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Personal protective equipment worn inside COVID-19 containment.

Catching Up – Life Inside (actual) Containment

Hey there and Happy Thanksgiving! It’s been quite a while hasn’t it? I’m still here and I hope you are too – I hope you’ve found some extra moments to relax and get lost in the flow of knitting throughout this crazy year.

In my last update (March!) I mentioned that my day job is in infectious disease research – specifically the biochemistry of viruses and how they are recognized and defeated by our immune systems. Well 2020 turned out to be the year of virus and vaccines, which has been a big clarion call to all of us with experience working at the lab bench.

Earlier this year I took a new job working directly inside containment with the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus and there really are no words to describe how busy that work has been. I jumped in much later than my other teammates, who had been working 12-hour days, nearly every day, since the virus was identified at the start of the year.

When I say “containment” I indeed mean like what you see in the movies: a BSL-3 level biocontainment facility where you wear the full white suit and helmet (shown below) and you have to swipe your badge a million times just to get close to the specially engineered laboratory holding the live virus. The whole room is held under negative pressure and it’s your helmet’s job to continually blow purified air into the suit to create positive pressure which, hopefully, keeps everything else out (and gives you a bubble of air that’s safe to breathe). Every door and instrument and freezer is alarmed, every action you preform is under strict biosafety regulation and documentation.

Personal protective equipment worn inside COVID-19 containment.
PAPR-style helmet with shroud (…couldn’t they have used a less morbid term?)

So what do we do in there? We’ve been spending 7 days a week testing the myriad of experimental vaccines, treatments and drugs developed by public and private groups from all over the country. At the same time we’re collecting data to answer basic questions about this new virus: how does it infect? how exactly does it do damage? does [X] stop it? does [Y] slow it down? how much? how long? ad infinitum.

I really wish I could share more photos, but items that go into containment do not come back out again and I can’t afford a new phone! Suffice to say that working in this suit and room all day is very uncomfortable. You can’t go to the bathroom, you can’t eat or drink water, you can’t scratch your nose, and you can’t just step outside to take a quick break since exiting requires a whole decontamination process. So on a normal day it’s a bit miserable, then add in a pandemic-level work load, and then add being 8-months pregnant. It’s easily the most intense job I’ve ever had and I didn’t touch a set of knitting needles for several months.

Science-themed party decorations.
My coworkers surprised me with a science-themed baby shower. Where did they find the time?!?

By chance our group is all women, of different experience levels and skill sets and different times of life. And we’re doing what women do best: looking out for one another, multi-tasking a million tiny details, and bearing down to do whatever needs to happen to get the job done. I’m able to update Chicory Sticks right now because it’s the end of my maternity leave and my teammates are stepping in for me. I was at the bench doing chemistry right up until the night I gave birth (I actually didn’t make it to the hospital in time and had the baby in the entryway of my house, with the help of two policemen and an EMT. But that’s a story for another day!)

Emerald green hand-knit baby blanket draped on a chair.
New baby blanket design for the new baby.

I was in the middle of several new patterns when I dropped everything to take this job. 6 weeks of maternity leave has given the opportunity to pick up where I left off and make some progress. I’m really excited about all of these pieces and even though I’m going back to the lab next week I hope the holidays will open up some more time to photograph and share them – headbands, baby leg warmers, toddler sweaters, linen bibs (!), and textured hats. Oh and the baby blanket I made for my newest, didn’t-make-it-to-the-hospital baby boy.

Baby sitting upright and laughing while wearing hand-knit leg warmers.
Crawling baby wearing matching hand-knit leg warmers and headband.
Had to design some sweet accessories for my little girl.

Unfortunately they probably won’t be published soon since each one has a particular knitting technique I recommend using – certain bind offs, cast ons, decorative increases, beading, etc. – and I feel a responsibility to have a tutorial for each instead of forcing you to look it up on your own. My previous patterns had step-by-step explanations linked right there in the pdf and I’d like to make that standard in everything I release. So with these last couple days of maternity leave I’m hoping to record a video or two for the tutorials section of this website.

Toddler with a watering can wearing a hand-knit color-block sweater.
A color-block sweater meant to use up leftovers from other projects.

As I said before, it’s impossible to express how much scientific work is on everyone’s plate right now as we rush to test candidate vaccines and treatments. There’s less and less time to be with my kids and no time at all to think about knitting. But I’m excited to get back to the lab next week! I showed up to see if I could help with the science, I’m staying because of the amazing women working alongside me in these helmets.

Toddler in highchair with a hand-knit bib and cheerio in her mouth.
See you soon!