Voices From Quarantine: In N.H., People, Employers Face Tough Choices in Responding to Coronavirus

Mar 12, 2020

Credit CDC

As of Wednesday morning, the state of New Hampshire had asked more than 250 people to remain at home because of the coronavirus. Public health officials are actively monitoring these people, who either recently returned from certain countries or who came into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

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But as NHPR’s Jason Moon reports, many other people are also staying home as schools and employers decide on how they’ll respond to the spread of the virus.

Difficult Choices for Families, Schools, and Employers

Jim O’Brien of Hopkinton is on day twelve of a fourteen day self-quarantine.

Twelve days ago he and his two teenaged sons returned from a trip to Italy. O’Brien says the confusion about what exactly they should do began right away.

“You know there were a lot of questions both in family and in myself and in the community to how everybody should be reacting to people who did travel and what’s the right method,” said O’Brien.

When O’Brien and his sons first got back, the CDC wasn’t yet recommending that people returning from Italy self-quarantine. But his employer, the Nature Conservancy, asked him to anyway. O’Brien agreed, but his children went back to school. That prompted debate among neighbors in emails and on the town’s Facebook group.

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“It’s understandable you know that there’s people who think that, as a town, that we should be going further than the recommendations that are coming out of the CDC,” said O’Brien.

Then, within a few days, the CDC recommendations changed: now anyone coming back from Italy, is asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.

And so that’s what they’ve done. O’Brien is working from home. His sons are staving off boredom with the trampoline and basketball hoop.

“Having your freedom restricted is challenging. Even if I wanted to go get a candy bar down at the corner store, I can’t,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien said the situation has been stressful – just trying figure what the right thing to do is feels complicated.

“It has opened my eyes to the bigger picture of these things.”

These kinds of decisions - whether to follow government guidelines or go beyond them are falling to individuals, school districts, and employers all across the state right now, including here at New Hampshire Public Radio.

On Tuesday night, three NHPR staffers who had just returned from a conference learned that another conference attendee had tested positive for COVID-19.

NHPR education reporter Sarah Gibson is one of those affected. In a recording she made just after learning the news, Gibson approaches her roommate to discuss the situation.

“Ok I’m walking up the stairs to talk to my housemate about the fact that I might have to start self-quarantining.”

The two of them then discuss the logistics of possibly not leaving the apartment for two weeks. They make a shopping list for someone else to buy for them, and they talk about making sure they’re not using the same towels.

Neither Sarah Gibson nor the two other NHPR staff who attended the conference are known to have come into close contact with the person who tested positive. State public health officials later told Gibson and her roommate it is not necessary to self-quarantine.

But that left managers at NHPR with a difficult choice. Should they follow state guidance and allow an employee like Gibson to come back to work because her risk of having COVID-19 is low? Or ask her to stay at home because they can’t guarantee it wouldn’t put other staff or her sources at risk?

“And so then there’s this whole thread of emails between us and the editor and our boss about what we do,” said Gibson, in a phone interview Tuesday night.

Ultimately NHPR did decide to ask the three employees to work from home for 14 days and to practice social distancing.

Adding to the confusion, Gibson later receieved different advice from a state public health official: she should self-quarantine after all.

It all leaves my colleagues like Sarah Gibson in a tight spot.

“Because there’s so many things I want to do, include report on the coronavirus. Literally. Like, that’s what I was excited about doing tomorrow.”

Trade-offs like this could become a lot more common for people in New Hampshire if COVID-19 and the fears around it continue to spread.

Changing Daily Habits

Even for those who aren’t self-isolating or quarantining at home, daily life for many in New Hampshire has been disrupted by the coronavirus. NHPR is hearing from people who are changing their behaviors--some in big ways, some in small ways. Here is a collection of voices from around New Hampshire, gathered by NHPR's Todd Bookman.

Some of the voices in this story came from NHPR’s coronavirus listener survey. You can add your experiences to the survey here.