach the young guys, dude, you need to like start washing your bed areas.

You need to start really not touching each other. You stop hand touching. You're not even fully aware of how to, really-- to address this mess.

Sean Cole

Terry has served three years, not in prison, in jail, pre-trial, waiting for his case to be resolved. His lawyer, a guy named Eric Quandt, says that's the amount of time he should serve for the crimes he's accused of. And Eric has been filing motions, trying to get a settlement of some kind, maybe a plea deal. But it kept getting delayed and delayed. And then the virus hit.

Terry Smith

I was scared. And yes, to be honest with you, I was scared. I was scared to get the virus and die up here. Eric saved my life by doing what he did for me. Eric saved my life. And the judge.

Sean Cole

It just seems so crazy that it was a virus that, essentially, came to your rescue.

Terry Smith

Yeah, a virus.

Sean Cole

That was all it took for the criminal justice system to kick into gear, a deadly scourge that's devastating the world. So Terry is no longer behind bars and walks out into a city that's completely on lockdown. Remember, San Francisco was one of the first cities to issue a shelter in place ordinance. He told me he had all these fantasies about what he would do when he was free again-- see his girlfriend. Say hi to his friends. Instead, he's not seeing anyone except the other guys in the facility.

Terry Smith

My granddaughter's, we-- she's really close to me, real close, OK. I could wait. I'm getting out. I'm going to go get my baby and put her in my arms, you know what I mean?

So she says-- she don't understand. Papa, you're out. Why can't you come see me? I want to make sure that, when I come see you, I'm OK to come see you. I got to make sure I'm not bringing her nothing, you know what I mean?

Sean Cole

It's like these two opposite things, being incarcerated and not being incarcerated, inched ever so slightly closer to each other when Terry wasn't looking. His life kind of looks a lot like other people's in America right now, happening indoors, looking at the outside world like it's an exhibit. But listen to how he talks about it.

Terry Smith

I can look right now-- from the kitchen, I can see the beach. One block from me to the right, one block from me to the right is the park, Golden Gate Park. 10 blocks down, I can see the ocean. I see it every night.

I watch the sunset. I sat last night and watched the sunset-- red. So want to hear my breakfast? I had an avocado and banana.

Sean Cole

It's the same words that a lot of us are saying to each other on the phone or Skype or whatever. This is what I'm looking at out my window. This is what I ate. But for Terry, they're a celebration.

Ira Glass

Sean is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "BORED" BY MNEK"]

Act Four: Hello From the Other Side

Ira Glass

Act Four, Hello From the Other Side-- OK, so Emanuele Berry, who you heard earlier in the show in act two-- Emanuele used to live in China. And she's been texting back and forth with friends there since January when the virus shut down parts of that country. Now, as American cities are shutting down, a lot of her friends in China are texting her, asking how she's doing. Here's Emanuele.

Emanuele Berry

The other day, I got this text from China. It said, "A word from your future-- it will get better. Today, we were on the street, and it almost felt normal."

It arrived during a hard week. I was worried about my dad, who's high risk, money, my friends who work in hospitals, my best friend who's supposed to have a kid any day now. I'm constantly thinking about how uncertain each day feels. And I'm craving normal. My friend Rebecca Kanthor, sent it. She lives in Shanghai. And I called her to hear more about this normal.

Rebecca Kanthor

Oh, hey. I got to tell my husband to stop--

Emanuele Berry

[LAUGHS]

Rebecca Kanthor

He's like in the-- hey, yo. [NON-ENGLISH]. [WHISTLES]

Emanuele Berry

Rebecca is American, but she's lived in China for 17 years. She's married to a Chinese man. Her kids go to Chinese schools.

Rebecca Kanthor

He's carrying a hunk of frozen meat.

[LAUGHTER]

Emanuele Berry

Wait, for what? Is he cooking?

Rebecca Kanthor

I think he's hungry, and he wants to cut a piece off of it.

Emanuele Berry

Husband out of the way, we talked. China, of course, has had a much more aggressive response to the virus than anything that's happened in the states so far. They locked down Wuhan, traced contacts, isolated people who are sick, sometimes separating them from their families. The government mandated quarantines.

The governor of New York has suggested it might be four to nine months before a stay at home orders are lifted. But in Wuhan, just two months in, the city is set to open up again. And in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the few new cases being reported are coming from travelers. They've been told to resume life as normal.

Rebecca Kanthor

[SIGHS] How are you doing?

Emanuele Berry

How am I doing? [LAUGHS] I don't know. Like, I think I've accepted that it's going to be tough. But part of me just wants to, like, know that it's going to be OK at the end of it, even if it's going to be so like-- if it's going to be difficult, if that makes sense, you know?

Rebecca Kanthor

You want to know it's going to be OK in the end?

Emanuele Berry

I mean, what was it-- what was it like for you two months ago?

Rebecca Kanthor

Yeah, it's-- I mean, it definitely feels different now. I mean, two months ago, it just felt like, yeah, just so uncertain and things changing by the day. Yeah, so just every week was different.

Emanuele Berry

At this point, you're, maybe, on the other side of this-- possibly on the other side of this, like what-- what does that look like?

Rebecca Kanthor

Well, OK, so yeah, things are, you know, feeling much better here. I think it just feels like, you know, taking off like a really hot jacket. You know like when you're wearing a winter jacket and, all of a sudden, the weather gets warmer, and you're like, ah, I don't need to be wearing this anymore.

You take it off. And you've got short sleeve shirt-- short sleeves on. And you just feel just relaxed.

Emanuele Berry

Can you take the train now? Like, what are the trains like?

Rebecca Kanthor

Yes, I just saw a picture from the train today. And it would-- at the beginning, the trains were-- the subways were still running, I think, the whole way through.

But back in the beginning, there was like one or two people per car. And now, all the seats-- at least the photo I saw, all the seats were being sat in. But I haven't taken the subway since January.

Emanuele Berry

You haven't? Is there-- is there a reason for that? Or is it just--

Rebecca Kanthor

I think I just told myself that that was something that I could control. And I just thought, well, if I can get it there on my electric bike or my bicycle, then I'll go to those places. But if I-- I just--

I stopped taking taxis. And I stopped taking the subway. Even though they're all running, it's just kind of my personal thing that I decided I wasn't going to do.

Emanuele Berry

As I talked to Rebecca and other friends in China, I've noticed this thing. When they talk about things returning to normal, they start describing all these things that aren't normal.

Rebecca Kanthor

You know, everyone's still wearing a mask.

Emanuele Berry

Here, we're told not to wear a mask. In some cities in China, masks are mandatory.

Rebecca Kanthor

Or like I saw-- like the other day, I saw someone taking a selfie. And then, like, halfway through the selfie, they were like, oh, shoot. I'm still wearing my mask. So they to remember, take it off, and then take the selfie again.

Emanuele Berry

What-- does that mask-- does it sort of feel like this reminder to you that it's like, oh, this isn't normal?

Rebecca Kanthor

Yeah, yeah, it's kind of like-- because actually the government said you can take off your masks. They said-- you know, they had a press conference. And the government official took their mask off and was like, you can take your masks off. You only need them when you go into certain public areas. But in reality, most people are still wearing them.

Emanuele Berry

And it's not just that people are still wearing masks. Temperature taking is now everywhere.

Rebecca Kanthor

So when you go into any public space and also when you enter any housing compound, like an apartment complex, there's someone at the gate with a little body sensor thermometer. And they put it up to your head, or they put it on your wrist, and take your temperature.

Emanuele Berry

The newest thing for Rebecca to get used to has been this QR code system. It basically sorts people. Should you be quarantined or not? It's a little unclear how people are being sorted into these categories.

But it involves people's locations being tracked through their cell phone. If you've recently visited a hospital, been around a sick person, bought a train or a plane ticket, it's being monitored. The code is like an admission ticket to do anything in the city.

Rebecca Kanthor

I went to visit a friend at their apartment complex. And I had to-- first of all, I had to register my name, phone number, passport number. And then I also had to show them on my phone a-- like a QR code, like a little square code that shows that I've been in Shanghai for the past 14 days. So I get a green code.

And you know, the only way they can find that out is they have my phone records and like my GPS coordinates or whatever. I don't know how they find it. But that's not something that-- I don't know. Is that possible in the US?

Emanuele Berry

I don't-- I don't think-- I don't think so. [LAUGHS]

Rebecca Kanthor

Right, now, that offers-- that gives me-- that makes me feel like I have a sense of security, to be honest, because I look at it and I say, oh, well, I've been here for the past 14 days. I'm in the safe zone. You know, and if you go elsewhere, if you, maybe, go to another city or you travel abroad and you come back, then you're in a yellow zone or a red zone.

Emanuele Berry

To play the game of basketball, you need a QR code. And then when you get to the park, a volunteer takes your temperature before letting you in.

Rebecca Kanthor

They do limit the numbers of people going into the park across the street from my house. But there's just-- it's always lots of people there now. But I think they still-- I do not think they have let the ladies do their square dancing at night. I think that is not back to normal.

So usually, at nighttime, like around 7:00 PM in all the parks, you'll have like older women and older men doing dance routines, line dancing routines. And that has stopped. And I don't think it's come back.

Emanuele Berry

Rebecca says they discourage it because the crowds would be too much. I doubt that our future in the US looks anything like what Rebecca is describing. But everything feels so chaotic here. And the idea that eventually that feeling stops, you get used to the new normal, I can take comfort in that.

Ira Glass

Emanuele Berry.

[MUSIC - "MIAMI, 2017" BY BILLY JOEL]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Dana Chivvis and Nadia Reiman. The people put together today's show from their own homes-- Bim Adewunmi, Emanuele Berry, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Noor Gill, Damien Graef, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katharine Rae Mondo, Ben Phelan, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetela, and Matt Tierney.

Our managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum. Special thanks today to Clara Amfo, Patty Lyons, and everybody at Meals on Wheels in Savannah, Georgia, James Dominick Jr, Sammy Chase, Sam Braun, Vicky Ibarra, Daniel Harris, Peter McNally, George, Jamie Lowe, Adnan Khan, Alex, Kim Sue, Chuck Leong, Christina Peña, and Zelu Goa.

Our website, where, to pass the time in lockdowns in your own home, you can stream our archive of nearly 700 episodes for absolutely free, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, when I was in quarantine last week, he called me every single day to make sure I was OK. But I don't know, I don't think that he had the right list of symptoms. He kept asking me--

Jiayang Fan

Oh, is your butt hurting?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.