The baby was born on the eighth day of February, blue eyes and sandy hair. Angelina and Joseph McCreary had been so anxious about the pregnancy that they had waited nearly 20 weeks to tell their families. But now Baby Joe was here, and not just healthy, but a full nine pounds.
There was just one thing, the doctor told the Collegeville couple: Baby Joe had a slight murmur in his heart. It was probably nothing, but — to be safe — the doctor advised Joe and Angelina to schedule a visit with a pediatric cardiologist.
A new stay-at-home mom after years working in a dental office, Angelina dedicated herself to finding the best doctor to examine her baby boy. Joe, an officer with the Lower Providence Police Department, took the day off work for the appointment.
On Monday, March 2, they pulled into the parking lot of the King of Prussia location of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Don’t touch anything,” Angelina warned her husband and 2-year-old daughter. She was worried about the flu.
In what has become a well-known, early chapter of COVID-19 in Philadelphia, a cardiologist at that office saw 24 patients over four days after traveling to a country where the coronavirus was circulating. By the time the doctor was hospitalized a week later, schools in six districts had to close for cleaning, and the virus was spreading across the region.
A spokesperson for CHOP said the doctor wasn’t required to self-quarantine after his trip abroad because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not designated the country he visited as “Level 3,” or high alert, for the virus. The McCrearys would later find a Facebook photo of the cardiologist in Egypt. CHOP has refused to confirm the physician’s identity; a letter left by The Inquirer at his home was not answered.
Now, with thousands infected or dead, and many more afraid to leave their homes, the disease is imprinted in every corner of our minds. But when the McCrearys took their infant to CHOP, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania.
They had no idea they could become infected, much less spend five days in intensive care — or that they would unwittingly spread the virus to at least 20 of their friends and family members across communities and counties.
Waiting to see the doctor at CHOP that Monday, all Joe and Angelina knew was that the baby boy they had been so anxious about was almost in the clear.
The cardiologist introduced himself.
Joe shook his hand.
There are many frightening flags of the coronavirus, from the high fevers and ambulance sirens to the intubating tubes and packed morgues. But just as scary, scientists say, is how invisible the virus is. Symptoms, on average, take five to seven days to appear. Some people never feel sick, but are contagious all the same.
"We’re learning that stealth in the form of asymptomatic transmission is this adversary’s secret power,” the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy has said.
Three days after the baby’s appointment, Joe was promoted to corporal.
There was a short ceremony after the Pledge of Allegiance at the monthly meeting of the Lower Providence Township Board of Supervisors. Joe stood at attention as his chief joked that his K-9 partner was “the brains of the operation.”
The chief called for Angelina to come to the front and pin on her husband’s new badge. She handed the baby to Joe’s father.
The maintenance supervisor at George W. Hill Correctional Facility, a prison in Delaware County, Joe Sr. was then a month shy of his 65th birthday. He liked to joke that Joe, 35, was a hardheaded kid who had surprised him by becoming a cop. In reality, it was in Joe’s blood.
His grandfather was an officer, two of his cousins are police in Montgomery County, and another cousin was slated to be sworn in down in Virginia. Joe grew up near Havertown and, in 2008, graduated from the Delaware County Municipal Police Academy. He worked as a correctional sergeant at the prison and a part-time officer for various local departments before joining Lower Providence in 2015. He liked helping the community, being on the front line of things.
It had taken four hours, but Angelina got their newborn and their 2- and 5-year-old daughters ready for the promotion ceremony. The girls loved climbing all over their father, and were excited “that Daddy was getting a new pin,” Angelina said.
Now she posed for a photo with her husband. Joe shook hands with his fellow officers. Then he walked up on the dais, and shook hands with each member of the Board of Supervisors.
After the ceremony, Angelina took the children for ice cream while Joe went to Eagleville Tavern for drinks with his father and two cousins — one a detective in Montgomery County, another a sheriff’s deputy. When they returned home at 11 p.m., the kids were asleep. Joe’s father decided to stay the night.
For a few days now, Joe had had a minor cough. He thought he was coming down with a cold. But that night, he woke up in a cold sweat. He felt unsteady as he headed upstairs to take a shower to warm up. Angelina took his temperature: 103 degrees. She thought, He picked up the flu at CHOP.
The next day, Joe’s father headed to work at the prison. Joe went to an urgent care in Limerick Township. He told them that his legs and arms hurt, that he had a fever and was having trouble breathing.
The urgent care doctor prescribed Tamiflu. It was Friday afternoon. “As long as you don’t have a fever on Sunday,” she told Joe, “you are allowed to go back to work.”
On Sunday morning, Joe met his squad for breakfast at a Homewood Suites.
His fever had broken over the weekend, and he was excited to be back at work. Of the 30-some officers in Lower Providence Township, about a dozen had come to his promotion ceremony. Some of them had received commendations. Another officer had been promoted to sergeant, his wife and 2-year-old daughter in tow.
After breakfast, Joe got a call: Someone had called a bomb threat in to Arbour Square, a senior assisted living facility in West Chester. Joe and his K-9 partner specialized in detecting explosives. He headed to the scene.
The retirement community’s 150 residents had evacuated by the time Joe arrived. He worked with officers from West Goshen Police Department, as well as Arbour Square’s leadership, to case the facility. After two or three hours, they cleared it, and Joe returned to Lower Providence.
When he came home that day, Joe’s head was swimming again. He told Angelina, “Something isn’t right.” Worried about the baby, she gave her husband a blanket and pillow and told Joe to stay in another room. All night, his muscles ached. He raised the heat in the house to 80 degrees, but still shivered.
Joe slept for much of the next day. It was Monday, March 9, and he had the day off. Angelina took the baby and their daughters to play outside with the neighbor’s kids. The girls drew pictures on the sidewalk with chalk.
As a police officer’s wife, Angelina always kept her phone nearby, even with Joe home and asleep. Now she listened to it vibrate on the bench out front of their home, watching the kids play in the cul-de-sac.
After their appointment at CHOP, Angelina got emails and phone calls asking her to rate her experience; it was typical, she said, of what happened any time she took the children to a new doctor’s office.
But as the morning turned to afternoon, the calls started coming in every 15 minutes. All different numbers were calling now, and they were leaving voice mails, too:
I’m calling from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, infection prevention and control department. This message is for the parents of Joseph McCreary. We have an urgent message to share with you.
Angelina’s head snapped up.
While the kids were playing, Angelina had been talking with Adam Sharrer, who lives at the corner with his wife, Becky.
The families had been close since the McCrearys moved into the neighborhood four years ago. They had a lot in common. Adam worked as a correctional officer in Montgomery County, and their son was in kindergarten with the McCreary’s older daughter.
There had hardly been a day in the last week when their children had not played outside together. When the weather was bad, they took turns hosting dinner. The Sharrers had come over that week to play with Baby Joe, bringing him a blue rattle, a reprieve from his sisters’ hand-me-downs.
Now Angelina called for her husband to come outside, then put the phone on speaker as she connected with CHOP. “Are these the parents of Joseph McCreary?” the voice asked the cul-de-sac. “Yes,” they said.
“We have to inform you that you were exposed to a doctor who tested positive for the coronavirus.”
The caller from CHOP told Angelina and Joe that they needed to gather their kids, go inside the house, and stay in there for 14 days. Adam, their neighbor, asked what he was supposed to do. The CHOP official told him to get away from the McCrearys immediately.
“At that time,” Joe said, “I knew it wasn’t going to be good for me.”
He had not thought about the coronavirus, did not even know what the symptoms were. But suddenly it all clicked. He had lost his sense of taste a few days ago. When had that ever happened with the flu? He called his chief. At Phoenixville Hospital that night, nurses swabbed inside Joe’s nose to test him for coronavirus.
Angelina took the calls that came every hour from the Montgomery County Health Department. They were beginning what they called “the tracing process.” They asked Angelina: Who were you in contact with this week? Where did you go? What did you do?
Joe was told to go home and stay in a room by himself. The next day, he began to feel worse than ever. “My body was shut down, from head to toe,” he said. “And that’s when I fell.”
Angelina had him propped up on the couch, trying to take his temperature, when Joe slid off onto the floor. She called for an ambulance. When the EMTs arrived, Joe could not tell them his name. They put him on a stretcher, and told Angelina she could not go to the hospital.
She stood in the street as the ambulance drove away.
IV. The results
At Phoenixville Hospital, as doctors and nurses began to prick his skin with IVs, Joe got a call from the county Health Department: He had tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the intensive care unit, doctors put Joe on oxygen. He had pneumonia in his lungs and a bacterial infection in his blood. A nurse asked him if he wanted to speak to a chaplain.
He slept for days in the hospital, waking to wonder about his family. Was everything in order for them, if he didn’t make it home? Where would the girls go to school? Would they have money for college? And the little man.
Meanwhile, everyone whose life had bumped up against his was getting a phone call from the Montgomery County Health Department.
His father, Joe Sr., was tested on March 11. Angelina was tested on the 12th. The Lower Providence police chief got tests for the force.
Four officers at West Goshen Police Department who had worked the Arbour Square bomb threat with Joe went into quarantine. “If any of my officers had become infected, it would have shut us down,” said Chief Joseph Gleason. “But none of them did. We were very fortunate in that respect.”
Four staff members at Arbour Square — the executive director, the maintenance supervisor, the business office director, and the concierge — had to quarantine for 14 days.
Adam, the neighbor, was tested the same night Joe left in an ambulance. He quarantined with Becky and the kids, waiting for the results.
Before they found out Joe had the virus, Adam had reported to work each day, as had Becky, a special-education teacher at a local elementary school. Their daughter had been to day care, and their son had gone to a program at the Y. “That was scary to us,” Becky said. “All the people we could have impacted was kind of disturbing. ... It took a toll on us, for sure.
“You don’t realize how many people you’re around until you think about it.”
Three days later, on March 13, Adam got the call: He was negative for the coronavirus. “It was a big sigh of relief for a lot of people,” he said.
Joe Sr. also got a call that day. He was positive.
The 64-year-old had felt sick for a few days but thought he was on the mend. The next day, he tried to walk from his bedroom to the bathroom, and gasped for air. He was admitted to Crozer-Chester Medical Center on March 17.
At least 10 officers at Lower Providence tested positive for the coronavirus. The 2-year-old daughter of the officer who was promoted alongside Joe tested positive. Workers at the district court in Lower Providence, whom Joe had seen the morning of his promotion ceremony, tested positive.
At the Delaware County prison where Joe Sr. worked, colleagues who had been in meetings with him tested positive. Inmates who had worked for him tested positive.
Joe’s cousins — the ones who had come to his promotion ceremony and celebrated him with beers afterward — tested positive.
And then so did Angelina.
She has a history of asthma, and started having trouble breathing. Alone with three children and an infant, she walked around her house in a mask to protect them, wondering what to do.
She called her primary care doctor and explained. “I can’t end up in the hospital,” she said. On Flonase and an inhaler, she says she “mommed up.”
“It was pretty much one of the hardest experiences ever, the biggest anxiety, the biggest concern,” she said. “But at the same time — every mom out there can probably agree — you are just go, go, go, like I have to do this. There’s no time to be sick. There’s no time to worry. It’s just, you need to take care of your kids, you need to figure out what’s going on with your husband. Just keep going.”
V. The check
Five days after Joe left home in an ambulance, he called his wife. Could she pick him up from the hospital?
Joe was still sick with COVID-19. But he was breathing on his own again, and his pneumonia and blood infection were clearing up. The doctors told him that his body would be able to fight off the rest of the disease on its own. They brought in a walker, told him to see if he could get around.
Joe stared at the walker. He used to bench-press 315 pounds, lace up neon-orange sneakers, and run for miles. He asked for a cane.
At home, he had to stay quarantined away from his children. The girls asked why they couldn’t climb on Daddy. Angelina threw away everything her husband had worn or touched before he left for the hospital. She rolled up the rugs.
Angelina kept calling Crozer-Chester, until Joe’s father came home from the hospital a week later, 20 pounds lighter. “It took me a couple days to get my head back together,” Joe Sr. said. “All that isolation’s just not good for people.”
Sixty-four people — 22 inmates and 42 staff — have now contracted coronavirus at the Delaware County prison, though with the virus so widespread, it’s likely they didn’t all get it through Joe Sr.
It was three more weeks until he went back to work, and two more before he felt like himself again, he said. He has not been able to hold his grandson since the night he came home from the hospital.
“And the fact that he’s carrying my name and I can’t see him,” Joe Sr. said. “That really ticks me off.”
Angelina was changing Baby Joe’s diaper on April 2 when someone knocked loudly on the front door. She jumped. It had been exactly one month since the appointment at CHOP, and for three weeks now, she had been quarantined, no one coming to the door.
When she looked through the window, she saw a UPS delivery driver walking back to his car. She opened the envelope he had left on their porch table. It was from CHOP.
Signed by Douglas Hock, executive vice president and chief operating officer, the letter said CHOP was aware “that you and members of your household were required to self-quarantine for 14 days following your visit to our King of Prussia site.”
“We want you to know that we recognize the inconvenience and potential hardships caused by this situation," Hock wrote, "and want to help ease the burden on your family by providing the enclosed check from CHOP for $2500.”
And there it was, a check written out to the McCrearys. Angelina woke up Joe, sleeping upstairs. “I started reading the letter,” he said. “And it’s like an apologetic letter.” He looked at the check. He thought, Why do we have this?
Joe remembered their March appointment at CHOP. When he checked in with the receptionist, she asked him if the family or anyone they had been in contact with had traveled overseas. “I wish I had asked, ‘Has the doctor we’re about to see?’ ”
A spokesperson for CHOP said they sent the checks and letters to about two dozen families — the same number of patients who saw the infected cardiologist in the first week of March. “We chose an amount that we hoped would be meaningful and helpful to families,” she said.
“The well-being of families in our care is our highest priority,” the letter said.
And that’s the irony of it all, Joe thinks now, still out of breath as he tries to climb the stairs. They contracted the virus at a doctor’s office, trying to make sure their infant son was healthy. Now Baby Joe is 6 weeks old, and his father has been quarantined away from him for half his life.
He was so excited for his son, the fourth Joseph McCreary in the line. As a newborn, the baby slept on Joe’s chest.
But when Joe’s cough finally let up in mid-April, and Angelina let him hold his son again, Baby Joe didn’t know his father anymore. He screamed.