New York’s Coronavirus Outbreak ‘Feels Like a Nightmare’

West Bend graduate is a public health scientist in New York City

By Samantha Dietel, Editor in Chief

The City That Never Sleeps now resembles a ghost town.

That’s what Kacie Seil, a former West Bender now living in New York City, says about how the COVID-19 outbreak has affected her current home.

Seil, an epidemiologist who attended Yale University after graduating from West Bend East High School in 2006, serves as a research scientist for data integrity at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. As a resident and analyst, Seil has seen the impact of the coronavirus pandemic up close.

Seil began to feel extremely stressed while anticipating how bad things could get as the coronavirus pandemic became an enormous public health emergency in New York.

“A week or two ago, I definitely had a few moments where I felt like—this feels like a nightmare, it doesn’t feel real that this could be happening,” Seil said. “None of us have ever lived through something like this before, so I was certainly having those feelings.”

Her analytical instincts have caused her to “religiously” follow the news regarding COVID-19 developments. Even in early March, she was very worried about the severity of the virus and its possible spread in the U.S. During that time, she was particularly troubled as her boyfriend traveled to a work conference in New Orleans.

“I was concerned that he was going to travel and be on an airplane and be at airports, and at the conference there were a lot of people,” Seil said. “At that point I was already understanding that this was very possible, that this was becoming an issue in New York, but really everywhere.”

Seil explained that by the time her boyfriend returned from the conference a few days later, his employer was already starting to ask the staff to work from home.

“I have some anxious tendencies, so it’s definitely been challenging to come to grips with what is happening,” Seil said. “But as an epidemiologist, I know that it’s absolutely necessary right now to try to keep the case count as under control as we can, so I think it’s sad and it’s scary, but I also fully understand that this is what we need to be doing right now.”

Right now, Seil’s anxieties have lessened as she has placed faith in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the federal government to take the necessary actions as quickly as they can so life can return to normal.

West Bend East graduate Kacie Seil poses for a photo with her dog Ruthie in Brooklyn in 2018. Photo courtesy of Seil.

Still, the threat of contagion has prompted Seil to come into contact with as few people as possible, besides her boyfriend who lives with her. In general, Seil only has to leave their studio apartment twice a day to walk their two dogs. As it is a large apartment building, Seil has to take an elevator down to the ground floor, but she will skip it and wait for the next one if it is already occupied by multiple people.

“Other than that, once a week I have to go into the laundry room and do laundry, but I’m trying to go in at like 8 p.m. when there’s not going to be anyone else in there,” Seil said. “I’m trying as best I can to really stay away from other people.”

While still adhering to social distancing measures, however, Seil has made sure to stay in constant contact with friends and family.

“It’s amazing how much my mood lifts after I’ve seen friends on FaceTime for an hour or two,” Seil said. “It definitely makes you feel less alone and I would really recommend that people, while we’re all going through this, to get on Skype, get on FaceTime, maybe virtually have dinner with your grandparents. It actually helps a lot.”

For the past couple weeks, Seil has been required to work from home, which has also allowed her to further limit social interaction. Because she works within the World Trade Center Health Registry, she is primarily involved with cleaning and analyzing data that has been gathered from surveys dispersed to 9/11 survivors, while also helping to generate study questions for those surveys. Seil is still able to complete this work from home, though the new work environment has been an unusual experience for her.

“But I am anticipating that I probably at some point will get called into the main office to work on the COVID response, relieving other analysts and epidemiologists who have been working on it for a while, since they need a break,” Seil said. “So I kind of expect that I’ll have to go in to work and help with that effort.”

Though Seil’s background is not necessarily with infectious diseases, she did graduate from Yale University in 2012 with a master’s degree in public health, which focused her studies on chronic disease epidemiology. Before attending Yale, Seil earned her bachelor’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis, where she took part in an interdisciplinary program that combined psychology, neuroscience and philosophy.

Kacie Seil, right, poses for a photo with her friend Katie Stroik (now Katie Rader) in 2004. Both are graduates of West Bend East High School. Photo courtesy of Seil.

With New York’s number of COVID-19 cases and deaths climbing above all other U.S. cities, Seil explained that schools and non-essential businesses have been closed. New Yorkers are advised to only leave their home for necessities, such as to visit a grocery store or pharmacy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines regarding mass gatherings have also been strictly implemented in the city.

“This changes day by day,” Seil said. “Right now, it’s very, very different in New York City. Law enforcement is helping to ensure that people are maintaining proper social distancing in our parks and things like that. And that’s a little bit challenging in this environment. It’s such a dense city, so that’s a very different experience.”

Though coronavirus testing capacity has been expanded in New York as part of the effort to contain the spread, Seil explained that only people who require hospitalization are offered tests.

“Anyone who has mild or moderate symptoms is told to stay home and only go to a hospital if you’re in very rough shape, so even we are still undercounting by a lot,” Seil said.

Based on the coronavirus impact in New York City, Seil thinks all Americans should anticipate that almost everywhere in the U.S. will be similarly affected. To prepare for this, Seil recommends that everyone stay home as much as they possibly can.

“The most important thing that everyone should be doing right now is trying to slow the rate of infection so that the hospital systems don’t get overwhelmed,” Seil said.

(Top image: While in Queens, West Bend East graduate Kacie Seil poses for a photo with her dog Ruthie in 2019. Photo courtesy of Seil.)

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