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Dispatches from the Edge

At risk populations: ‘What helps is feeling like you’re not going it alone’

Personal stories from a person with a compromised immune system, a homeless shelter, and a visit to an urgent-care clinic.

Mee-ok has been worried about the coronavirus since January.
Mee-ok has been worried about the coronavirus since January.McKenzie Johnson

Editor’s Note: These stories are part of a Globe Magazine special report, appearing in print on Sunday, March 29.

Tuesday, March 17

Now I Can Only Sit, and Wait, and Worry

By Mee-ok

I am disabled and live in government-subsidized housing. I’m terrified.

Most of the people I live with are elderly, sick, or both. Many of us use oxygen tanks and get around in highly specialized wheelchairs. I have a severely compromised immune system and require the assistance of a caretaker, so I have feared COVID-19 since January. I already have trouble breathing and get sick easily. I know that our whole building could be decimated if the virus came here, me included. For this reason, I’ve been isolating myself since Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared the first state of emergency, in his state, at the end of February. I’ve only gone out for essential health appointments.

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But, in the first week of March, we were notified that it was time for the annual inspection of every apartment in our sprawling building [of more than 300 units]. Before those happen, the management company does its own inspections, which take a week, followed by another week of more strangers coming to fix things. A great inconvenience at any time, but this year, it’s life-threatening. Social distancing will be impossible. Even if I could leave, the inspector will have already gone through other apartments in a building that’s like a cruise ship docked on land. I called and e-mailed management, asking it to postpone these visits and only address urgent matters. I was told that the staff will wear gloves and masks before entering my unit. I called the state’s Department of Health, the Massachusetts hotline for infectious diseases, and the governor’s office. I called my state representative, too, and asked how I could stop them for their protection and my own.

My representative told me the state can’t prevent a private company from inspecting its buildings. But he did call the Housing Authority, which asked management not to inspect my apartment. Unfortunately, it had already sent someone. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and I didn’t let him in. I worry that won’t stop cross contamination from happening in other units.

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Last week, the town’s head of health services had scheduled a coronavirus education session in our community room. Then, Governor Baker declared a state of emergency. I urged the director to cancel the event. He refused, saying people were told not to come if they’re sick. But I was never told that, and the fliers implored everyone to come.

This week, management finally did call off any routine maintenance. It closed the community room, too. Now, I can only sit and wait for the outbreak I can feel coming. I’ve lived here for almost seven years, and I’ve never heard any of my neighbors. But yesterday, I realized that whoever lives below me was hacking and moaning.

Mee-ok is a Boston-area essayist and poet.

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Monday, March 16

For Those With Nowhere to Go

> Karen LaFrazia, president and CEO of St. Francis House in Boston, the state’s largest day shelter

“We’re trying to promote social distancing within the shelter and limit the exposure that people have to each other. But shelters tend to be very crowded environments — achieving the recommended distance is almost impossible. And this is a time where people who are feeling lonely crave human contact. So we’re trying to balance keeping people in and providing for their needs against the space constraints.

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Everybody is working around the clock to ensure the health and the stability of a very vulnerable population. I’m spending many more hours at St. Francis than I am at home with my kids. But I feel blessed to be working with such amazing colleagues; the esprit de corps is so strong. I worry most about front-line staff who work with people feeling heightened levels of anxiety and the behavioral issues that go along with that, amidst concern for their own health.

We’ve always prided ourselves on being able to provide hot breakfast and lunch; with no volunteers in the building, we’ve moved to cold breakfast and lunch. Donations of hand sanitizer, cash, and clothing are always really important; we certainly don’t want to see our supplies go down, and our costs are escalating every single day.

What helps is feeling like you’re not going it alone. Everybody’s doing everything they can, and we’re doing it together. And that can carry you for a while.”

As told to Monica Petrucci

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Drive-through testing for coronavirus at Cape Cod Community College by Cape Cod Healthcare nurses.
Drive-through testing for coronavirus at Cape Cod Community College by Cape Cod Healthcare nurses. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Thursday, March 19

In Urgent Care, Watching

By Molly Grab

I shifted in my seat at the urgent care clinic in Brookline and tried to get comfortable. It was early March, still just the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Massachusetts. On each table, a sign with a cheery clip-art face reminded patients to wear a mask if they had a cough. I wasn’t here because of coronavirus, but I was still self-conscious enough not to clear my throat too loudly, especially around the elderly men and women waiting. Everyone seemed careful to give these vulnerable people at least a two-chair buffer.

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Now, some three weeks and more than 8,000 US cases of coronavirus later, anxiety is even higher and clinics are introducing additional precautions. “We’re really trying to keep sick patients from exposing other patients,” says Dr. Jeannie Kenkare, chief medical officer and cofounder of PhysicianOne Urgent Care, which operates several clinics in the state. If you arrive at a PhysicianOne clinic with a fever, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat, you’ll now be asked to wait in your car for a phone consultation. Then, a provider in protective gear may evaluate you through your car window or in a safe outdoor area.

Not all urgent care clinics in the Boston area have adopted this screening protocol, but many are using technology like virtual visits, call-ahead options, and text and e-mail updates to safely connect patients with physicians. “It’s all hands on deck,” says Lynne Rosen, a board member of the North East Regional Urgent Care Association. Rosen expects a “very high” volume of patients in the coming weeks.

Those who feel sick also have to do their part. “We’ve seen patients not want to disclose until they’re in the exam room that they’ve had a fever for a few days, which potentially exposes everybody,” Rosen says. She encourages those who feel ill to go online, register electronically to save their spot, and wait for clear direction from their local clinic before coming in. “We’re feeling very confident that we can provide safe care to patients,” she says, “and health care workers in general rise to the occasion in challenges like this.”

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Monica Petrucci and Molly Grab are students in an Emerson College publishing class. As-told-to interviews have been edited and condensed. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.