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    Photo by Mickie Winters

    I first thought we might have a problem on our hands as I was going through customs at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. It was February 23.

    Landing in Panama eight days earlier, my wife and I were greeted on the jetway by healthcare workers who were dressed for the end of the world and wielding an infrared thermometer. We handed over the Ministry of Health forms we’d filled out somewhere over the Caribbean that asked if we’d been to any areas with coronavirus outbreaks and whether we’d experienced fevers, coughing or difficulty breathing in recent days. None of this really freaked me out; I thought back to a similar screening I’d had flying into Erbil in northern Iraq for a reporting trip years ago during a MERS outbreak, to being stopped by a man in a sterile white suit wielding a temperature gun. I figured that’s simply what happened when there was a pathogen going around that had the potential to turn into a pandemic.

    But now, back in America, a deep unease set in as I went through customs, unraveling some of the relaxation I’d managed to capture on vacation. At the airport, nobody screened us for symptoms. There was no health form to fill out. There was no hand sanitizer next to those already gross computer screens all travelers have to use. Checking in for our flight out of Panama, we were asked if we had been to China in recent weeks, which seemed to be a dated question given the spread of the virus in Europe. When we got to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer’s booth in Houston, we were only asked if we’d brought back any tobacco or booze. I can’t remember if he said “welcome home” or not. It didn’t seem like the U.S. was taking it seriously. Instead, the country was acting like everything was business-as-usual at its major ports of entry, like America could dodge the virus by simply not looking it in the eye.

    From that day on, it felt like I was watching the pandemic and all the missteps surrounding it in slow motion.

    A few days after getting home to Louisville, I found myself driving north on I-65 toward Austin, Indiana, a tiny town 30-something miles north of here. Five years ago, Austin was the site of an HIV outbreak tied to intravenous drug use that ultimately infected more than 200 people. Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana at the time, had resisted calls from health experts to allow needle exchanges, putting his own personal beliefs ahead of the science that said those exchanges would help stop the outbreak. He eventually came around, but his delayed action was seen as exacerbating the crisis. If Austin were a country, its HIV rate would rank alongside some of the highest in the world.

    Now vice president, Pence had just been tapped by Trump to lead the country’s coronavirus task force, and I was writing a story about what happened the last time Pence managed an outbreak.

    The exercise could feel a little ridiculous. At a free weekly church dinner I stopped by to take the pulse, coronavirus wasn’t really anybody’s top concern. This was a small town far from the halls of power, with urgent and visible problems in drug abuse and poverty. “Corona-what-now?” said one woman as I asked a question. A pastor told me that perhaps the HIV outbreak in Austin was a test from God to prepare Pence for coronavirus. 

    But over the phone, Indiana public health experts — as well as the lone doctor in town at the time of Austin’s HIV outbreak — were concerned: Those who had pushed Pence to take action told me that he had been dismissive of their recommendations of what needed to be done back in 2015.

    More often than I’d like, stories I work on make me sad or angry. There are those who might think that reporters shouldn’t feel that way, but it’s human and it’s true. But while things make me sad or angry, it’s rare for stories I work on to leave me scared for the wellbeing of myself, my family and my friends. The cautionary tale of Austin scared me a little bit: Pence once needed to listen to science and he didn’t. Now, he needed to listen to science again. But with his boss saying that the number of coronavirus cases would soon be down to zero and continuously downplaying the threat despite CDC warnings that coronavirus could pose a “severe” disruption to life in the U.S., I worried that the vice president would be under even greater pressure to dismiss science and the facts. 

    After I’d finished writing the next night, the wife and I went to a fish fry at Holy Family on Poplar Level Road, which we hoped would be the first of many Lenten fish fries over the coming weeks. Instead, it turned out to be one of the last normal things we did. She got the fried fish and I got some spicy baked fish wrapped up in tin foil and washed it down with a few Budweisers. I remembered, grimly, that we were in Camp Taylor, which in its life as an army base had been the epicenter of Louisville’s infections and deaths during the 1918 influenza pandemic. On the way out the door we stopped by the dessert table and picked up some peanut butter fudge to bring home. Then we drove across the street to Kroger and bought a month’s worth of canned food just in case things got bad.

    It was February 28, and there wouldn’t be a confirmed case in Kentucky for another week, so I kinda felt like a crazy person pushing a shopping cart full of cans down the aisle. I told myself we were buying things we ate anyway, that if things didn’t get bad we’d have a very full pantry. If I’d had to put money on it at the time, I would have said nothing was going to happen, that we’d be laughing about the supermarket trip pretty soon. And what I was worried about wasn’t what we have today: In my bad scenarios then, I imagined the country aggressively confronting the virus after ignoring it, quarantining hotspots and playing whack-a-mole for a while. The food stockpile was for the unlikely possibility that Louisville was one of those few hotspots where normal life would have to stop for a little.

    I was wrong.



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