By John Rolfe / Red Hook, NY
Remember the good old days before the pandemic, when going to work while sick was a virtue, a sign of a valiant combat mentality where neither pain nor sneeze nor gloom of Nyquil would stay you from the swift completion of your appointed rounds?
Your actual job performance in that condition was still in question, of course. I well recall my years in an office cube farm that awaited me at the end of a three-hour (each way) commute to Manhattan. I routinely went in with head colds and sometimes worse, usually spending the days miserably clutching moist tissues, a box of Sudafed, and a bottle of nasal spray, my red eyes on the clock more than on the work at hand. Gastric upsets also ate, so to speak, into my time at my desk and my enthusiasm for thinking.
And let us not forget the traditional annoyance we felt at those who hacked and coughed and vented all kinds of bugs on the train or bus, at nearby desks, in the elevator, or by the coffee machine. Who among us welcomed having our lives sidetracked for a few days or a week by these pestilent people?
These days, going to work while under the weather likely means carrying Covid-19 to the public. It’s a virus that seems to hit everyone a little differently and with varying severity. When I caught it at my workplace in August 2000, I wound up afflicted with eight days of 102.5° fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. A co-worker with whom I’d been in close proximity ended up hospitalized. She said it was worse than the Legionnaires’ Disease that had nearly killed her several years earlier.
I now toil as a bus driver for a school district in New York’s Hudson Valley. We pilots of big yellow madhouses are ordinarily in short supply, but the pandemic is wreaking havoc on our ability to ferry the nation’s children to school each day. Our usual policy is to stay home when we’re sick. It’s only common sense and courtesy that we shouldn’t be spreading germs to the kids on our buses and our co-workers. Not coming in while even suspecting Covid is mandatory…sort of.
There is now tremendous pressure — economic, political and social — to keep as many people working and life as close to normal as possible. Parents want their kids in classrooms. Employers want their workers in offices, stores, restaurants, transportation hubs and medical facilities. Politicians want us to make them look good by not disrupting their proclaimed paradise. But there is great confusion, perhaps even more than at the outset of the pandemic, about what is actually safe.
Which masks work best? How effective are vaccines? How long should you quarantine if exposed to Covid or wait to return to work if you’ve had it? It all depends on who says what on any given day and whom you choose to believe: the CDC, Dr. Anthony Fauci, assorted government officials, Joe the Baseball-Cap-Wearing-Pundit-Podcasting-From-His-Basement, and too many more.
The CDC’s ever-changing guidance regarding isolation/quarantine and precautions for the exposed and stricken seems to be making most of us crazy, not to mention states and counties banning or refusing to enforce preventative mandates as courts issue conflicting rulings. Meanwhile, the question of whether to go to work when feeling off remains fraught with potentially serious consequences.
Last December, I developed sniffles. I’d been fully vaxxed and knew what Covid felt like. (Kinda like the flu, but different.) I honestly don’t feel it’s safe to drive a 40-foot bus with 40 kids on board if I’m not fully sharp. I need to be energetic and focused, not in a fog. We are not allowed to take over-the-counter medication as it can make us drowsy and its presence in our bloodstream can get us taken off the road if detected by one of our random drug tests.
The sniffles I had felt like a common cold — more annoying than fully distracting. I was well aware that I might have Covid, but we’ve been so short-staffed that we’re practically kidnapping people off the street to cover our routes. I should have gotten tested, but my insurance had been dropped by the urgent-care facility I had used (I don’t have a primary care physician) and I didn’t know where else to go. So I affixed my mask to my leaky face, did my best to not snuffle when near anyone, and hauled my squealing urchins without incident.
You probably know or have heard of someone who had what seemed like a mild cold that turned out to be a confirmed case of Covid. A co-worker of mine recently came down with it and returned to work after five days instead of the formerly recommended 10 once her symptoms improved. But she still felt tired and not quite right. Nevertheless, we needed her and any other warm carcasses who can function in a reasonably productive fashion.
Vaxxed or tested, urging everyone to work in dicey health, is ultimately self-defeating, especially in places where many workers refuse to be vaccinated or even wear masks. They are the ones who are being hit the hardest by even the supposedly milder Omicron variant. Every workplace will reach a breaking point if enough people get sick.
It's a bitter shame that Americans couldn’t pull together and get a handle on this virus at the outset two years ago. It still would have been a rough road but not as big a hash as we’ve made of it. Now we’re just going to have to ride it out as best we can while (hopefully) following our common sense and conscience.
No matter what we want, the virus will continue to call the shots, so to speak.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.