Profits Before People
A personal account of COVID-19 response in the U.S.
By Rebeca Toledo  ·  2020-03-29  ·   Source: Web Exclusive

People wait in line to shop at a supermarket in New York, the U.S., on March 26 (XINHUA) 

When I arrived at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport from China at the end of February, I thought for sure I wouldn't be allowed off the plane because of the anti-China hysteria that was in full swing in the U.S. due to the coronavirus.  

Yet to my surprise, no medical personnel boarded the plane or checked us as we disembarked. At U.S. customs, an officer did point me toward a special line, which got my heart racing. As I approached the desk, first in line, I almost lost it when the attendant picked up the phone and said, "We have one," referring to me. Workers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out wearing masks and gloves, but no full body protection like I had seen at the Beijing airport. They took my temperature (which was fine), asked me a few questions about where I'd been, gave me some literature and sent me on my way. As I boarded my connecting flight, I couldn't help but think: Where were the precautions? Don't get me wrong, I was glad to get through, but still. 

The next day, I received a call from a local department of health worker advising me that I had to self-quarantine and report my temperature and any symptoms to her for the next 14 days. The poor woman prefaced this by saying, "Well that's what we were told today. It could change tomorrow."  

It was then that I started to realize the U.S. had no plan in place for containing or controlling the virus, despite the fact that it had been spreading around the world for nearly two months. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government led by the Communist Party of China had taken herculean measures to safeguard the people in the face of this new virus, but in the U.S., President Donald Trump insisted that it was no big deal and that it was under control. 

I completed my quarantine the second week in March and was eager to see my mother, who is 83 years old. After arriving in New York and before heading to Connecticut to see her, I started to get a slight sore throat and cough. Worried for my mom, I set out to get tested, hoping that it would be as easy as it was in China, especially as coronavirus cases started to grow in the city. 

I was staying with a friend who knows the New York City health system well and she advised me to go to a public hospital. I arrived at the Bellevue Hospital emergency room wearing a mask and gloves and was led to a cramped little waiting area, which scared me. 

In stark contrast to what I was used to in China, I was shocked to see that hardly any of the staff was wearing masks, gloves or any other protective gear. I was surrounded by four rooms, which I figured were for people with coronavirus symptoms. As I waited, I heard a knock coming from one of the rooms. I alerted the staff and ran to the other end of the room. A medical worker wearing no protective gear opened the door and led the woman, who was wearing a mask, visibly weak and sick, to the bathroom.  

After about two hours, a nurse practitioner wearing absolutely no protection approached me and told me I didn't have enough symptoms to get tested for COVID-19, something that in China was free and I believe available to just about everyone. I could get tested for the flu, he said, and maybe tomorrow the rules would change. In the meantime, he offered me an inhaler. Outraged, I asked him how that was supposed to help me, but I also felt sorry for him, since he clearly had no answers. 

Shortly afterward, a hospital worker arrived to clean the rooms to the left of me. He had no protective gear on, not even gloves. He started gathering regular cleaning supplies to go into the first room, which horrified me since I recalled seeing special cleaning materials to deal with infectious diseases in China. I was glad to see that he finally did put on a plastic gown, face shield and gloves. 

After about an hour, another nurse practitioner came to administer my flu test. She seemed to take an interest in my case and began asking me leading questions. Eventually, she asked me if I needed to care for anyone who was elderly with underlying health conditions and I told her about my mother who has high blood pressure. 

That seemed to do the trick because she then said I could be tested for COVID-19. She belatedly put on a protective gown, face shield and gloves and led me to one of the rooms, which I assumed had been occupied by someone else before me. Worried, I stood in one spot and touched absolutely nothing.  

The test itself was two giant cotton swabs shoved up each of my nostrils, which hurt and made me tear up, but otherwise was fine. She also tested me for the flu and all other viruses. As I sat waiting for the results, I thought about how relieved I'd be once I finally knew for sure. 

Two hours later, she came to tell me my flu test came back negative and indicated that the other virus test, called BioFire, would be back the next day. If that came back negative, she said, then and only then would they send out for the COVID-19 test, which would take another five days to get back. I listened in disbelief, pretty sure that in China a rapid result was possible. 

So after almost six hours in a frightenedly contaminated environment, I was told I was free to go. Even though I hadn't been given any instructions, thanks to all the information I had accumulated in China, I knew I needed to self-quarantine given my symptoms, which luckily cleared up soon after.  

Two days later, the BioFire test came back negative and a whole week later, my COVID-19 test results showed that I didn't have it. Exactly two days after that, I got a big, fat bill from Bellevue for $3,641.44 for the battery of tests they had run, something unheard of in China, and came after the ER staff had assured me repeatedly that despite not having insurance, I would not be charged.  

The financial situation in the U.S. is dire for millions of people who have lost their jobs or can't secure jobs in the middle of this pandemic. I am now staying with my sister, self-quarantining indefinitely as the coronavirus sweeps the country unimpeded because the systems that need to be in place to combat the disease, that I saw emerge almost miraculously in China, are sorely missing in the U.S. 

Turning on the news is like a roll of the dice. Perhaps there will be a medical authority telling the truth about how out of control the pandemic is in the U.S. But perhaps it will be Vice President Mike Pence saying that millions of test kits are available when they clearly are not or even worse, Trump calling for saving Wall Street over lives. 

Meanwhile, the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet was trending recently and toilet paper and other necessities are hard to find, as people show no faith that the government will take care of them. They worry that if they or their loved ones get sick, they will not get the treatment they need. They worry that they will not survive financially come next month or even next week. For immigrants held in detention or hounded by authorities, it's a matter of day-to-day survival. 

In my time in Beijing during the peak of the epidemic in China, this was never the case. I was perfectly fine in self-quarantine for 24 days. I had plenty of groceries, water, toilet paper and peace of mind. I felt safe. 

But it's a whole different story here in the U.S., where the government puts profits before people, where healthcare workers don't have the right protection or equipment, where people can't get tested or treated, where they can't afford to buy daily necessities or pay their rent, and where hospitals have to compete for available supplies. This is the situation today in the richest country in the world. 

The author is a former editorial consultant with Beijing Review 

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