From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Bill and Serona Schey played it safe. By virtue of their ages, the Tacoma couple are both high-risk. Serona also has health complications, including diabetes and asthma.
“We weren’t paranoid, but we weren’t doing anything foolish, either,” said Bill Schey, 77, a retired sports journalist.
The small birthday luncheon they hosted on June 23 was the first time anyone but immediate family had set foot in their house for nearly four months. But it seemed innocuous enough, since Pierce County had graduated to Phase 2 in the state’s recovery plan at the beginning of the month.
The church they attend had recently reopened for Sunday services, with temperature checks, face masks and minimal mingling among the 15-20 congregants. The county’s own guidelines said it was OK to socialize again — as long as residents limited their circle to no more than five close friends.
All three of the women Serona Schey invited over fit that category, including the birthday girl, a longtime neighbor. The four women sat around a table in the living room for about three hours, sharing a meal of tossed salad, bacon-spinach quiche bites and fresh pineapple. They talked about their kids and grandchildren and the hassles of life under lockdowns of varying degree.
There was no sharing of utensils or dishes, or communal dipping from the same bowl. The women weren’t right on top of each other — but they also didn’t stay six feet apart. Nor did they wear masks.
Bill Schey, who was working in the basement, popped upstairs just long enough to load a plate with food.
“Nobody had any reservations about it,” he said. “Prior to this, we knew no one who was infected, from co-workers to neighbors to church and family.”
But the next day, one of the guests — a woman in her 50s — called to alert the others that she was sick. She quickly got the diagnosis: COVID-19. A couple days later, Serona Schey started feeling crummy. One by one, like dominoes falling, all the other people in the house that day followed suit — and all tested positive for the virus.
The disease has hit Serona Schey, 74, particularly hard. “She was flat in bed for four days, just wiped out,” said her husband. “She had a really ugly cough like I had never heard before.” Nearly three weeks later, she’s weak and far from her normal self.
Bill Schey’s case was milder, characterized by a persistent loss of smell and taste, and a rasping cough.
As far as they know, none of those infected at the gathering spread the disease to others. One of the women, who got extremely ill, isolated herself from her family in a tent before moving into a “COVID hotel” — a quarantine facility operated by the county. The group’s apparent “index case” — the woman who was the first to get sick — may have picked up the virus during an airplane flight back from an East Coast visit, but they’ll never know for sure.
“It’s often difficult for us to find a smoking gun for any one person’s transmission,” Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said during a recent briefing.
But small clusters like the one the Scheys found themselves in are becoming more common, said Kim Steele-Peter, public health branch director for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
“It’s like a web,” she said. “All it takes is one person going to an event or on a trip where there might be somebody who is asymptomatic. Then they give somebody else a hug or a kiss on the cheek, or they go home to their parents or siblings and they pass on that disease.”
Cases in Pierce County have been increasing sharply. The county logged its highest one-day total — 81 cases — last Friday, exceeding the initial peak in early April. Even before Gov. Jay Inslee put the brakes on any additional reopening for at least two weeks, Pierce County had withdrawn its application to move to a less-restrictive phase.
Fortunately, hospitalizations and deaths in Pierce County have not been increasing in tandem with new infections, Steele-Peter said. That could be because many of the new cases are among young people, who are less likely to get seriously ill. But health officials also warn there’s generally a lag of three weeks between infection and death. And if recently infected young people pass the virus on to those who are more vulnerable, it could be even longer before the consequences become apparent.
Some of the new cases are being imported from states with more widespread disease, Steele-Peter said. But many seem to be linked to family vacations, Fourth of July celebrations, parties and social gatherings.
“It’s a roll of the dice,” she said. “You could go to someone’s home, and nobody becomes sick, and then your confidence builds and you say, ‘Let’s get together again.’ But the next time one of the people in the group has been unknowingly exposed.”
The county’s contact tracers are checking in daily with more than 500 people who recently became infected or crossed paths with someone known to have the virus. For people who need help, the team will connect them with services that can deliver groceries or provide diapers and other essentials.
“We want to remove any barrier that prevents people from isolating themselves,” Steele-Peter said.
The Scheys have a circle of friends and family checking up on them and keeping them well-provisioned as they await full recovery. They shared their experience as a cautionary tale for others, particularly those of a similar age.
“My take-away is that, if you’re older, like I am, you need to be extremely careful about gatherings,” Bill Schey said. He and his wife gave in to what he describes as the feeling of “a public exhale” as the Fourth of July holiday approached, and a desire to finally enjoy summer.
“For us,” he said, “that was a bad idea.”