Us vs. the Virus

Hear from the workers on the front lines as a pandemic arrives in Portland.

As told to Tess Riski, Rachel Monahan and Nigel Jaquiss.

The speed of the events now unfolding in Oregon has been extraordinary.

In the past two weeks, the COVID-19 coronavirus has morphed from a distant, little-understood disruption in a distant part of China to an existential threat and a disruption to the life of every Portlander—and just about every American.

Just last week, life was normal. Kids dragged themselves to school; music filled sold-out concert halls like the Crystal Ballroom; and patrons stood in line for seats at restaurants like Afuri and Kachka. Basketball fans licked their chops in anticipation of high school and college tournaments—and Blazermaniacs counted the days until injured big man Jusuf Nurkic's March 15 return.

Today, Portland is a ghost town. Flights arrive at PDX nearly empty; schools and colleges are trying to figure out distance learning; and grocery store shelves are sparsely stocked. Most workers who can do their jobs remotely have turned their couches into home offices.

On March 16, Gov. Kate Brown closed all restaurants and bars in the state—turning Monday night at Portland's watering holes into a bleak echo of the last night before Prohibition began.

All of this because of an invisible threat: a virus that has overrun Seattle and spread widely throughout Oregon, wreaking havoc evocative of wartime.

For most Portlanders, the novel coronavirus has caused the greatest upheaval they've ever known. It created a void at the heart of civic life, and for most people, that emptiness has filled with anxiety and perhaps a resolve to avoid infecting others. They've been told to avoid contact with friends, stay home, and wash their hands over and over and over.

But some in this city do not have that choice.

We talked to 12 people who must go to work each day and directly confront the threat of illness. We talked to doctors, nurses and other health care workers, and also those who perform essential tasks at Portland International Airport, TriMet and the stores that will stay open when other retailers close. Each of them spoke for themselves, not their employers. (We also spoke to several workers whose jobs proved more dispensible—and, with social distancing in effect, they find their livelihoods vanishing.)

In the coming weeks, as levels of infection grow, it will be these workers and others like them who hold us all together by performing essential tasks. The work they do is invisible in normal times. But as Portland faces a pandemic for the first time in more than a century, life will be anything but normal.

Here are their stories.

Dr. Erika Moseson
39 | Pulmonologist
Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital

My patients usually can't talk to me, because they're on breathing machines. If someone comes in the ER and we say, "This person may be a COVID-19 case," right now we're trying to keep all of those people in negative-pressure rooms. These are rooms where the air is being pulled into the room so the aerosol is not going to spray out into the rest of the hospital. The question is: Are we going to have enough negative-pressure rooms?

Where it increases the risk for health care workers is something called aerosol-generating procedures. In my world, this happens when someone needs oxygen from a mechanical ventilator going into a tube through their lungs. You push a medicine to paralyze them, so they quit breathing on their own. And then you lay them down and, as quickly as possible, you get a tube through their mouth into their vocal cords, and you attach it to a ventilator—hopefully while their oxygen levels do not drop dangerously low.

It is a risky procedure. You can't do that 6 feet away from them. You're over their face and in their mouth. So in that situation, that's where we would be wearing the PAPRs—those little helmets that have the filters that are sucking things out—because we generate a ton of droplets there.

I haven't yet intubated a patient who I was sure had COVID-19, just because it hasn't come up on my shift yet. There's some patients where I'm like, they might have it. But we don't have the testing capabilities. We haven't seen a ton of coronavirus cases yet. But I'm sure it'll happen. We're still at the beginning of it.

I'm pretty sure I'm going to get coronavirus. I'd be shocked if I don't. Maybe it'll be a mild case and I didn't even know that I had it. If I need a ventilator and all the ventilators are full and all the hospitals are full, that's the only time where I'd get a little more scared for myself. But I am worried for my patients mostly. I have a patient panel full of really fragile people. There's the guilt of being a health care professional. I worry that if anyone I know who I love gets it, it will probably be through me.

Benjamin Deines
49 | Personal service assistant at Bags Inc., a Portland International  Airport contractor

I take the MAX to work every day. It's not comfortable right now, especially when it's crowded. And then when I get to the airport, I'm worried. You never realize how much you touch your face.

I work mainly down at the Horizon Air gates. If people have wheelchairs or aisle chairs or need to be met and assisted, that's what I do. The people I'm in contact with are typically older and have limited mobility. There's a lot of physical wear and tear in my job. We walk 6 or 7 miles a day, and you're putting a lot of weight on your back and your heels when you roll people down the jetway.

The big thing with the coronavirus is, there's been a noticeable decrease in travel. Since Saturday, March 7, during our spare time, we're supposed to wipe everything down with disinfectant towels. Sometimes, the people I assist are the last people off the plane. All those other people walking past, it's definitely become a concern.

Mainly, I'm concerned for the population I help. If I get infected, I'd be transferring it on the people I help. Many of them are over 80. I can't afford to get sick. I don't have health care because it's unaffordable. The company gives us sick days but don't encourage us to use them. In fact, they discourage it. A lot of people come to work sick. I read that COVID-19 tests cost $1,600 up in Seattle. There's no way I can pay that.

This thing is completely shutting down airports. I'm worried about getting sick, but I'm also worried about getting laid off. I work 35 hours a week. I'm lucky: A lot of people only get 30 hours. For me, there's not a lot of economic stability and the future is really precarious. We could get shut down for a couple of weeks or a month. It's very uncertain.

Chris Tyson
34 | TriMet bus cleaner

Friends have asked about whether something extra is being done because of the coronavirus. We've enacted a new protocol on top of normal cleaning. We are using antimicrobial wipes. Once we've done our initial cleaning, we do a second cleaning.

My background is in municipal wastewater management, so I've learned enough about the overall risks and enough to protect myself. You don't ever touch anything with bare hands. We wear gloves and do a lot of hand-washing like everybody else.

You have to get used to the idea that anybody can bring anything on the bus. Weirdest thing I ever found was human teeth: pretty good-sized molars, with the roots that extended down. We don't have time to wonder about things like that. We find drug paraphernalia, syringes, anything you can imagine. When you clean TriMet vehicles, you get a high tolerance for these kind of things. A MAX Red Line passenger tested positive for tuberculosis last year. They took that car out of service and cleaned it really well.

I'm not that worried about COVID-19. It's already here. People are definitely scared, and I understand how fear can muddle your thinking processes. We don't get to interact with riders, but as service workers, we are trying our best to make their rides as pleasant and healthy as we can.

Brooklyn (stage name)
23 | Exotic dancer
Old Town

Our clientele is so, so, so low right now. The weekdays have just been a graveyard. On Monday, I made a total of $30 because it was so slow. There were only one or two people there. I made roughly $300 on Tuesday and $300 on Thursday. That's a low number for me. My goals each day are around $600, and I usually cap that out very easily.

The Blazers games bring in so much business. I didn't realize it until the NBA shut down because of the coronavirus.

There's hand sanitizer everywhere. Our VIP hosts and our hostesses are all wearing gloves to limit how many interactions they have with people because they're always touching money and touching credit cards from people. We also are encouraging the older crowd to stay home.

It's really, really hard with lap dances, because you are on top of someone and you're face to face with someone and you don't know what they have. If they start to cough, maybe I could deny them. We sit on them, they touch us, we touch them. It's kind of like, there's no way around it. I do carry some hand sanitizer on me. That's basically all I can do. And wash my hands every time I touch money. I think to myself, OK, maybe I should just keep going to work until they finally close stuff down, because it's gonna happen. So I probably should just go and hustle until I physically can't.

I have a pretty hefty savings. I can be out of work for a couple of months and be fine. But there's also other girls at the club who either don't make as much as me or they don't really save up, and they're hurting right now. I've been looking into starting an online webcam. I'd rather have a person come into the club and have that connection there, where my stuff isn't all online. But, at this point, there's really nothing else I can do.

Saihou Suwaneh
51 | Caregiver, Eliot Group Home on North Williams Avenue

We take care of individuals who can't take care of themselves. They are very ill and very fragile people.

I come in at 6 am, and after talking to the night-shift team, I usually grab thermometers and take temperatures. And then I help clients take showers. I have to do everything for them. Most of them can't do anything for themselves: bathe them, brush their teeth, comb their hair. We have to move them every two hours so they don't get bed sores.

Last Monday, I went to work, and the night shift asked me if I heard the news that Oregon Health & Science University has a patient infected with the coronavirus. We had a client who was there at OHSU, and I was supposed to go and take care of him. I didn't want to go there, because I have little kids at home and everybody in the group homes where I work is very fragile. I texted my boss and shared my concerns. They are asking us to go into a place [OHSU hospital] that could already be infected with coronavirus because of that one patient. But I told my boss, if you ask me to go, I'll go.

From Monday through Friday, I've been going there. I put on a PPE—a gown and a mask—when I'm there. I don't feel I have any symptoms, but we are all scared. I'm not afraid for myself but for my two daughters, who are 11 and 12, and my wife. And the people I take care of are very sick. If they get anything, they will not survive. That's my biggest worry. I've been at Eliot for 18 years. We've been through winters and bad flu seasons, but for me, this is the scariest. This one scares the heck out of me.

Dr. Lisa Reynolds
56 | Pediatrician at the Children's Clinic of Oregon
Southwest Portland

In early January, I had a family who recently returned from China. They were among the last folks to be able to leave before travel was banned from China. Their son was sick, and we had to navigate that with the help of the health department. The boy ended up being fine, but we weren't able to test him for coronavirus. It kind of got us all on edge about, wow, how are all of us going to be managing this before things ramp up?

I am almost 100 percent certain I am seeing kids with coronavirus, but we have no capability at testing, so it's presumptive coronavirus. If you're collecting a sample from a patient, they're opening their mouth wide, there's a possibility for contamination from the patient to us through our nose and mouth.

I'm working this weekend, and I'm considering wearing a mask for every patient. I haven't decided yet, even though it means I would have to reuse a mask. We are getting to the point where we're going to think about reusing masks, which flies completely in the face of why we're using masks. If you take that mask off and use it again, you're either going to contaminate yourself or potentially someone else.

The weekends tend to be busy and kind of bam-bam-bam, one patient after another, and we would probably burn through a lot of masks if we used a fresh mask with every patient.

If we had an unlimited supply of masks, we would use a fresh mask for each patient. That would be ideal. It's a brave new world right now for sure.

(Disclosure: Reynolds is also running for state representative in House District 36.)

41 | Operating room nurse

Going into last week, we were on heightened alert. Once the stories started coming out of Italy, that's when we started feeling more uneasy. I knew it was coming, that we were going to downgrade to only emergency and urgent cases. I'm kind of surprised it didn't happen before that. There was a week there where I was working over 50 hours, and I did a whole bunch of elective surgeries, when I probably shouldn't have done that.

They started talking about how we're going to run out of supplies, and how the protective hoods are disposable, but for now we're going to be wiping them down. I definitely felt uneasy. And then they said it's going to be downgraded and it's going to be droplet precautions, so you don't need all of this. It makes us kind of wonder, is it really downgraded, or are we just running out of supplies? Everyone felt uneasy with that.

I discovered that I had a fever at work, so I locked myself in a small room. I started feeling chills and a little short of breath and checked my temperature before I saw any more patients, and then I realized I had a 99.9-degree fever. I called the employee health office and told them. Somebody came right away and saw me and told me I had to leave, which I knew already. I got home and they called me and said I don't meet the qualifications for the test. It's certainly possible that I could have transmitted it to a patient. You're contagious before you have a fever.

I've been home ever since. My husband's not feeling great. Now he's got a little fever, and now both of my kids have little fevers, too. I'm just assuming that's what it is. There are probably four in my house that are positive for COVID-19. But they're not counting us right now, because we don't have any tests, and that's super frustrating. And every one of us in this house was exposed to a lot of people all week.

Bryan Fearn
44 | Director of the Gresham branch of the Multnomah County Library

I don't think there was a specific day where a light turned on. In our location, we probably get between 800 and 900 people coming in every day. Toward the end of February, the first of March, we saw attendance drop in story times, which are usually pretty full. We were seeing a 15 percent drop.

We use Seventh Generation wet wipes and disinfectant wipes, as well as Purell hand sanitizer. We started to increase the number of times we were wiping down tables, chairs, keyboards, touch screens. We were providing a lot of disinfectant wipes for patrons. We also set up one those hand sanitizer dispensers in our lobby.

This last week, we were spending even more time cleaning toys. We ended up closing Lego Club and Pokémon Club. Those toys are really hard to clean, and there are so many of them. We tried to wipe down the puzzles. That ended up being a little more challenging than anticipated, so we ended up pulling those. You can clean an item every five seconds and all it takes is one person to create a mess.

We officially closed March 13 at 6 o'clock. I'm really concerned about what that means for our most vulnerable populations—obviously, the patrons who might be experiencing houselessness or rely on the library to complete work because they don't have internet access.

I don't know what life is going to look like going forward. I will be reporting to work tomorrow morning to check in on the building.

Michael Stewart
54 | Medical assistant at an outpatient HIV clinic

In 24 years as a medical assistant, I don't recall anything like this. The reality of it hit me last week. I talked to a doctor about it, and he said, "We don't have a treatment or a good barrier to stop it." Then all the cancellations took place. Everybody's on edge.

At the clinic, we see everybody from homeless folks to high-wage earners. We see gay men, transgender folks, substance abuse users. We treat them all the same. The clinic is up on the hill across from Oregon Health & Science University. The majority of patients we see are HIV positive. I work with about 12 to 16 patients a day, giving injections, refills, helping with procedures and so on.

Right now, we don't know whether people with HIV are more likely to get sick from COVID-19. But considering their ailment, we still want to be more cautious with them. So we are asking them not to travel. We see the average patient about every three months. We are discouraging people from coming in unless absolutely necessary.

This crisis has exposed the huge gaps we have in health care and the social safety net. We know homeless people are at huge risk—and a lot of our patients are homeless. They can't practice social distancing. They live in tents. There are a lot of people in our patient population who don't have good health care or benefits. What this crisis exposes is how the lack of paid time off and uninsured people put the entire society at risk.

I personally don't feel at great risk. The protocols we've been given are robust. If people come in with coughs or a fever, we gown down more than we would have. Now we are putting on PPE: a non-permeable gown, gloves, face shield, or goggles and a mask. And then we use extra precautions to clean the room. I let them know I'm putting it on in an abundance of caution and throw it away in that room. There's not a shortage of PPE at OHSU. We know there's an incubation period for the virus, and there's definitely a possibility that we could have been exposed before we put those precautions in place.

My oldest daughter and my wife have expressed concern about whether I'm at risk. They've said please, please be careful.

Grocery clerk | Market of Choice on Southeast Belmont Street

This past Thursday, the craziness started. Everyone is buying two to three times more than they usually do. Our sales a couple of days ago were higher than sales on Thanksgiving, which is absolutely insane.

We were half-out of toilet paper, pasta and bread. People have been buying a lot of root vegetables. We have sold out of russet potatoes for the last four days, which has never happened ever.

People are thinking they're going to be in their house for a month. [But they're] not buying any green bananas. There was a day where we had a bunch of green bananas and no one was buying them. All of the unripe avocados—super hard green ones are still on the shelf. Why are you buying all the ripe produce when it's going to go bad in a couple of days?

It's been interesting—the fact that people are afraid to get sick, but everyone is swarming through the grocery store and not wearing gloves and being in super close contact with people and touching all the things. People have been fine with waiting in a line that's down the aisle, eight persons deep. They're fine with chilling there.

People have been telling us, "Thank you. We appreciate you." Which is great. People have been more gracious than usual. Why can't you be like this all the time?

I am glad I'm in the situation where I do have work. But also it's quite terrifying being around all of these people all day, especially when the governor is saying she doesn't want people to have gatherings of more than 25 people. There are over 25 people in the grocery store working at all moments, let alone all the customers.

Jessi Duley
38 | Owner and instructor at Burn Cycle, a chain of four indoor cycling workout centers

On Thursday, we decided to start taking some drastic measures around tapering our classes and changing our schedules to spread them out a little bit farther so there would be minimal crowds in the studio. We stopped using weights and props. We had our front desk people checking everybody in so no one would even grab the same pen.

And then by Sunday, it was just too stressful on my team. We made the call on Sunday to close. I'm not trying to be dramatic, but people were sobbing and thanking us for staying open because they had nowhere else to go to be positive, or they lived alone and they hadn't spoken to another human in a week.

Business wasn't even bad. Business was fine. But the stress that it was putting on my team, and the social responsibility, what I started to see was, we're all kind of on a different page, and it seems like the faster we can all just get on the same page and lock it down, the faster we can move through this and get back to business as usual.

It's agonizing. There's repercussions for not responding, and there's consequences for overreacting. So you're just in this horrible double-bind. You're trying to take care of your employees, you're trying to take care of your clients, but you're also trying to think with a global perspective. If we stay open, people will continue to come, and so we're not going to get where we need to be.

Ethically, we just felt it was the right thing to do. But it's just fucking agonizing. You feel like you let your team down, even though you have no control. I'm also a daughter of the most at-risk population: My mother is in chemo right now. So it's a double whammy. I feel it to my absolute core right now. The fear of, will my small business survive? Will my mother survive?

Tim Perry
44 | Bartender at Bunk Bar on Southeast Water Avenue

[The owner] just said a couple hours before 8 o'clock on Sunday, "Let's just close. Put a sign on the door. Let's close." At that point, all of these states had said no more restaurants and bars, so it was just a matter of time.

I am filing for unemployment starting yesterday morning, and the website is down and the phone number is constantly out of service and busy. I tried and tried until they kicked me off when they closed at 5 yesterday, and I've been trying all morning.

We're closed until mid-April, but I don't feel confident that we're only closed until mid-April. I don't feel confident in anything. Every day, things change. I don't think that we're just going to go back to work next month and it's all going to be good. It's scary. I'm literally in my exercise clothes right now because I'm just trying to find ways to channel my anxiety and I'm exercising a lot and jogging and making music and staying at home. My girlfriend's out there doing GrubHub. I'm wondering when I'll be able to get through to the unemployment office and figure out how long this is going to last.

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