When Evan Piermont returned to Philadelphia last week after spending the semester teaching in the United Kingdom, he and his partner did not hug. Though both felt fine, each could have unknowingly been carrying the coronavirus.
Piermont’s partner, a physician who treats cancer patients at a Philadelphia hospital, can’t risk transmitting the virus to her immunocompromised patients. And if she is exposed at work, she doesn’t want to infect Piermont.
So their only in-person interactions have been from a few feet away, as they are committed to practicing social distancing. He’s holed up alone in a Center City Airbnb.
These are the painful choices that health-care workers and their families are making as the coronavirus outbreak bears down on the region. Those decisions have only become more urgent in recent days, as it’s become clear health-care workers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and around the world are facing a severe shortage of equipment to protect themselves.
The crisis has set off a sense of wartime in America — the virus is described as an invisible enemy, and health-care workers are spoken of in terms often reserved for soldiers. The families who are avoiding their loved ones or setting up quarantine rooms in their homes are seen as part of the sacrifice.
Some feel indescribable anxiety seeing their a spouse or mother or sibling go off to work; others feel a gnawing sense of impotence while at home.
“When there’s this storm raging outside, there’s a sense you should try to do something,” Piermont, 30, said. “The whole world is locked up, and they have to keep going.”
Families are wrestling with whether or how their loved ones should separate themselves. When Kaitlyn Dhanaliwala’s husband, a physician in radiology at a Philadelphia hospital, comes home each night, he takes off his clothes in the entryway and places them in a bag.
Their 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter know not to run up to their dad for hugs and kisses until after he has showered.
“We say our hellos from a distance,” said Dhanaliwala, a digital marketing strategist.
Dhanaliwala knows it’s likely her husband will be exposed to the virus at some point. The couple have set up a quarantine room away from the rest of the house should he get sick. Surfaces in the home are regularly disinfected, and Dhanaliwala has had conversations with the kids about their dad’s responsibilities during this time.
“Sometimes it feels like there’s no room for anything but anxiety in my day-to-day life," Dhanaliwala said. “If you’re sitting at the table every night for dinner with a doctor, you know that the possibility of you becoming a carrier is high.”
Jessica Williams, whose husband is an anesthesiologist in Philadelphia, said he’s already staying away from her mother, who’s in her 80s and lives across the street, because seniors are at higher risk of complications from the virus. Williams wonders if they need to do more: Should he take off all his clothes at the door? Should he sleep in the basement? Will the whole family contract the coronavirus anyway?
Williams said she’s been fighting a sense of jealousy, wondering if those without friends or family in the health-care industry understand what’s at stake for nurses, doctors and others — or the constant state of anxiety she’s in being married to one.
“People are saying, ‘Day Two of confinement and I’ve already watched all of Netflix,’" Williams said. "It’s like, oof, you’re so lucky.”
But Williams, 50, who lives in Center City, said the constant sinking feeling in her stomach has been calmed by the mass social distancing being practiced to slow the spread of the coronavirus and help to lessen the burden on health-care systems. When she sees empty sidewalks or strangers standing six feet apart, she chokes up.
“It’s incredibly moving to see other people flattening the curve for people like my husband,” she said, “who is walking into a tsunami.”
Williams and Dhanaliwala said they’re also leaning on friends, neighbors, and other families of health-care workers for support.
Among the challenges for some of these families is how much to tell the children. When coronavirus cases in the Philadelphia area began increasing, Deborah Ledley’s 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son started asking about their dad, a cardiologist at Phoenixville Hospital in Chester County.
“He has assured them that he’s taking all the precautions that his hospital is telling him to take,” said Ledley, a psychologist in private practice.
Ledley, who counts the families of health-care workers among her clients, said parents can manage kids’ anxiety levels by limiting how much information they’re consuming online. “It’s better if they sit down with their parents in a constrained way and go through information together for short periods of time," she said.
She said people married to health-care workers are used to “sharing their significant others.” Her husband was on call when she went into labor with one of their children. He’s missed a couple Thanksgiving dinners.
“If we can think of it that way," she said, "that people chose this career because they want to help others and be on the front line, we might feel a little better.”
That’s been heartening, too, for Melissa, a lawyer whose sister is a nurse in Philadelphia. Melissa did not want to be identified by her last name because her sister is not authorized to speak on behalf of the hospital where she works.
Melissa said her sister has been keeping her distance from their parents. Hearing others speak of health-care workers in war-time terms has been “a little strange.”