TRAVERSE CITY — Jerry Dear, his wife Marylyn, and his church friends in Gray Matters used to play dominoes on Friday nights. They’d also get together once a month for prayer and a potluck.
Now they pick up and deliver prescription medication, do minor home repairs, and sit with someone who is sick, so the person’s spouse, son or daughter can do essential errands.
“We used to pray for them and if they were in the hospital we’d go visit,” Dear said in a telephone interview. “Now we call. Sometimes, we text.”
Gray Matters is an established group of retirees from a variety of area churches who have ramped up their prayers and their presence and say they will continue to help those in need.
“We hear people say that this is a seniors’ disease but it isn’t really,” Dear said. “It is the seniors who sometimes fall through the cracks, though. This work is just a way of keeping track of our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Every day, Dear says he calls five to six people and checks on their wellbeing. There are 35 people in Gray Matters and they do the same thing, he said.
That is 175 to 210 people who might otherwise experience isolation, and is one way some northern Michigan residents say they plan to take care of their own.
For Carol Long, staying inside has already grown stale.
“I’m one of those people that, if I feel the urge to run to the store, I do it,” the 81-year-old said. “Now I have to think about everything.”
She and her 77-year-old husband, both retired, plan to continue their self-imposed lockdown until things calm down. Neither has major health problems, but know their age makes risk of complications greater.
Long said they’ve been cooped up since last Friday only venturing out for a brief doctor’s appointment. Fortunately, the basement freezer’s filled with venison and Long’s three adult children offer to pick up groceries almost daily.
She’s passing the time with deep-cleaning and a collection of good books.
“He does jigsaw puzzles and I do crossword puzzles. And never the twain shall meet,” Long said with a chuckle.
She’s in the middle of a James Patterson novel now, but hopes she’ll be able to venture out soon — there’s a new Harlan Coben work Long’s desperate to get her hands on.
An end to self-imposed quarantine, too, will mean she can again visit with her teenage grandchildren.
“I really love having them over,” Long said. “We did have them over once but their dad said ‘Nope, this has gotta come to an end for a while.’”
For her, the isolation isn’t the hardest part.
It’s the negativity.
“What I find is that it’s depressing,” Long said. “I get up in the morning bright-eyed and bushy tailed, but by the time it’s time to go to bed you have heard so much negativity on the television.”
The reason for the isolation is an obscure phrase that now rises easily to our lips — social distancing.
Dr. Josh Petrie, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan, explained the science behind it.
In the case of COVID-19, people have to come into contact with each other to spread the disease. The size of any epidemic is directly related to a diseases’ infectivity and the number of contacts that are made with infected people.
“It is all a big network,” Petrie said. “If you contact two people, those people contact two people and so forth, it only takes 10 contacts to get to 1,000 people. If you increase that to five contacts each, it turns to about 10 million contacts.”
Petrie said to think of it as exponential growth and any break in the exponential chain will make a difference in the overall spread of infection. Every person can make a difference.
Reducing the number of contacts you have with the outside public is key and the earlier social distancing is practiced, the bigger impact it will have. The novel coronavirus is spread through droplets — large wet particles produced when coughing — and can travel about six feet from someone who is coughing.
The only way to completely avoid transmission is to distance yourself from others.
Petrie said by practicing this new social norm the virus may circulate for a longer period of time, spreading more slowly, but the number of cases at the peak of infectivity will be greatly decreased — making care for those who need it possible.
But for first responders, social distancing proves more difficult.
Many stations have closed to the public — Grand Traverse Metro Fire Chief Pat Parker said no tours or Boy Scout visits will come until things change. He also limited visits from family members and asked his firefighters to stay away when off-duty.
“The big thing is we’re breathing, taking a deep breath,” Parker said. “And making sure that we, first of all, take care of ourselves.”
Traverse City Police officers are setting up virtual roll call meetings to limit face-to-face contact, according to Chief Jeff O’Brien.
Social distancing means limiting police response to non-emergency calls and changing policies to protect officers.
“The level of service that they’re used to in Traverse City from the police department? It’s not going to be there,” O’Brien said. “They might get a telephone call instead of an officer showing up for non-emergency-type calls — a malicious destruction of property that happened two days ago, or a lost cell phone, a lost purse.”
They’re also working to implement an online form people can use to file reports via the department’s website.
Across the hall, the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department is maintaining their own distance.
“We’re in the process of spreading people out,” said Sheriff Tom Bensley. “Changing shifts, changing work hours — whatever we can do to have fewer people in the building.”
Paramedics, too, are taking care.
In Bellaire, it comes in the form of limiting how many responders have direct contact with patients and other safety measures.
“We’re trying to slow this down and at least flatten that curve as far as the spread of infection,” said Chris Thompson, assistant director of Township Ambulance Authority. “Slowing that transmission rate down is absolutely key to make sure people are as healthy as possible. When people begin to get around each other in high numbers, that’s how it spreads.”
For many municipal employees, life goes on — it has to.
Traverse City Manager Marty Colburn said city employees are working to ensure there are police on patrol, firefighters to snuff blazes, clean water to drink and that wastewater is treated.
“Most of those departments, people are working still on their regular shifts,” he said.
Department heads have made a few tweaks to help employees keep some distance from each other, Colburn said. As an example, people who work at the water treatment plant with the same skillsets are now on different shifts. That ensures all the tasks get taken care of without as much overlap and exposure.
Colburn said no city employees have gotten sick so far, and there’s a contingency plan in place if they do. He’s reached out to retirees who used to work in the wastewater and water plants to see if they can help in case a current employee has to call in sick. They’ve been state-certified before, and the city is working on getting them provisional certifications in case theirs has lapsed.
Department of Public Works employees are still on the job as well, working on the city’s streets, water and sewer lines, Colburn said.
The city has a chunk of its administrative staff working from home, Colburn said — 13 on Thursday, or roughly half.
“We’re attempting to keep as many activities going forward as possible,” he said.
For Gabrielle Kitchens, social distancing isn’t just a matter of protecting herself. The 21-year-old is eight months pregnant with her first child — a girl.
“At first, I thought that the way the government was doing things was a bit much,” Kitchens said. “Now that I’m realizing how fast this is spreading, I feel like, to stop people from spreading so quickly, this is exactly what they need to do.”
The risks of COVID-19 to pregnant women, fetuses and whether the virus can be passed during pregnancy or birth currently is unknown, according to both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
It is known that pregnant women are at a higher risk of developing severe illness if they contract other viruses in the same family as COVID-19 or other viral respiratory infections, like the flu, the CDC website stated.
Kitchens said she took maternity leave early at the advice of her boss, which followed the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at Munson Medical Center. Friday was her last day, she said.
She works in housekeeping at Munson, cleaning rooms after a patient is discharged, Kitchens said. Pregnant employees do not go into any isolated or quarantined rooms, a practice in place even before the pandemic, she said.
“We still aren’t going in there, but there have been concerns that COVID-19 is airborne,” Kitchens said. “So somebody who has it but doesn’t know walking through the hospital and me walking behind them is a concern right there.”
But staying connected — especially to people who need some emotional support — is where “Mornings at The Porch with Matt & Madie” tuned in.
The show, created by Matt Zerilli and Madie Begley, debuted on Facebook Live this week.
It offers tips and tricks for surviving social distancing and gives away swag — a coloring book, coffee cups.
The Porch is a community center for Addiction Treatment Services where recovering people can gather to socialize, grab a cup of coffee, play cards or attend 12-step or other support group meetings.
The center is closed for the foreseeable future, said Zerilli, its manager, but has a Facebook community where people were recently encouraged to send in their favorite recovery songs that were made into a Porch Recovery Playlist on Spotify.
“It’s kind of goofy, but we need to pass the time and just have some fun with it,” Zerilli said. “We’re trying to look at the opportunity in this.”
That would include creating an even stronger online community, he said.
Other ATS services remain open — the detox unit and men’s and women’s residential treatment centers, with outpatient therapy session being held via telemedicine.
“We are an essential service, so we want to support the community,” Zerilli said.
Yoga classes and guided meditation are being done online, and recovery coaching, which connects people to the services they need, is being done by phone, he said.
While support groups are no longer meeting in person, they are meeting online.
Information on how to join a group can be found on Facebook at The Porch Community Center.