On Tuesday, I took a young friend to the hospital. The case had nothing to do with COVID-19, more commonly referred to as the new coronavirus — at least not initially.
Things in the emergency room were quiet. Doctors and a few nurses wore surgical masks. My friend was checked in and then I accompanied her to her room. When we got there, we found that her roommate had sniffles and a heavy cough. The woman told us she had been there since earlier in the day. Perhaps journalists are naturally mistrustful people, but I followed the orderly out of the room and asked if the woman had been tested for COVID-19. “Why?” he asked, looking at me with a bewildered expression on his face.
“Well,” I said, “because she is sniffling and coughing all the time.”
The orderly replied: “It’s flu season — that’s just the way it is.” And then he left.
I left, too, but only to go home and pick up a few things. When I got back to the hospital, a nurse came in to announce dinner. My friend was instructed that she could eat at a buffet with rolls, cold cuts and salad set up in a room next to the kitchen. Her roommate was served dinner in bed, by a nurse without a mask.
I asked the nurse if my friend could be moved to a different room. “No,” he told me. “We’re full.” Then, in an apparent effort to ease my mind, he told me something he shouldn’t have: “The patient did not travel to any regions where the virus is spreading, nor has she had contact to anyone with a coronavirus infection.”
‘Free to move’
On Wednesday, as I arrived to work at DW in Berlin, I received a text message from my friend: “Sitting in bed, wearing a mask, can’t leave the room.” It seems that doctors finally did test her for COVID-19. I asked my friend where her roommate was. “Here, with me,” was the reply I got. She said staff at the hospital had told her that they would not have test results until the following morning.
I called the hospital to find out what was happening. The nurse referred me to the ward physician, who she said would call me right back. I got another text message from my friend about 15 minutes later. It read: “Quarantine lifted. Free to move around unmasked. Heading to ergotherapy now.” Needless to say, I was a bit perplexed.
Two hours later, I received a call from the ward physician. He told me that the patient did not meet criteria defining suspicion of infection as laid out in guidelines from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). Therefore, he assured me, neither myself, my friend, nor the nursing staff were considered infectious. As testing capacity is limited in Germany, the RKI suggests testing only those patients who show symptoms of coronavirus, have had contact with people infected by it or have traveled to high-risk regions. The doctor went on to tell me that the test results would be in by morning, and that at that point a decision would be made as to whether we were officially contagious — at which point we, too, would be tested.
Still, I was labeled potentially contagious by DW’s management. I have no problem with that, and, in light of events across the world, I think that is the right approach. On Twitter, one can find countless stories that echo my own hospital experience. A friend of mine who is a nurse at several different Berlin hospitals says she sees such situations every day. She tells me that, even if a patient clearly has a respiratory infection, it isn’t enough to warrant a coronavirus test.
Panic and recklessness
On Wednesday, Berlin’s public health officers held a press conference to sound the alarm. They called for the cancellation of public events and crowd avoidance in light of the coronavirus outbreak; they also suggested closing all bars and nightclubs. “If we don’t,” Patrick Larscheid, the medical officer for the capital’s Reinickendorf district, told the public broadcaster Radio Brandenburg-Berlin (RBB) in an interview after the press conference, “there will be no way to control it.”
“We know that we have to break all social contact at this phase of the pandemic if we are to have any chance of keeping the number of infections down,” Larscheid said. He added that it would be pointless to only cancel events of 1,000 or more people. “The number is completely irrelevant,” Larscheid said. “For instance, we have seen a number of infections stemming from Berlin nightclubs.” Even though far fewer than 1,000 people were in those clubs, he said, they had much more contact with one another: “That is far more dangerous than when a bunch of people sit in the same room.” Should Germany fail to radically react to the threat on an individual level, Larscheid said, the country will be overrun with the virus as Italy now is.
On my way home from the office, I called my 82-year-old mom to repeat the advice that I have been giving her for days: Stay home!
“I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as they say, and I’m not staying home,” she told me. “I wash my hands 10 times a day, I don’t hug or kiss anybody, and I keep my distance from others.”
I tried a more drastic approach: “If you have to go to the hospital, we won’t be able to visit you — not even if you die.”
“Child,” she said, “you know you’ll just ignore them.”
Scanning Twitter, I came across a woman looking for a self-help group for the children of elderly parents who refuse to acknowledge the threat of coronavirus. I think I’ll start looking, too.