Guest Columnist

What I've learned as a COVID investigator in Iowa

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Corona
This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. (CDC via AP)

As a disease investigator during this pandemic, my role is to call COVID-19 positive Iowans to learn more about your experiences with the virus, and by doing so, I peer into a snapshot of your life in a single phone call.

I learn about your work and leisure activities, and how your family members interact during a pandemic. You share your anxiety and worries, in addition to your symptoms.

From there, we figure out the possible source or situation where you may have contracted the virus, and we try to identify whom you might have inadvertently infected.

These calls have really changed in tone and tenor since I started making them in August.

Back then, a summertime into a pandemic, the world was divided into two camps: COVID-19 deniers and those who feared the virus.

I spent a lot of time contacting people who told me they just didn’t really take the pandemic seriously until they fell ill.

Often it was these folks’ friends from maskless wedding parties and birthday gatherings we disease investigators would have to contact following an outbreak. But fast forward to today, five months later, and there is a sophistication evolving. Everyone better understands the nature of the pandemic, that masks and social distancing matter, and people, by and large, are more apt to consider curtailing group activities.

Employers are organized and ready to kick into gear when the virus comes to their door. Families have better game plans, and by the time a disease investigator calls someone newly diagnosed with COVID-19, most have already reached out to their exposed friends and family and given them isolation protocols.

But there is a worrying new trend emerging, and I recently faced it head-on in my duties.

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I called a newly diagnosed case and learned that this man lives with his wife and two children in an apartment. He works at a large retail store that had systems in place to cover his work and send him home. Home he dutifully went, but it is a heavy lift to try and keep isolated from your loved ones when living in an apartment.

So, predictably, his wife started developing symptoms.

She works a night shift doing packaging and fulfillment, and her company follows strict protocols also. This couple was really struggling about what to do, but if she went to work and wore her mask, she might not expose anyone, right? So the couple made the decision not to get her tested. Their reasoning? Because they couldn’t afford to pay their rent if she didn’t go to work.

So off to work, symptomatic, she went.

Many of us think, “Well, that is their deal, it isn’t ours.” But this pandemic is all of us. And we are seeing an increasingly worrying trend where the longer this goes on, the more weary people are growing, and the financial consequences of income disparities are widening.

That got me thinking. What recourse is there for renters? Many people are falling behind in paying their rent; they don’t know where to turn for help.

I decided to learn more by interviewing a property management firm. Federal regulations such as the CARES Act, which expired on December 31, or the pending HEROES Act, which would extend eviction protection through the end of January, are temporary measures to halt evictions.

But, in most cases, these suspensions will only be helpful in the short term. The renter carries the added and mounting debts in the long term once evictions resume as they fail to make their rent payments. The landlord feels trapped, too, and while their situation is not as dire, one has to acknowledge they are also trying to stay afloat in impossible and unprecedented times.

We are on the verge of a major housing crisis, and individuals without savings or reliable sources of income are falling behind on rent and mortgage payments.

We must appreciate income disparity beyond the basics of “rich” vs. “poor,” understanding just how complex wages, sick leave, furloughs and debts are to all Iowa families. I fear our low-income Iowans will never recover financially without assistance.

This pandemic is not and should not be a Them vs. Us.

This is and should be strongly treated as an IOWA vs. COVID-19 match-up.

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We need to become what we have learned through this pandemic: more capable of being just very decent Iowans coming together as one.

Marcia Rogers of Cedar Rapids became a certified contact tracer through Johns Hopkins University in July, and works as a contact tracer within Iowa. Her column first appeared in the Carroll Daily Times Herald

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