This I Know: Contact 

American asks seven wonks to weigh in on a single topic

Illustra­tion by
Traci Daberko

illustrations of a projector screen, spotlights containing the letters Q and A, a woman sitting behind a screen, a plane flashing a spotlight on the Spanish flag, and a man standing inside a jar behind a mask

Jeremy Egner, SOC/MA ’08

It’s odd to want nothing more than to hug your family, but to be afraid that doing so might kill them.

Maybe “odd” isn’t the right word—“wrenching” or just “awful”are probably more appropriate. But the truth is that more than a month after coming through a brutal bout of COVID-19 that included a week in the hospital and several more in quarantine, I still find it difficult to describe my feelings about it.

For me coronavirus played all the hits: I had a fever that lasted weeks, violent shudders and chills, lungs full of fire, and a dangerously dipping blood oxygen level. (Though I didn’t ultimately require a ventilator, thankfully.) In the weeks after I left the hospital, I continued to contend with acute muscle pain and brick walls of fatigue I’d smack into without warning.

But one of the undermentioned COVID symptoms—for those fortunate enough to survive it—is emotional whiplash. The gratitude that comes from pulling through has an almost physical heft, but it sits uneasily alongside an equally weighty survivor’s guilt as thousands continue to die. You have all the feelings all the time, getting misty at the mere sight of your child or just some sentimental tweet. But you are also terrified to get close to anyone, because you are a vector of potentially deadly agony.

(That may be a bit melodramatic but like I said, I’m still working through my emotions.) 

After I finally tested negative, I practically leapt into the arms of my loved ones. But the fear remained. Even as one of the anointed few who knew they were not carriers and had some measure of immunity, once you start thinking of yourself as a big lump of disease, hazardous to everybody’s health, it’s tough to shake.

So again, the whiplash: My antibodies made me feel like a god among mortals—I wanted to hug strangers and lick handrails, just because I could. But when my family actually did go out and mix with others at markets or parks (while maintaining responsible distance, of course), I felt like apologizing to everyone for my presence.

Eventually such feelings will fade. But I do wonder if I’ll ever again wander blithely through the world without being aware of my own body and its proximity to others.

More broadly, I wonder if the concepts of contact and physical space will ever again be banal facts of life, mere afterthoughts as we go through our days interacting and occasionally bumping into one another.

Touch in the age of coronavirus has become so freighted with (understandable) fear and (regrettable) politics, it’s hard to imagine ever again cramming into a crowded subway or shaking someone’s hand without at least thinking about it: Does that woman’s cough sound COVID-y? Has this guy washed his hands today? (Let’s all agree to keep up the handwashing even after this pandemic ends, OK?)

I don’t know more than anyone else about what is going to happen. But I know that being deprived of most human contact throughout my coronavirus saga—when my wife and daughter and even medical professionals were forced to keep their distance—has left me more aware than ever of its power and necessity.

If there’s been a silver lining to all this quarantining—aside from, you know, the countless lives it has saved—it’s that it has thrown into stark relief the lonely existential trajectory we were already on. It’s shown us that self-isolating in front of Netflix with our phones in our hands, buying everything on Amazon, feeding ourselves with Grubhub, and socializing on Instagram, is no way to live. The real world is out there, and it is glorious—that becomes clearer when you take it away.

Eventually fear will have to give way to a responsible re-embracing of the real world, a process that will hopefully become easier thanks to abundantly available coronavirus tests and vaccines. (Save us, science!)

In the meantime, I can definitely recommend leaping into the arms of your loved ones. In the COVID era, human contact can mean death. But in all eras, a lack of it also leads to a kind of death, or at least an emptiness that all the likes, Tiger Kings, and delivery burritos in the world can’t fill.

So hug your dear ones often and with all you’ve got. (That may be a bit corny but like I said . . . )

And if you need me, I’ll be over here licking this handrail.

Egner is the television editor at the New York Times. His story, “I Am Hospitalized With the Coronavirus” ran in the Times on March 27.

Kevin Boyle, SPA professorial lecturer

The videos feel just like class. 

I felt as if you were there in person. 

Emails like these give me confidence that my students and I have maintained our bond in the virtual classroom. As we transitioned to online learning over spring break, I looked back on my 26 years in the army and drew upon a lesson I learned keeping soldiers and family members connected during long separations: Keep everything as normal as possible to reduce stress.   

I use the same class format, albeit over video. I also purchased lighting and a projector screen so that students can focus on the material—not on what’s hanging on the walls of my home office. And my 9-year-old son, Cameron, who often came to AU to sit in on classes, and my teacup chihuahua, Coco, remain a big part of my classes. I often hold Coco as I teach, and Cameron acts as my director and plays on-screen roles in our crime scenes.

Constant communication and a familiar class format allow my students and me to continue to feel normal—and part of a team. 

Boyle teaches in the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology.

George Twigg, SOC/MA ’98

When the coronavirus crisis hit, I took on the role of helping manage our county’s public communication efforts. It’s a two-way street that maintains contact between leaders and the public at a time when it is hard to do so in person.

The thirst for accurate information from trusted local leaders is enormous. Early in the crisis, we worked with our congressperson, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO), on a virtual town hall meeting featuring several of our public health officials. The response from the public was stunning: Some 5,000 people called in to hear the latest updates, share their concerns, and ask questions.

The lesson was clear. In this time of unprecedented social isolation, it wasn’t enough to simply provide accurate and timely public health information. People crave the shared experience of gathering—even virtually—to hear the voices, feelings, concerns, and hopes of their friends and neighbors. They crave contact with people who are living through the same experiences they are.

Twigg is a policy analyst and the joint information system manager for COVID-19 response for Boulder County, Colorado.

Heather Mongilio, CAS-SOC/BA ’15

I asked a woman to walk me through her mother’s final days.

The line went silent. I lost the call. She tried calling back. So did I. We’d get a couple words in, then nothing. This is not how you interview someone who lost their mother to COVID-19. 

It should be in person. A slow interview that allows the person to pause, to take time to process. To wipe away tears. 

But interrupted phone calls must do during a pandemic.

Before, interviewing was done in person, by phone, or by email. That’s the order I learned in journalism classes at AU.

In-person interviews are no longer possible, for my safety and theirs. I went to cover COVID-19 testing and stood across the street. I’ve seen creative reporters write their phone numbers on signs so people can call them. 

I miss in-person interviews and connecting face-to-face. I miss the newsroom, coworkers, and friends who help me through all the stress that journalists push aside to report.

Despite the challenges, the role of journalists is to keep people informed. And that’s what I continue to do.

Mongilio is the health, social services, and Fort Detrick reporter for the News-Post in Frederick, Maryland.

Julitza Lopez Cardenas, SOC/BA ’21

As a first-generation student, I didn’t grow up dreaming of studying abroad in college. However, at the beginning of my junior year, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

In January, Madrid became my home away from home. I created a new community, made lifelong friendships, and even learned how to ride the metro (after getting lost the first time). 

Then it all came to a sudden end. In one week, I watched Spain go from having 50 cases of COVID-19 to more than 2,000. I only had five days to pack and flee the country.

I wasn’t ready to leave, but this was outside of anyone’s control. Spaniards like to say no pasa nada—“there is truly no problem”—but nobody was saying that anymore.

It was time to go back home. After the plane touched down in March, I raced through the terminal to hug my parents. I couldn’t stop crying when I was finally reunited with them. I finally felt safe. 

While my experience was incomplete, I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to study abroad in Spain and will always cherish those two months.

Cardenas is a public relations major.

Angela Vassallo, SIS/BA ’96

We all know that COVID-19 is transmitted through droplets and contact, but it seems everyone wants a new, magical solution to make it go away.

As scientists work on new treatments and vaccines, the solutions we have now are simple: hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, and social distancing. They all work—but only in conjunction with one another. You can’t eliminate the spread of coronavirus by handwashing if you aren’t disinfecting high-touch surfaces like your cell phone, and you can’t depend on social distancing if you’re coughing into your hands and not practicing good hand hygiene.

Viruses are smarter than us. They mutate and transform faster than we do—but they don’t have the human touch.

Even though we are physically distant, we’re united together in this fight. Our tools to prevent transmission only work when everyone applies them to their daily routine. We all must do our part and change our behavior in a radical way to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

So, what are you waiting for? Stop reading this and go wash your hands.

Vassallo is an infection prevention and epidemiology expert in Los Angeles.

Lindsay Wiley, WCL professor

Our constitutionally-protected rights to freedom of movement, association, worship, and expression are not absolute. Rather, they are balanced against public health necessities—which are breathtakingly compelling amid the coronavirus pandemic. Restrictions on gatherings and physical closeness raise important and controversial legal questions that courts may grapple with in the coming months.

Our new reality of physical distancing raises even more profound questions regarding culture, faith, and family. Coming together in civic or spiritual settings affords much-needed solace. When loved ones are ill, there is a strong need to comfort them with physical contact. In the face of the death and horror that accompany a dreaded disease, people yearn to express their grief in churches, social groups, and funeral services. But even these assemblies are disallowed in many places.

Although public health experts have long referred to community mitigation measures as “social distancing,” many commentators have rightly changed the term to “physical distancing.” Our social contact must remain strong—from six feet away—if we are to weather this crisis.

Wiley is the director of WCL’s Health Law and Policy Program.