Covid-19: Thoughts from an Ex-Public Health Analytical Chemist

Thirty-mumble years ago when I was in organic chemistry lab, our professors created an experiment specifically to teach lab technique. We had to recrystalize and purify a compound called methyl orange. It’s basically a bright orange dye that sticks to skin particularly well.

We had to start with a given amount, go through the procedures and turn in the amount we ended up with. We also had to submit to an inspection of hands, face, and clothing. If there were any spots of orange anywhere, that was a fail.

Because the point was that chemists work with very dangerous material all the time. All. The. Time. And being sloppy with it gets people killed.

Then I spent five years in the Idaho state health lab. For four of those years, I was up to my ears (figuratively) in hazardous waste two or three times a week, because I received all the samples into the lab. I extracted the bad stuff from water, soil, whatever, into organic solvents that themselves weren’t good for me. We had high-volume fume hoods and we double gloved.

We also washed our hands a lot. Thoroughly. With soap and hot water. Everything was assumed to be contaminated until we could prove it wasn’t. Everything.

Same thing with the novel corona virus that causes Covid-19. You need to assume all surfaces and all air are contaminated. Wearing a face mask won’t protect you from contaminated air, but it will protect other people from your coughs and sneezes, at least a little bit.

You can catch the damn thing and be shedding virus for two or three weeks before you start to feel crummy. Weeks. Think about that. My state went into Stay-At-Home five days after the first case was confirmed, and that was only two and a half weeks ago. We’ve already had 10 deaths, and there are only 1.3 million people in Idaho, which is about the size of Great Britain.

I worry about the staff at my local Neighborhood Walmart. They’re essential employees, so they at least still have jobs. But more than half of them are over 50, and they’re in a place and a profession where they can’t exactly stay away from customers or each other. The last time I was there (a week ago), customers weren’t social distancing even a little bit.

I worry about doctors, nurses, and the truck drivers who keep delivering in spite of having difficulty finding places to eat on the road. I worry about the Amazon delivery drivers who bring me stuff I’ve ordered to be able to work from home.

I worry, and I stay at home, and I talk to my friends and colleagues over video chat. I keep doing my job. And I try to write stories about people in a situation just as worrisome, but who have a little more agency than I do.

They are going to emerge victorious at the end of the story, after a lot of sacrifice and strife. I can only hope that we do, too.

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