Walt Toomer was driving to work at 4 a.m. on Sunday, April 5. He would soon be dressed head-to-toe in protective gear to help disinfect every inch of his company’s warehouse.
He felt his first coronavirus symptom in the car that morning.
Walt Toomer is my father. He could easily be considered one of the front-line, essential workers in the fight against the coronavirus. He is not someone you see working in stores, interacting with customers. He works behind-the-scenes, as a risk safety manager for an organic and natural foods wholesaler in New York that distributes food across the northeast. The company has 58 warehouses across North America dedicated to providing food to various grocery stores and supermarkets.
New York was one of the original coronavirus hot spots, and my father was spending well over 40 hours a week at his job in a rural area a half-hour from the Pennsylvania border.
My father is ordinarily responsible for overseeing the safety and security of the warehouse employees. Five weeks ago, his job became entirely centered around the coronavirus.
He helped the company by implementing various social distancing and sanitizing procedures. Every shift change now, workers are instructed to sanitize any surface they’ve touched on machines in the warehouse. He’s helped to make certain each employee knows how to properly sanitize equipment.
Each person who walks inside the company buildings must also have his or her temperature checked by a nurse. If the temperature is over 100 degrees, the employees are sent home and told to seek medical attention.
After returning home to his home in Milford, Pennsylvania, on the first Sunday night in April, my father began to experience a worsening cough, fever, swollen glands and body aches. He decided to stay home from work for a few days.
He went to the doctor to get tested for the coronavirus on April 9, even though he had already started to feel better the previous day.
A week later, my father got the results: positive for Covid-19.
My father is very lucky, though, because he had symptoms only for the first three days. After that, he said he felt fatigued and had an on-and-off fever. His strangest symptom was the inability to taste or smell anything — he lost these senses for about a week.
My father’s girlfriend has been living with him through this, and she started to get sick a few days after he did. Because she is immunocompromised and at a much higher risk for complications, our worries quickly shifted to her.
She was originally tested the same day as my dad, and she tested negative, which didn’t seem possible, considering her symptoms and close proximity to my father. After my father’s positive diagnosis, the doctor re-tested, resulting in a second negative test.
Two weeks later, she was tested for a third time, this time with a blood analysis. Negative. Again.
How was it possible that my dad tested positive for Covid-19 and was sick for three days, and his girlfriend living in the same house tested negative and has been sick for three weeks?
Covid-19 is still so new and unfamiliar that it is hard to know exactly what to expect — new discoveries are made each day, and there are likely thousands of additional cases undiagnosed because of a lack of testing resources.
My dad returned to work on April 27 because his company policy says employees can return to work after being symptom-free for two weeks. He received a call from the doctor two days later, and he was still positive for the coronavirus. He left work immediately to continue working from home.
He has no regrets about going to work every day up until he got sick.
“People were panicking in Manhattan when they didn’t have toilet paper. Imagine the breakdown our society would have if they couldn’t get food,” he said. “My company is doing everything they can to keep people safe…our trucks run and our warehouse operates to make sure people have food. I take that just as seriously as the front-line health care workers — they need to eat too.”
The day after my father felt his first symptom, I was supposed to drive home to my mother’s house in Milford, just 20 minutes from my dad’s house.
I thought I would be fine going there, but my sister and her boyfriend had recently seen my father, meaning it was possible they could have contracted Covid-19, too.
I waited another full two weeks before returning home to Milford, and I went to my mother’s house on April 20. I have yet to see my father because of his positive test results but am anxiously waiting for the day I get to see him again — hopefully sooner rather than later.