I thought I’d share a memorable experience this year, in case someone also needed to move cross country during a global pandemic. In March 2020, I lost my job at Facebook in NYC, and was bleeding money from my apartment in Manhattan. Like many people, I was also getting worried about what I read online about Covid. It was particularly terrifying reading about the exponential growth of the virus, since it was about my own “backyard”. It seemed like the longer I stayed, the more likely I was to get infected. Was the world telling me I had to leave NYC and go back home to California? I think so. It wasn’t a matter of if I’d leave, it was when. But as with many things in life, it’s all about timing. Which, I had the worst of. One does not simply leave NYC during a pandemic, especially after you start getting sick, which I did.
Concrete petri dish
The month before the outbreak in February, I got into a PhD program at Stanford to research artificial intelligence in healthcare. I was super stoked. However, the excitement was tempered when I lost my job at Facebook shortly after.
I originally thought, “I’ll stay through the summer in NYC before school starts.” The city is just incredible during those warm months. I kept holding out hope that things would get better by summer. But over the next month in March, I watched the city change and become the global epicenter for Covid, and all I could do was go along for the roller coaster.
I remember vividly how things got real very quickly. The week before shelter-in-place started (which in NYC was March 20), I went to Trader Joe’s and saw this below. Rather, it’s what I didn’t see: any raw meat. Eric’s famous pink spaghetti sauce was going to have to wait.
After shelter-in-place started, I noticed the playground in front of my building became extremely packed because schools were shut down. We’re talking 50–60 kids. I thought to myself, “that can’t be good”. I don’t think it hit people quite just yet. Over the next couple of weeks, as the news got more frightening, less and less kids showed up until there were virtually zero there.
I made a calculated decision to leave my apartment most days, either for food or exercise. At times I felt guilty, but the trade off I made was to manage some other underlying chronic health issues, and keep active with exercise and physical therapy. I went for walks, but quickly realized that so did many others. We were often in each other’s bubble spaces when passing. I stuck to bike rides thereafter to limit personal space exposure. This also gave me a chance to see the city with my own eyes (through goggles and a mask) and witness how the pandemic had changed it.
On a normal weekend afternoon in late March, Time Square would be bustling. Not gonna’ lie, I sort of prefer Time Square this way.
I also had been hearing a lot about the overflowing hospital system in NYC. To mitigate this, they were setting up a field hospital in Central Park across the street from Mount Sinai Hospital on the upper east side. Now it really did feel like a zombie apocalypse movie, which I normally would be excited about.
Things got really scary though when I saw a building notice saying there were one or more positive cases in my apartment building, and that I shouldn’t take the elevator. This was mid March, still fairly early in the outbreak. Then, a day or two after I saw this, I woke up with a cough, tightness in my chest and a burning sensation in my lungs.
I was fairly freaked out, and went onto the CDC website, NY public health websites, Mayo Clinic, you name it. I kept thinking to myself, “was it that one time I walked outside without a mask and that guy was coughing?” Or, “I forgot to shower last night before bed, did it go from my hair to my pillow to my face?”
I wanted to get tested. I didn’t have severe symptoms, but you know that feeling where you’re starting to get sick, and think, “I can wake up tomorrow and it’ll be a full blown sickness, or I can wake up with it totally gone.” Obviously I was hoping for the latter, but I wanted to prepare for the other outcome (full blown sickness and/or having Covid).
But of course in NYC at the time, I couldn’t get a test because you’d need to have deathly serious symptoms. The NYC public health website literally said that there was no treatment or change of course anyway, you would just ride it out and quarantine yourself no matter if it was positive or negative, until you had severe symptoms. But it never sits well with me not to know. I’m a hardcore Netflix binger.
Luckily, it was indeed the latter scenario, where it got better rather than got worse. In the back of my mind though, it seemed logical that my body was exposed to Covid and I fought it off. Thank you internet forums for the Inception.
This all happened during my last 2 weeks at Facebook. As a contractor employee, I wasn’t entitled to sick pay, but Facebook’s policy was evolving weekly in response to Covid. They had announced that FB would continue paying its contractors affected by the pandemic. It was so new that when I asked my HR, they said no actually, that I wouldn’t be paid.
I had a lot to sort out. Will Facebook pay me? Do I leave NYC? Will my roommate sue me for rent (which she threatened to)? Will I be a super-carrier and infect my family? It was a lot to deal with for an elder millennial.
Fortunately, Facebook did end up paying me sick time. And I did not get full on sick. But it seemed pretty clear: get out.
Escape from New York
So, I had plenty of reasons to leave NYC. It then came down to the details. How does one move across the country during a pandemic and nation-wide “lock-down” / “shelter-in-place”?
My plan was to move in with my older brother and 13 year old nephew in San Jose for the summer. However, I didn’t want to arrive fresh off a virus-infested plane and share all my meals and toiletries with my family, that would be irresponsible. So I looked up AirBnBs for 2 weeks to self-quarantine myself from them. It would cost about $500 a week, so $1,000 total. Obviously no one was traveling so this was at a heavy discount compared to usual, but ugh.
My brother just so happened to be planning to move as well. He was building a new house for the past year and it was so close to being ready to move into, so we thought. The last time I saw a picture of the house, it looked not ready, to say the least.
But let’s be optimistic, I thought. (Maybe he can write a post about constructing a house during a pandemic.) Now here’s where the details of the exact dates matter.
In late March, when the virus was still accelerating, is when I decided to move. My brother then tells me he’s planning to move out of his current house (a rental) on April 16, pending completion of the new house. I can fly and arrive the day after on April 17 and stay at this old house for 2 weeks quarantining myself, and use up the rest of the rent that was paid up for all of April. Boom, save $1,000 of AirBnB. It sounded appealing, but that meant literally flying during peak Covid. Dear, god.
I decided to go for it and plan the move. I got on Craigslist and started selling all my stuff, spare monitor, desk chair, bike, the stuff I’ve accumulated over 3 years of grad school and work in the city. I wore a mask and goggles when meeting up with Craigslist strangers.
Most of my belongings I put into 4 extra large boxes from Home Depot and sent them to San Jose, CA. Thank god FedEx was able to pick up these boxes at my door. Renting a car or Uber to go to Fedex sounded not fun, and germ-y.
One big detail I debated was whether to fly or drive to CA. I didn’t know what was safer, so I crowdsourced this question. I put a post on my Facebook and friends gave great suggestions and considerations, but the consensus was to fly. Basically no one was flying, and driving meant I had potentially way more touch points along the way. I’d drive alone, which had its own dangers as well. In a plane, I can mask it up and wear a poncho, so my doctor friends suggested. In a car, accidents are also deadly!
Moving/flying day arrived on April 17 (about two weeks after leaving Facebook and being sick). It was the most eerie flying experience I’ve ever had. The peak number of Covid cases actually happened just the week before, and so it was flattening. But keep in mind, you don’t just move the day of. The moving, packing, getting rid of old stuff, happens the week before. Imagine doing this during the peak, all the uncertainty, the fear, the hysteria in Manhattan, in the country. That being said, it made the airport an absolute ghost town, which is great for social distancing.
When I first walked into Newark International, I didn’t see any fellow passengers for 10 mins. I only saw TSA agents and cops. I initially walked past the security gate because I thought it was closed. Nope, this was the only security line at the United Terminal.
I think in normal times carrying a 32 inch monitor through security would raise eyebrows from TSA. I was worried about it initially but they didn’t care one bit. When I walked up carrying a makeshift contraption, the security person said, “do you have any large electronics with you?” I said, “um, yeah”. Her co-worker let out a good laugh saying “the dude is carrying a big screen TV and you goin’ ask him that?” I’m glad I had a moment of levity to break the tenseness of traveling during all this.
It was a big plane, with probably 6 other passengers in my half of the plane, and ~20 total. There were still the normal amount stewardesses though. I was tended to so often it became weirdly annoying being asked if I needed water every 15 mins. Can’t a guy watch the new Charlie’s Angels movie in peace?
Fortunately, I had an N95 mask (that Facebook had given out early on) and some goggles I used for biking. One of my physician friends told me not to eat or drink anything the entire flight. I did not comply. I ate and drank as usual, but I used Purell each time on my hands. I also brough a travel size spray bottle full of Lyson disinfectant that I used to wipe down the tray table in front of me, the touch screen on the seat back, the arm rests, and basically anytime I touched things like my phone and water bottle. Because I was so aware and keen on executing my travel day plans, oddly enough the time flew by, and overall the flight was pretty stress free.
I landed safely at 9pm (40 mins early) and called an Uber from SFO to San Jose. When I got home around 1045pm, I undressed myself completely (yes, completely), and threw everything into a hot laundry machine. It took me 2 hours to quarantine and clean all the things (phone, laptop, water bottle, chapstick, keys, etc) I needed for that night and that had been exposed at the airport / plane. TSA had opened my carryon luggage and rummaged through. I had some medical equipment (CPAP machine) that I had to disinfect now, along with and all the clothes that needed to be washed too.
For the next 2 weeks I started my self-quarantine from my family at the temporary housing I setup. It was my brother’s recently vacated house, so it was virtually empty. I setup Freshly to deliver premade meals because I couldn’t really cook there. (Pro tip: don’t order Freshly unless you enjoy the taste of frozen microwave dinners.) It was a strange time actually, this in between zone of having come back from New York, but not actually being back home in CA or settled yet. It was already a bummer not to have a real farewell when I left New York. But, it was good to be back. I did have a lot of space for yoga.
One of my packages arrived a few days after me. I packed the essentials of course. But seriously, some friends said it might’ve been hard to get TP and I like being prepared when I’m feeling vulnerable.
To pass the time during the next 2 weeks of quarantine, I picked some tangelos in front of my house.
This Asian loves tests
There was still this hanging question over me: did I ever get exposed to Covid? Given my time in NYC, and the traveling during the peak, I felt like it was worth getting an anti-body test (not the active Covid test) to see if I had been exposed and or had some semblance of immunity. After all, I was going to move in with family after the self-quarantine.
I came across a news article saying the Covid anti-body tests were now available without a doctor’s prescription, so it was like a “free for all” test. Correction, a $119 plus tax test. It was nice that you could purchase the test by “add to cart”, just like my other impulse buys on Amazon, though.
I honestly did not know whether I wanted it to be positive or negative. On one hand, if it was negative, then I wouldn’t have any immunity chance. If it’s positive, I can maybe have some immunity and peace of mind. But that would mean I potentially could have been exposing others. It was a strange dichotomy: for me personally, it’s beneficial to have a positive anti-body test, but for society, it’s better if I was negative, and that perhaps shelter-in-place was working. I concluded it was better to hope it was negative so that I didn’t unintentionally infect my family (and others) before. Great, this wishful thinking obviously had an effect on the outcome anyways.
I went into Quest Diagnostics and did a quick blood draw. I was told it would take 5–10 business days to get the results. After 2 weeks and sending an email to Quest, I got my results. So high tech.
It came back negative (no anti-bodies, or sign of having Covid in the past).
As I told friends and announced my results on Facebook (obviously I care about my privacy), I got pointed to a lot of sources about how inaccurate or questionable these tests were. The question of whether one is immune even after having anti-bodies was also in doubt. Really?
For the general public I also thought, how would they interpret the sensitivity and specificity numbers, that stuff is confusing! One thing I was excited to do as an AI / machine learning guy was to exercise my statistics hat. Using Baye’s theorem, and some assumptions about how prevalent Covid is, it’s surprising how much uncertainty there still is even after getting the results. I’d love to walk through my whiteboard analysis I did, but I’ll spare the math for now.
To be honest, I didn’t really trust the results, and overall, it didn’t really change anything. I suppose I did feel a little better about all the precautions I took (constant cleaning, face masks, etc), and that they were probably effective.
My main takeaway was to still be cautious, and not change my behavior because of the test either way. I had other friends express the same thing after they took their tests as well.
Reunited, and it feels so good
On May 1, 2020, I finally reunited with my family and got to see my brother’s (mostly) finished new home. It was gorgeous! He couldn’t get furniture yet because of the shelter-in-place, but it made for a killer yoga studio.
Being reunited with family was really nice, but there were definitely some trade offs. As a single person, it’s probably easier to control all the environmental contact. As a family, well, that becomes much harder for various reasons. But for me, it seemed like the right thing when balancing practicality and safety.
One final take away I would say that struck was the contrast in how Californians viewed the pandemic vs. New Yorkers. I think I was really shocked to hear views from Californians (a fellow blue state) about how there shouldn’t be a lockdown, mostly related to personal freedom and choice. It seemed like New Yorkers were on board with the “heavy handed” measures and a strong sense of shared sacrifice, likely because it hit the city hard. In CA, it was relatively mild. I think people had a hard time picturing the same severity happening in CA. Of course, I say that through my own personal lens.
It made me aware that there are waaay more diverse opinions about the public health crisis we‘re in. I can only imagine how people’s views will evolve throughout the next few months or years, and how it might change our society. I hope that we come out stronger because of this, more resilient to something down the road. For now, I plan to enjoy the extra time and slower pace with family, because when the world “restarts” again, it’s full speed ahead.
Stay safe everyone.
P.S. I eventually did find a new job for the summer at Adobe as an intern (virtually) and still plan to attend grad school in the fall. I feel very fortunate, and wish all the job seekers out there the best of luck.