The shelves are empty, the test swabs are gone
A series of dispatches from America in the age of Covid-19.
The hunt for a roll of toilet paper: It’s now one of those shared experiences in American life we will all one day tell our grandchildren about, just before they infect us with some new virus.
None of the delivery services here in Berkeley, California, even pretend that they can get their hands on it. You have to go out into the wild to find it, but that’s of course tricky. I walk down to the local Safeway, which now feels like a trip through no man’s land just after the collapse of peace talks. It’s hard to resist the impulse to bob and weave or at least trot through the aisles, like a man dodging sniper fire. No luck: The toilet paper shelves, and only the toilet paper shelves, are swept clean. I then drive to Costco — where a big sign outside lists with all the things they don’t have any more of, toilet paper being at the top. I think that maybe I can lay in wait until the next delivery arrives, and pounce on a 24-pack of jumbo rolls as it falls off the truck. But the checkout guy says they get only one load each morning and that it sells out in the first 30 minutes — when only seniors are let in. So the seniors are not entirely innocent here.
Finally, I walk down to a local corner store, near the Cal campus. The place was unsettling even before the pandemic: ill-lit, oddly stocked and seldom patronized. The guy behind the counter, always a little jumpy, is now wearing a mask. He used to fear armed robbery, now he’s terrified of people handing him cash. The shelves with the paper products are predictably empty, and when I ask him how long before he gets more he says, in a muzzled voice, “they don’t tell me.” “Who is they?” I wonder but before I can ask, he says, “I can sell you one roll.” He vanishes into a storeroom and emerges with an object that looks less like a roll of toilet paper than a millstone, or one of those giant Dutch Gouda wheels. It has no packaging on it; it’s just this truly massive single roll of toilet paper. I of course snap it up for $5 and take it home to measure it, in the same spirit I used to measure rainbow trout after a fishing trip. It’s not Charmin; it’s not even squeezable. But it’s 15-inches in diameter. God knows where the guy got it; I sensed I shouldn’t ask.
A few years ago, I met a prominent molecular biologist and biochemist named Joe DeRisi. Among other achievements, he had identified the original SARS virus back in 2002. He is one of those people who has trouble saying anything that isn’t interesting. I badly wanted to write about him and his work but could never quite figure out how to do it. Infectious disease seemed such a narrow and specialized subject: Who would possibly be interested in that?
Today, he runs the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in San Francisco, where he has spent the last three weeks turning his third floor into a coronavirus lab. “The thing I’m most interested in is testing the bejesus out of people,” he says, when I call him. “It’s impossible to know what’s going on without more testing.” The new lab, staffed by 200 graduate-student volunteers working around the clock, can process 2,500 tests a day. But it is largely idle, processing only about 200 tests a day. The reason: a shortage of the nasal swabs needed to administer the tests. “They’re thinner than a Q-tip,” DeRisi says. “You can’t just jam a Q-tip up there. And they were basically all made in a single factory in Northern Italy.” The factory was shut down by the virus; hence, the shortage.
Anyone who thinks it is a challenge to find toilet paper should try getting these nasal swabs. In the past few weeks, DeRisi has called everyone he can think of to obtain them. He assumed someone must be in charge of this sort of thing in our public health system, but it turns out no one is. “It’s like when you get to the front of the plane and you find out there is no pilot,” he says. The head of a big tech company said he wanted to help and offered all sorts of high-tech stuff — but DeRisi said all he needed were these glorified Q-tips. “Oh, we don’t know how to make those,” said the tech exec.
I wait until dusk to go for a walk, so I have the local hiking trail to myself. Fifteen minutes in, I come across the hind leg of a deer. It’s just lying there, like a small tree limb, in the middle of the trail. The thigh is gnawed to the bone and the blood, while not wet, isn’t reassuringly crusty and dry either. The lower part of the leg remains uneaten, as if the meal had been interrupted. A sign at the park entrance tells you to watch out for mountain lions.
Anyone who runs or walks at dusk is vaguely aware that, if he is ever going to be eaten by a mountain lion, now would be the time. In pre-pandemic days I’d have been on alert: glancing around, listening for a rustle in the woods, trying to remember if I was supposed to curl up in a ball, or stand on my tiptoes and scream. But just then people appeared on the trail. Humans. Without masks. Headed straight for me.
After we’d picked our way past each other — I could see them holding their breath, too — I spent the rest of the walk preoccupied with the possibility that there might be even more of these killers in the woods. I totally forgot about mountain lions. The new fear had replaced the old one, the way more urgent news shoves less urgent news from the front page. If the virus wasn’t at the forefront right now something else would be: but what? Fear works a bit like that. For example, there was a time Donald Trump was whipping up fear of Mexican immigrants, who he advertised as rapists and murderers and so on. Could he still frighten people in Michigan with stories about Mexican gang members, or does he need to wait until the pandemic ends? Are the Americans who once feared Mexican immigrants still as afraid of them as they were six weeks ago?
The news just arrived from New Orleans that Tom Dempsey is dead. The former Saints kicker had been living in the Lambeth House, a retirement community, along with a lot of my parents’ old friends. Like some huge number of them, he had caught the virus. You have the feeling right now that this kind of thing is going to be happening a lot. The pace of death will outrun our ability to process individual deaths. But for Tom Dempsey, I’d like to pause for a moment.
He was one of those athletes whose story was bigger than just sports. He was born in 1947 with no fingers on his right hand and half of a right foot, at the end of his kicking leg. I was in Tulane Stadium with my father when he used that half of a foot to kick his game-winning 63-yard field goal — which would remain an NFL record for the next 43 years. Incredibly, the first response to that kick of some NFL owners was to complain — to say that having a stump rather than a foot gave Dempsey an advantage as a kicker.
People in New Orleans loved the spectacle, but even they viewed their kicker more as a source of amusement than as a hero. “Made it by half a foot, give him a hand,” people used to say, and laugh every time. But Dempsey has always been one of my heroes, and I once ran him down and took him to lunch. He was defiant: He knew how hard it was to do what he had done. And he knew how hard he had worked to turn a weakness into a strength. I know one man who, as a small boy, had met Dempsey and asked him, “What happened to your feet and your hands?” Dempsey had been sweet about it. “Well,” he’d said, “when I was standing in line in heaven to get hands and feet, I was last in line. And by the time I got to the front they only had one-and-a- half pairs left.”