As she talked about not being able to see her grandkids, Judith Kyle began to cry.
Due to her age and her underlying health conditions, Kyle, 74, is among those who are at particularly high risk of developing severe symptoms if exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that is known to have killed 22 people in Washington state, most of whom were older people. So even though neither Kyle nor her husband, Jan, has exhibited any symptoms of the virus, they’ve chosen to isolate themselves in their Everett home over the past two weeks.
“I [used to] see my grandchildren every week or 10 days, and they yell and scream when I get there, ‘Grandma!’ and I miss that tremendously,” said Kyle, through sobs over the phone. “If I do get this disease, I might not see them again.”
King County announced recommendations last week directing people at a higher risk of developing serious symptoms from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, to stay home and avoid large groups if possible.
Numerous public events have been canceled, many people are now working remotely, and thousands more have taken to spending more time at home. However, that number will likely grow — Gov. Jay Inslee hinted on Sunday that “social activities” could be curtailed in the near future as the state tries to contain the spread of the virus.
Self-isolation measures are not new to the elderly and the immunocompromised, who are at high risk of developing severe symptoms if exposed to the virus. For these people, isolating themselves in their homes is a necessary step to limit possible exposure — if they are fortunate enough that their circumstances allow them to stay home. But such isolation comes with its own challenges and risks, from loneliness to worries about access to medical necessities.
We spoke to local people who are at high risk and a mental health professional about the challenges of isolation, coping strategies and concerns about the future.
“It sucks up your life”
Kyle, a retired nurse, realizes that her age and chronic diseases put her in the “crosshairs” of COVID-19 and she has used her nursing knowledge to take precautions and self-isolate.
“We just decided to try and save our own lives, and we decided staying in place was our best bet,” said Kyle, a cancer survivor who has also lost a kidney and her thyroid gland.
The Kyles no longer go to stores, they order their groceries online and disinfect them when they arrive. They stopped all their social activities, including going to church, and now watch church services on TV.
After only two weeks, they’ve already faced some challenges. When their sink clogged, they had to call in a plumber, a risk that the plumber helped mitigate by complying with Kyle’s requests for precautions like washing his hands and keeping a safe distance.
A bigger challenge came when Kyle attempted to have prescriptions filled early so she would not have to venture out to the pharmacy. After several phone calls, she was able to reach a third-level supervisor who overrode the restrictions on her prescriptions, allowing her to obtain a long-term supply of medication.
“These are things I cannot do without, or it will kill me,” said Kyle. “I’ll die. I won’t need the virus if I don’t have my meds.”
Kyle says the biggest challenge is simply feeling like she’s losing time.
“The real thing I resent is that it’s sucking up my life,” she said. “I’m one of those people who maybe has five years, you know. It sucks up what you have that’s good. … I don’t want to spend one more minute on this. I want to go out, I want to go for a walk, I want to meet people.”
Coping with self-isolation
Life can get equally lonely at the moment for Carleigh Bedell, 55, a retired choir director, who began self isolation in her Ballard home more than a month ago.
Every day, she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to read over a cup of coffee. Then she spends two hours catching up on the latest news and science about COVID-19. After eating breakfast and completing some chores, she then has prayer and meditation time.
She might take advantage of a less-crowded Golden Gardens Park and venture out for a walk. In the afternoon, she watches Netflix and has lunch. In the evening she calls her kids, cooks dinner, plays some video games and watches TV.
This has been Bedell’s routine since she got serious about isolating herself as news about the virus spread.
After living with hepatitis C for 38 years, Bedell was left with chronic lung problems and recently recovered from pneumonia. Knowing she was at a higher risk from the virus, she began taking precautions early.
Bedell isn’t new to self-isolation. When the swine flu (H1N1) virus hit the U.S. in 2009, Bedell was stuck at home along with her 5-year-old son and 16 year-old-daughter.
That taught her that it’s vital to keep a schedule, but it’s also why she doesn’t want to go through such isolation again. Now, her kids are older and live in New Orleans. Although she Facetimes with them every day, she says it is sometimes difficult to combat the loneliness of isolation.
“You have to manage loneliness,” she said. “The best way to do that is to call people.”
Trying to stay level-headed
Six months pregnant with a baby that has a rare heart defect, tech worker Jessica Speigel, 39, was landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport when she learned on Twitter about King County’s new recommendations that immunosuppressed individuals, including pregnant women, should stay home.
Back at home, she decided to start self-isolating. Speigel is most worried about going into preterm labor if she contracts the virus. Her baby’s heart defect is associated with a high mortality rate, and an early labor could make things worse.
“I worry about access to the right medical care when it’s time for us to give birth,” she said. “But I’m more worried about the [government] response right now. If this actually becomes an epidemic across the U.S. I have no faith in the current administration’s ability to deal with it.”
Still, Speigel said she’s focusing on staying rational by taking “the most common-sense precautions” and heeding county guidelines. She and her partner have bought enough groceries to last a couple of weeks and are limiting socializing to small gatherings.
So she won’t be going to the Sounders match this weekend, but will attend a friend’s small watch party instead.
“Isolation can be bad for your mental health, too,” she said. “You have to think about what’s more risky — isolating or possibly exposing yourself to this virus by going outside of your house. So, I’m just trying to be stable.”
To cope, she’s focused her energies on prepping for her baby’s arrival and trying to look on the bright side of things.
Find ways to help the anxiety
Dr. Douglas Zatzick, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Washington Medical School and Harborview Medical Center, agrees that isolation can affect one’s mental health.
“It’s only human to be anxious about this. If you’re vulnerable — elderly, immunocompromised — the anxiety is even more warranted,” he said. “There are things that can drive the anxiety and things that can help the anxiety.”
Bedell’s, Speigel’s and Kyle’s observations and recommendations echo Zatzick’s suggestions for people in isolation— stay active, keep a schedule, monitor your social media use, avoid unreliable news sources, stay connected with people virtually as much as possible.
Zatzick suggests people in isolation stay connected with community to combat depression, and said he hopes that communities will step up and extend support to those who are at high risk and have to stay home. Those in self-isolation should seek out online support groups and community resources in Washington for mental health support as needed.
Kyle said her neighbors have been supportive, but she’s more concerned about those who do not have the luxury of staying home.
“We need to take care of people,” she said. “What about the people who are living on Social Security and pensions and can’t afford to stock up on groceries? I worry about those people who don’t have what I have. That’s something I would have worked on as a young working person. I think we have to be prepared to help our neighbors.”
How to not get sick of each other
Then, there’s also the opposite problem. Although they have each other to combat loneliness, the Kyles have run into the challenge of sharing their small house in Everett. They cope with this by taking up independent activities and respecting each other’s alone time.
Judith Kyle stays politically active by writing letters and making phone calls to state and national leaders about the government reaction to the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, her husband, a French horn player who belonged to a community orchestra prior to isolation, has been learning one of his wife’s favorite Mozart concertos.
It is their hope that when the coronavirus situation dies down, he will play the concerto for their grandkids.
Despite the worry about COVID-19, Bedell is keeping a good sense of humor about her situation, something she says is also important when you’re self-isolating.
“I am very concerned that at the 10-week mark we will have the kind of surge other places have. I hope I’m wrong, and I will go eat crow with my friends,” she said. “But then I get to go eat crow with my friends.”