Last Monday, I returned home from an exciting weekend at a New Orleans conference of journalists from around the country and the world. It was three days of hands-on workshops, expert panels, social events and frozen daiquiris. I had a blast.
Tuesday, back in Santa Fe, I went to the office. That evening, shortly after returning home, I – along with the thousand or so other attendees – received an alarming message.
“A person who attended the NICAR20 conference in New Orleans last week tested presumptively positive today with COVID-19,” stated the email from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the conference organizer.
It went on to advise every participant to call his or her state’s Department of Health, which I immediately did — only to be directed to the closest emergency room. Unfortunately, the advice at University of New Mexico Hospital seemed in conflict with what I’d just been told. There was no test for someone asymptomatic like me, and anyway, the ER doctor added, “There are not enough tests to go around.” Go home and quarantine yourself for 14 days, she said. Come back if you start coughing and spike a fever.
Her words filled me with dread. And since there’s no chance of getting tested, there is no way to calm my fears. I have no idea whether I came in contact with the sick person, since IRE has decided not to identify that individual, out of concern for his or her privacy.
Withholding this information may fall in line with the federal HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy guidelines, but organizations like IRE are not necessarily well served by those guidelines. They leave people like me – and the 1,000 others who attended the conference – in limbo. I have no clue if I ran into this person at one of the many social events, shared a pencil in a study group, or rubbed elbows ordering a drink in the lobby bar.
And since I wasn’t informed about the possible exposure until Tuesday night, I also worry that I may inadvertently have exposed my coworkers. Now everyone is working from home, and our office has undergone a professional cleaning.
Making ends meet
It’s been a week since I went into the ER, and I haven’t left my apartment even once. Before, working from home on Fridays was a perk of my job. It provided relief from my commute, and the privilege to spend the morning working alongside my dog. Now I can’t wait to get back in the office.
I shouldn’t complain though. Yesterday, I learned that a second person at the conference had come down with symptoms and tested positive. After nine days, I have no symptoms other than a little cabin fever. I’m able continue to do my job from home and receive a regular paycheck. Not everyone is so lucky.
Also at the conference was Joe Rull, a 21-year-old student journalist and junior at the University of New Mexico. For him, this quarantine means missing work and losing his primary income for two weeks — something he can hardly afford.
Joe works part-time at a restaurant in Albuquerque as a server, supplementing the small income he makes writing and editing for UNM’s student newspaper, The Daily Lobo. “I refer to myself as a journalist because that is where I want to be, but my breadwinner is my serving job, by far,” he says.
When he told his boss at the restaurant about his possible exposure to COVID-19, the reaction was immediate.
“They wiped all of my shifts from the schedule,” Joe says. “And they said that I can’t come back until I test negative.”
It’s a no-win situation, however, since Joe does not meet Department of Health criteria for testing. Like me, he exhibits no symptoms and has not traveled out of the country.
Who knows if he’ll ever return to that job? The restaurant may end up closing its doors altogether, as a result of new guidelines that restrict restaurant capacity.
“I’ve been saving up for a while. I probably have a couple months of rent,” he says. “It’s scary and I am incredibly fortunate that I just happened to be hoarding money like this. But I obviously don’t want to exhaust the savings that I worked for three months for, just to blow it on me sitting in my room, not sick.”
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