CHARLOTTE – March 17, 2020: one year ago today, Governor Cooper banned sit-down service at bars and restaurants. It was one in a series of steps that would abruptly and completely change life as we knew it. Three days earlier, Cooper called for all K-12 schools in the state to suspend in-person instruction for at least two weeks and banned gatherings of more than 100 people. Just one week later, on March 24, Mecklenburg County would impose a stay-at-home order requiring the closure of all but essential businesses and prohibiting gatherings of over ten people.
A full year later, the United States has seen 29.2 million cases of COVID-19 and over half a million deaths related to the virus. As of March 10, 2021, North Carolina alone has had 881 K cases and 11,577 deaths. Here, we look back at a year with COVID-19 and share the stories of nine individuals living in our “new normal.”
“This is a disease unlike any other.”
In April of 2020, Marr Chaney’s friend was diagnosed with bronchitis. She was told she wasn’t contagious after 24 hours on antibiotics, but two weeks later, Marr found themself coughing as well.
“I was coughing very badly for over a month,” remembers Marr, who only narrowly avoided a trip to the hospital. “Any time I took a breath, it felt like I was trying to breathe in fiberglass. My partner ended up having to sleep on the couch because I would wake us both up at night with my coughing.”
Marr and her friend were sick before COVID was spreading widely in NC, before we even knew much about it. “We both had rapid tests done, but at that time they were barely reliable,” says Marr. “She got the antibody test, and that came back positive. I got a chest x-ray a few months afterward that confirmed it was COVID.”
Almost a full year later, COVID still deeply impacts Marr’s life. “I used to be super active, going hiking, kayaking, and camping,” they said. “Early last month, I was taking a short hike, but I couldn’t breathe right at all. Any time I hit even a slight incline, I would start huffing and puffing and was completely unable to catch my breath. It got to the point where I was seeing stars and had to sit down. When I got home, I went to my doctor to get my oxygen levels looked at, and they were hanging around 94% while I was just sitting. On the treadmill, the level tanked to 90%, and I felt like I was going to pass out again.”
It’s also affected their state of mind. “I’m so scared that I’ll catch it again,” says Marr, who lives in Uptown Charlotte. “ My aunt caught COVID twice, and she passed away the second time around. That really spiked my anxiety. I can barely leave to go to the grocery store. So many people still refuse to wear masks.”
“I just want to scream at them,” Marr says of people who don’t mask up. “I want them to understand just how terrible this virus is. It’s almost been a whole year since I caught COVID, and I’m still suffering. This is a disease unlike any other. I don’t understand the selfishness that comes with people who refuse to wear a mask. Sure, it’s uncomfortable, but so is never being able to breathe right again.”
“Doctors and nurses know the person in front of them is sick. Grocery store workers didn’t sign up for this.”
In the early days of COVID, people fearful that they might be facing a long period of isolation at home rushed to stock up on supplies, placing further strain on a supply chain that was already stretched thin. “I’d see people walk out with two and three carts full of stuff,” says Harris Teeter worker Rachel Chisum. “It got to the point where suppliers couldn’t keep up, so we’d be out of toilet paper and paper towels for weeks at a time. People would get really angry when we were out of things, and they’d get really nasty with me or other employees.”
While you might think working at a grocery store gives employees an advantage when it comes to securing low-stock items, Rachel found the reverse was often true. “So often, by the time we got off work, the store was out of the things we needed,” she remembers. “Some of my coworkers would come into work early to pick up necessities and put them in their cars.”
Compounding the stress she felt at work was the isolation Rachel felt at home. Like many young adults, Rachel and her boyfriend were both living with their parents when the world shut down. Uncomfortable with contact from anyone outside their home, Rachel’s boyfriend’s parents would not allow her to come over, and the pair went without seeing each other for two months.
If there’s a silver lining to Rachel’s story, it’s this: in September, she and her boyfriend moved to Kannapolis together. “We were already planning on moving in together, and we’d been looking a little bit for places when COVID hit,” she says. “Spending that time apart is what kind of lit a fire under us to actually find a place quicker than we were before.”
Moving during a pandemic brought its own set of challenges, but Rachel and her boyfriend are happier now. “It’s nice to be able to come home to the person you love, especially after a stressful day of work,” she says.
When I asked Rachel if she feels grocery store workers should be getting the same recognition doctors and nurses on the front lines do, she’s conflicted. “I keep going back and forth on that,” she says. “Like for the Super Bowl. They invited healthcare workers because they’re on the ‘front lines,’ but what about grocery store employees or cashiers at places like Target and Walmart?”
“I do think grocery store employees are just as important,” she continues, “because if it weren’t for us then the stores wouldn’t be open, and people wouldn’t be able to get food and water and the other things they need in their day to day lives. Plus, there’s always the chance we could come in contact with someone who is sick, too. The difference is doctors and nurses know that the person in front of them is sick. Healthcare workers know they could eventually be putting their health at risk when they go into that field. Grocery store workers don’t sign up for that, and we don’t have the same protection they do.”
“If I can make a difference in one person’s life, it will make it all worth it.”
Suffering from a rare and severe migraine condition, 22-year-old Hannah Shelton wasn’t expected to survive her teenage years. Now, at the age of 22, the various medications and treatments Hannah endures to treat that condition make her immunocompromised.
Nevertheless, Hannah chose to pursue a career in nursing, working as a Certified Nursing Assistant at Novant Health Matthews and studying to be a Registered Nurse. When she reflects on being a healthcare worker, an immunocompromised person, and a full-time nursing student during a pandemic – well, it’s hard to know where to start.
“I wouldn’t say it was ever easy but the last 6-8 months have been the hardest,” says Hannah. “During the beginning of the pandemic, I couldn’t go to my doctor’s office for routine treatment, which caused increased symptoms and put me off my medical regimen. My health affects everything else I do, but it wasn’t anything I could change or fix. Life continued rolling and I had to just deal with it the best I could.”
Until about 6-8 months ago, Hannah didn’t see much COVID in the hospital or on her unit because COVID positive patients were sent to bigger hospitals. However, just before Thanksgiving, Hannah and her colleagues got word that her entire unit would now be treating COVID.
“Every single closed door on my unit would have a COVID patient behind it,” says Hannah. “It was rough on us – the staff, the patients, and the family. Every one of us held many hands through all our PPE and gloves as the patients struggled to breathe. We had many people recover enough that they got to go home, but we also had those who never got that opportunity. It was even harder to mentally wrap your mind around the idea that the people they loved the most couldn’t be there.”
When she wasn’t caring for COVID patients at the hospital, Hannah was still in school full time as a nursing student. “This pandemic has been hard for me as a student as well because our class is all virtual, and when we do have lab or clinical we are all masked, washing our hands, distancing, or whatever possible to prevent an outbreak,” says Hannah.
Holding the hands of dying patients during the day. Struggling through a modified nursing program at night. Worrying for her own health. It would be enough to get anyone down, but Hannah chooses to see the positive. “During the beginning of COVID we had so much support from the surrounding community,” she says. “There wasn’t a day we didn’t have food or other gestures of thanks. Local police, fire, and other town officials from Matthews, Mint Hill, and Charlotte even did a drive-by parade at Novant Matthews to show thanks and support. This entire pandemic has taught me that there are still people in the world that care and respect others as well as their actions. It has taught me that we need to listen more. We need to listen to other people’s concerns, praises, and stories because we never know what someone has been through. It has taught me that every day isn’t given to us, it is earned.”
And while the last year has been tough, it hasn’t altered Hannah’s ambitions one bit. “While nursing school is a lot, and some days it makes me question if I am making the right decision, there is no way I’d stop,” she says. “I feel whole-heartedly that this is my calling, and if I can make a difference in one person’s life, it will make it all worth it.”
“COVID has taken a lot of important milestones away from me.”
“If I had one word for being a senior in college during a pandemic it would be: disappointing,” says UNC-Charlotte Senior Olivia Oyler. “ Not being able to actually have a graduation ceremony is a huge letdown, especially after working so hard the last four years. COVID has taken a lot of important milestones away from me. It feels like I got robbed of a year and a half of memories. Especially since college is ‘supposed’ to be one of the best times of your life.”
She also worries about job security, something she didn’t think would be a problem once she had her bachelor’s degree. A psychology major with a minor in child and family development, Olivia had originally planned to continue on to grad school, but now she’s not so sure.
“I hate to say it because I know all the professors are trying really hard, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m getting a quality education right now,” admits Olivia, who has been remote since last March and questions whether colleges should be charging full tuition for what amounts to self-teaching. “A lot of us college students also feel left in the dark because colleges don’t update us frequently enough. Most of the professors just upload lecture videos, and then you’re on your own unless you reach out for help.”
The last year and a half has soured Olivia on the idea of paying for what might turn out to be remote grad school. “I don’t think graduate school would be worth attending during COVID,” she says. “I don’t want to continue paying tuition and not actively learn! I want to do counseling psychology, and I feel like learning to have appropriate interactions with clients would need to be practiced in person.”
While she’s worried that she’s not mastering the ins and outs of counseling the way she had hoped, Olivia does feel living through COVID has taught her valuable life skills. “The silver lining is I’ll be more flexible in the workplace and prepared for change,” she says. “I’ve also maintained a high GPA which shows perseverance during a high-stress time.”
Next week we will share COVID-19: One Year Later- Part 2