By all accounts, the transmission occurred at home, but its origin was somewhere else: her husband’s office. He worked in a BPO — it involved working as client services manager and supervisor for foreign firms — and like many BPOs of its kind, their workplace was a hermetically sealed environment (blasts of air-conditioning, work stations in close quarters) that, in the pre-pandemic, harkened to a typical corporate bubble. In the pandemic, however, those very conditions proved to be breeding grounds for disease.
Her husband already heard of some colleagues getting sick, in particular one of the tech agents who was suddenly absent one day. “Fever,” he was told. But like many people, he believed himself either impervious or lucky enough not to get COVID-19. After all, it had been more than a year since the pandemic began, and while COVID-19 felt like it was closing in around Dumaguete of late, it still felt like a disease that happened to other people. He also believed in the effectiveness of the protocols in place in his company — the requisite face masks and physical distancing. “You could not return to work anyway if you do not come back with a medical certificate and a fit-to-work document,” he told me.
And then one day, on April 29, at home, there came the fever that could not be denied.
He called in sick the next day, a Friday, and spent that weekend getting himself a battery of medical tests: CBC, urinalysis, x-ray. All results turned out normal. By this time, he heard that the colleague who had gone absent had been told to take a COVID swab test — and at the back of his head, he knew something was up. But the articulation of it, the acceptance of what seemed inevitable felt double-edged: he expected it, and he feared its consequence. The virus, after all, was of a tricky sort: for some people, it was an asymptomatic inconvenience; for others, it was a passing malaise — and at worst, getting ageusia (or the loss of the taste functions of the tongue) or anosmia (or smell blindness); and still for others, it was an unfortunate progression towards hospitalization, intubation, and death. It was a lottery of the worst kind.
He finally got the swab test three days later. On May 6, four medical technologists — all donned in standard PPE, immediately warning the rest of the neighborhood that something was going on in this particular residence — dropped by to administer the test. The next day, he got the dreaded confirmation from the contact tracer: he was COVID-positive.
By then it was too late: at home, he had passed on the virus to his wife and their three young children, including two daughters aged 13 and 9, and a son aged 7. Since the onset of his fever, he had already been infectious, and they lived in a small house without a spare room for isolation. For three days, they lived knowing all of them could be breathing in the virus. They alerted all their close contacts, especially the members of their church, who immediately isolated themselves at the barangay health center even without swab tests.
On social media, the Dumaguete COVID surge was surging as well in news, gossip, and conspiracy theories. The family knew they were caught in a maelstrom and did not know what to expect.
“I wanted the two of us to get the swab test on the same day, since I already developed a fever by May 4,” the wife told me. “And it was already set up. But when the medical technologists arrived, they decided my husband had to take the swab test first, and that mine would soon follow.”
They were told by the contact tracer that the LGU would soon be calling them to discuss what needed to be done.
On the afternoon of May 7, the City Health Office contacted them that they were getting extracted that evening from their residence to quarantine at “City High” — shorthand for the Dumaguete City High School located in Calindagan. They requested home isolation and for everyone in the family to get swabbed, but the request was denied. It was too risky, given the neighborhood they lived in. And then they learned it was only the husband who was going to be placed in quarantine, not all them together, since he was the only one so far who got a positive result.
They could not do anything else, except comply.
When extraction came, it was via a broken down L-300 van from the City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office [CDRRMO] — and the driver and his companion could not locate their house. Her husband had to walk about 50 meters from their house to where the flashing lights of the van were. The walk felt like a perp walk, an announcement to the rest of the neighborhood that this guy walking was COVID-positive. He took in the absurd humor of the situation. There was nothing else he could do about it.
He quickly learned that he was going to have to fly blind in this situation. There were no prior instructions on what to bring to the quarantine camp, and no orientation over the phone on what to expect. He simply sat down inside the van extracting him, had it deliver him to City High, and that was that.
Once inside, there was no orientation on what to do or what was expected of him. He was vaguely told about a nurse in-charge who could be found on the second floor. (He never found the nurse.) There was only one guard on duty. He was ushered into a room in a very dark building, where he was completely alone. He felt a wave of anxiety take over him. Thirty minutes later, some more COVID-positives would arrive, and suddenly he had company.
He examined his bed — a standard cot with a mattress with no linens. He was sure this bed had been here since the quarantine camp opened a year ago when the city started preparing for the pandemic. He was sure this bed had accommodated many COVID-positive people since then. His instinct was to disinfect the whole thing before deciding to lay down on it.
He was mostly on his own. Going around the campus, he stumbled on a friend — someone from his old BPO days in Cebu — who was also quarantined and had been there for some time. It was a relief to have someone to talk to. Only then was he able to get the lay of the land from his friend: what to expect, where to get their meals, where to take their showers, where they could do laundry, where they could find the health worker assigned to monitor their condition.
Two words came to mind immediately:
* * *
The rule of thumb in swabbing was that only those who were showing symptoms could get the test. On May 11, his wife and their two daughters — who were already feverish — finally got their swab tests, and on May 13, they got their expected results: they were also COVID-positive. But by the evening of May 12, they were already told to prepare for extraction as well.
A little drama unfolded: since the 7-year-old was asymptomatic, he could not get a swab test. And since his status was in question, he could not be part of the extraction. The City Health officers determined over the phone that the son had to be left behind — perhaps with his 81-year-old lolo?
His mother resisted that decision. “I could not agree to that suggestion, with only the two of them left behind,” she said. “His lolo would not know how to take care of a 7-year-old. And there was the chance that my son could infect him. I was sure that if we were positive, he was also positive. And there was no one else we could turn to. My husband’s relatives had senior citizens among them, and a cousin was asthmatic. His siblings were all in Pamplona and Bacong, and they also had small children. One of them was also asthmatic.”
The City Heath officers relented: their son could be with them in quarantine camp.
“Grab some dinner first,” they were told. They would get extracted soon after. When they were ready, they were told to text the City Health Office, and the van — the same broken down L-300 van — would pick them up.
“In fairness to the City Health officers, they were generally nice,” she said. “And there was a difference in communication this time around: with my husband, it was done all so quickly. With us, there were several messages exchanged back and forth to prepare us. They were stepping up.”
They ate dinner.
They knew from what her husband had already told her what else to expect and what to bring.
They asked the van driver — through text — to pick them up exactly from where they were: they did not want to do the same perp walk her husband had been through, plus there were things to bring.
Clothes good for at least a week.
An electric stove.
“A thermometer was essential,” she said.
When the van deposited them at City High, she knew what not to expect already. There was still no orientation upon arrival, but the City Health Office had already given her instructions over the phone on what she could look forward to. She asked for her husband to be transferred with them to a new room, and they were housed in a building behind the gym, a relatively new one compared to the rest of the campus. And cleaner, too. The room they were in — which they shared with three other people — was essentially a typical public school classroom that was fairly large, with beds arranged around the room to simulate physical distance, and the armchairs all stacked to the side of the blackboard.
That was home for several days.
Quarantine lasted nine days for her and her two daughters, from the evening of May 12 to May 21. By their second swab tests, they tested negative and were sent home. Swabbing was done in intervals of five or seven days while in isolation. Her son was in quarantine for 20 days. Her husband, who was quarantined first, was there from May 7 to June 2 — a total of 26 days. He tested positive still for his second swab test, and only tested negative for his third.
In isolation, life took a pause. They could not do anything except wait. The entire experience was a waiting game.
“It was hard, all those days in the camp. You had to take the initiative in order for you to get through the days. The City Health Office’s goal was to ensure that we were isolated so that we could not infect anyone else.”
Which meant entertaining them was not part of the plan. They were not required to participate in any activity, nor was any conceived. The only rule was to quarantine: they were not allowed to go out, they were not allowed to congregate with other people who were also COVID-positive.
“The good thing was, my husband came to camp earlier than us, so we knew what to do on a daily basis,” she said.
Her husband’s friends sent toys and games for the children — Snakes and Ladders, Word Factory, the works. The children were also sent books to read.
Other friends sent food — so eating became occupational therapy.
Her husband’s company soon sent a prepaid wifi kit (because he still had to work in isolation), and that gave them more leeway to access the world they could not reenter. There were many Facebook messages to read, and to respond to, all of them bearing good wishes for getting better. The children, when they were not schooling online, devoured YouTube.
And then, because her husband had brought over a guitar, they began to do sing-alongs: acoustic cover songs, old love songs, gospel songs. They began posting videos of themselves singing in isolation.
They also started cleaning their stations to pass the time. “We made such an effort in cleaning everything,” she said. “My husband insisted on it. We cleaned our room, we cleaned the communal bathroom assigned to us, we cleaned the CR where we did our laundry.” That CR was hideous in its dirtiness from the beginning of their stay — so they attacked it with their cleaning streak, even getting rid of the hair that was clogging the drain. But at least the water pressure was strong — that felt like a godsend.
All through this, they monitored their health. “All of us, except my husband, are asthmatic, so we brought our nebulizers. We had inhalers, our medicines, our vitamins,” she said. “For me, I felt sleepy most of the time. Sige ko gi-kutasan. I had body malaise — but I was generally okay.”
The City provided food for those in quarantine, with breakfast coming in around 8 AM (although most of the time, it was 9 AM), lunch between 11 AM to 12 noon, and dinner by 5 PM. Dinner had to come early, because after six, the skeleton staff manning the camp had to be gone.
And all throughout, the fare remained simple, and soon enough, fairly predictable: chicken. The meals were all chicken done in all sorts of ways. With soup, without soup. Done as adobo, or fried, or with batter. It was a feast of chicken.
To vary their meals, they resorted to ordering via Food Panda. “That was the first time my husband installed the Food Panda app in his cellphone,” she laughed.
She heard from the other people in quarantine that some have resorted to breaking the rules just to escape the blandness of the food. “This is in the tent city at the Perdices Coliseum, though,” she said. “I heard some people would escape their isolation to get food in neighboring restaurants — which was sad, because they were infecting other people. But I don’t remember anyone in City High doing the same. We stayed in, we ate chicken, we ordered from Food Panda.”
But there was one person in isolation with them who did escape.
He was apparently a relative of some person of rank at City Hall, and when he was extracted and placed in quarantine at City High, he began to throw a tantrum. He was throwing things, he was shouting, he was going wild. He found the conditions of quarantine camp insulting, and he was fighting with the staff. Then he escaped.
“I think it was in the news,” my friend said. “Later they found him in isolation at some hotel with his wife. Nag-maoy-maoy, busdak-busdak, saba kaayo. Nag-wild.”
In retrospect, for her, it was not all that bad. “Generally, City High was okay. It was not hot, it was well-ventilated, and we had a nice view from the second floor of our building of a very green soccer field, and a nice view of the mountains,” she said.
Certainly, the man who threw a tantrum was drama in quarantine camp. Most people isolated with them led ordinary lives with interesting stories.
There was the married couple her husband met when he first came in. They were all roommates, with another man, in the first six days. But then the husband had to be transferred to the Negros Oriental Provincial Hospital because his blood oxygen level was going low — and that left the wife alone with two men in the same room. She was the only woman left in that building, but she refused to be transferred to new quarters for one reason: she had brought work with her to isolation camp, and the set-up of all her equipment and office materials were already in place, and she could not spare the energy to uproot all that to another building. “Isog kayo nga bayhana, wala’y kahadlok,” my friend recalled. The woman kept on asking for swab tests, eager for a negative result so that she could go home. She also never hesitated to ask for updates on her husband’s condition at the hospital.
Then there was the long-haired dude with tattoos. He was a member of NORAD-7 and a volunteer for the CDRRMO, and he knew most of the people who worked at the City Health Office. When they extracted him to quarantine camp, it was his birthday. “He looked like a gangster,” my friend said, “but his personality was the exact opposite: he was so kind and considerate.”
Then there was the 14-year-old minor who stayed with them in the same room. She was their neighbor, and a member of the same church. “While she tested positive for COVID, her parents tested negative — so she had to come with us. She was extracted with us. And we treated her like our own daughter.” When she tested positive still with her second swab test, she burst into tears. By her third test, she was negative, and she went home together with my friend’s husband and their son.
At the time, my friend knew that the Provincial IATF was already getting overwhelmed with the surge of COVID cases all over Negros Oriental, and in particular, Dumaguete. It reflected in many ways in the conditions and procedures at camp — but she learned to accept even the inconveniences. “I think it was, overall, a fun experience — especially for the kids. Mura lang jud ga-camping. It was kinda boring, but it also gave us some time to do much-needed reflection, and a lot of heart-to-heart conversations with my husband,” she said. “I was also able to rest from household chores and from my work. I was also able to help out in the online schooling of my children. Our biggest deal was merely waiting for food to come.” She laughed.
If there was one thing she learned the most from the experience, it was that COVID was real. “Dili lalim,” she said. “I started praying with so much zeal. I can say that the whole experience strengthened my relationship with God. And with my husband, he learned to bond with our son, especially when it was only them left at camp. My son had always been a mama’s boy — and so it was great that they got to spend time alone together, doing things together.”
Going home was exactly the same as getting into quarantine camp.
“There was no debriefing, and no more instructions from City Health,” she said.
She rode home in the same run-down L-300 van, this time with a different driver.
When she got home, the first thing she did was to disinfect everything in her house.
“I sprayed Lysol all over. That was the advice I got from a Red Cross volunteer,” she said.
She still did not have her sense of smell back, so they waited outside the house for the strong Lysol smell to settle down — and then much later, her daughter told her it was now okay to get back inside.
Upon their return, her neighbors were largely welcoming — ”Okay na mo?” was the constant refrain, to which they’d answer back: “Okay na!” Except for one cautious woman who avoided the family at all cost, by getting out of their way when they meet outside or by crossing the street altogether.
“It’s fine,” my friend told me. “We found it very funny.”