Never Say “Never”

Lynn Costello under green tree in apartment yard


[Lynn Costello is a co-founder of the Lowell Anti-Bullying Coalition; she lives in Lowell Public Housing. Lynn shares her ongoing experience while still in quarantine with COVID-19. She narrates how she got infected despite her care to follow protocols; and how management and other tenants have failed, both in supporting everyone in sticking to protocols and in consideration of those who need help. She suggests steps for improving our responses. Her experience demonstrates that we can’t do it alone, we need a supportive community.]

by Lynn Costello

How many times have you heard the expression “Never say ‘never’?” There has never been a greater time than right now to heed that advice, because if you don’t, it could land you in great trouble. At the very least you might end up quarantined in your own home, completely shut off and reliant on others to help you. At the very worst you could wind up on a respirator fighting for your life. Today, I live in an apartment building with 55 units, and at last estimate, 12 people are sick with COVID-19, and one is on a ventilator in hospital. I am now in my 6th day of quarantine with the virus and it hasn’t been fun.

Although I was completely aware of the possibility of catching COVID-19, there was still some little voice, deep inside me that was whispering in my ear, “It will probably never happen to me.” I was wrong.

I have always lived by myself and I like it that way. I love my independence and now my ability to do anything for myself has been completely stripped away. I am utterly grateful that it is only going to be for two weeks. If I’m one of the lucky ones I will get through this and come out on the other side and go back to living the semi-normal life I was living before—if I’m one of the lucky ones.

When COVID-19 first arrived in the United States, I thought it wasn’t going to be much of a big deal. I thought we might have been overreacting to something no more dangerous than the flu. My family and friends all thought the same thing. Then, people in other countries like Italy started dying by the dozens until there was no room for their bodies in city morgues and they had to be placed in body bags and loaded into cold storage trucks. Whoa! Now it looked like we had a situation that was serious and needed to be reckoned with. Then, it started happening in other countries as the virus began its rapid spread around the world. We had stopped international travel a little too late and some of our leaders didn’t do enough during that time when they should have been preparing for the worst. They might have been thinking: It will never happen here.

Now, here we are at the end of 2020 and the United States is facing its second spike and COVID-19 is still killing thousands and causing serious illness in many more. I had been doing all I could to avoid getting the disease, following all the guidelines about washing my hands, social distancing and wearing mask—as long as I was out and about and dealing with the public, strangers.

Unfortunately, I became lazy around my inner circle, the friends I hung around with all the time at my housing complex. Some little voice in my head was whispering: “Ah, we’ll never get it; we’ll be OK.” That was my big mistake—thinking that I could “never” get the virus from the people I was the closest to. I was still thinking like that when I got what I thought was a bad cold about a month ago, right before Thanksgiving. I thought, “It’s just a little cold; I’ll get over it.”

Well, here it is the third day of December and I’m into my fourth day of quarantine. I’m not sure where or how I caught the virus, but I decided to get tested when a neighbor of mine whom I spent a lot of time with and who hadn’t been feeling well for quite some time tested positive for the virus. I figured I better get tested, too—just to be on the safe side. I was still thinking I would probably never get it. I continued thinking that when I didn’t hear anything back from the hospital in five days. I was shocked when I finally did get that call last Monday on November 30th.

So far I have been doing OK with the cold type symptoms I started out with, although it’s been nerve-wracking not knowing when I’ll completely pull out of the thing, because it’s lasted at least four weeks. “Alice,” my neighbor and friend who got it before me has been feeling sick for months and both of us have diabetes and other risk factors.

What went wrong?

It took about a month, maybe a month and a half for housing to follow up on the virus—I think because that was the way the entire country was in general—everybody was waiting around to see what was going to happen and didn't know the full brunt of what we were dealing with. Then, the management went all out for at least two and maybe three months--hiring people to wash everything down, calling the tenants to make sure they were OK, making sure everybody had masks, putting signs up telling people to wear their masks. They put in a hand sanitizer dispenser (filled with sanitizer).

I'm not sure when management got lazy, but eventually everything stopped except the signs on the door telling people that wearing masks was mandatory in all public areas.

The management became very aloof and distanced. They did make sure that no one was able to come into the office and physically contact them, though. Everything was to be done by phone.

I would say that about half the people in my building stopped wearing masks after awhile. I kept wearing mine unless I was around my closest friends. I also used social distancing—even when visiting with friends, except Alice, my next door neighbor, because we lived right next to each other and we were so used to sharing food and visiting each other.

I think part of the problem is there's too much conflicting information in the media and people aren't sure what to believe. I think another part of the problem is that it isn't real to people until it becomes personal—you know, It's just like the news—we see fires and wars and bad news day in and day out, hammered over the head with stuff and after awhile we start tuning out and we become numb. People get weary of dealing with all this and then after awhile they let their guard down.

Another problem I see is that most people have never had to deal with something like this before and it's all new. No one is perfect. People might be doing the best they can and still slip up here and there (out of being tired or whatever).

A better response

What do I think would help? I think management should stop being so aloof and make phone calls and check in with people. I think neighbors should remind each other about the masks and social distancing and keep one another in check—I'd be willing to ask maskless people, 'Hey, where is your mask?" I think management should put into effect that one person in the elevator rule. However, I don't think they should evict people. That is way too harsh a measure. Maybe there should be a law put into place that various authority figures can fine people and then the money should go into providing supplies or paying people on the front lines. I think we should put warnings up on bulletin boards. [There is a mandate from the Governor and Department of Public Health, so that local health departments can fine people who don't comply. See our outreach letter to the Commissioner of Public Health.]

I also think that more should be done for people who have COVID-19. People should volunteer to make sure they get their groceries or their laundry done. Finger pointing and witch hunting helps no one.

I only know of people who have COVID-19 because of word of mouth and I don't exactly trust that, but I believe my own eyes when I see that they’re sick or hear they’re in the hospital. I think maybe there should be a list of known cases, but we have to be careful about that. Privacy issues would prevent listing people with COVID; individuals may choose to share that information, say with management, in order for management to make sure they have support. We shouldn’t be going on witch hunts or setting up a situation where the COVID-19 patient is bullied—isn't it bad enough having the disease? It greatly disrupts your life in myriad ways.

I have been lucky, because I have been one of those with mild symptoms, but I know things can suddenly take a turn for the worse. No one ever knows with this disease; it's different for each individual. It's been tough being in quarantine, because I live alone and most people around me have help for themselves—they don't think about people who live alone. If anything, I’m an advocate of taking all necessary precautions because I am so independent.

I no longer use the word “never” in connection with this virus. I want to tell you, everybody out there, to keep this virus in perspective. Don’t obsess over it and live in complete fear, but don’t ever let your guard down, either. Don’t ever think that it will “never” happen to you, because the chances are high that it could. Take every precaution you should and especially around the people in your immediate vicinity; friends and family are just as susceptible as anyone else!

A couple of days after Lynn had written her story, management learned that there was an infection in the building. They informed everyone of that fact and renewed their efforts to remind people to follow all of the protective mandates.

Lynn also points out that "more needs to be done for the people who have COVID---not just protecting the people who are trying to avoid it." 

Lynn reported on the support she gets from the Community Tracing Program: "I have been in touch with these people several days a week and they follow up with me---it is a great resource and I wanted you to know in case you didn't know."

"The Commonwealth of Massachusetts created the COVID-19 Community Tracing program to help support local health departments from every community in their contact tracing work. The program focuses on reaching out to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and the contacts they have been close to, making sure they have the support they need to isolate or quarantine. When the MA COVID Team calls, you can do your part by answering the phone and providing helpful information that will help flatten and reduce the curve in Massachusetts."

"The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a partnership with the Department of Public Health and Partners In Health, supporting local health departments in contact tracing. The program focuses on reaching out to the contacts of confirmed positive COVID-19 patients to ensure they have the support they need to self-isolate, and to help protect others who have been potentially exposed to the virus. The COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative’s goal is to keep you healthy and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Your participation in contact tracing will not only help connect you to medical support and resources, answering the call will keep your loved ones and community safe."

Learn about the Community Tracing Collaborative

Your experiences and ideas are very important to our understanding of the issues in gaining compliance. It is not all on you as an individual. We need to be surrounded by reminders and by a supportive community, and management needs to keep on with the routines; if nothing else, it shows that they take the threat seriously. How can neighbors and management work together to prevent COVID-19 from spreading? How can we support each other in masking, distancing, and so on very day? What can we do when COVID-19 invades our community? Please write to share your experiences and suggestions.