DANDRIDGE, Tenn — (AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is not meant to make a political statement. It is simply a summary of facts that took place from Nov. 4-18.)
After my mother's funeral, it took four days to receive my COVID-19 test results.
My oldest daughter and I had just spent five days in east Tennessee after my mother passed away from complications of Parkinson's disease on Nov. 5. My wife and two other children joined me there for three days.
Weddings and funerals are boisterous events in my family -- must-attend gatherings where those who are absent are ruthlessly chastised in a fun and loving way. The pandemic had already led to the scaling down of one family wedding in July in Ohio and another went forward -- cautiously -- in October in Florida with far fewer people than otherwise would have been there.
I wasn't there. Neither my wife nor kids were there. Between work and my kids' schooling, there was too much at stake to risk exposure traveling to Florida even though I badly wanted to celebrate my cousin's nuptials.
Nearly a month later, the day after Election Day, I was driving to the WUSA9 newsroom when my dad phoned and told me mom's condition had advanced and it was clear the end was near. She'd spent the last five years at an assisted living facility.
I turned the car around, packed a bag and five hours later I was at her bedside in Dandridge, Tennessee for what turned out to be her final hours. She died early the next morning.
Amidst our grief, my father, my brother and I moved forward in planning to memorialize her while fully cognizant of the pandemic. We would hold a memorial service at a local funeral home followed by a Catholic funeral mass. We would require masks at each of these events, despite the lack of a mandate from the Tennessee governor or Jefferson County leaders.
We knew that some family members and friends would be reluctant to attend. Neither my father, my brother or I were judgmental in any way. This was a personal decision to travel amid the pandemic and we wouldn't scrutinize or criticize anyone else's well-intended and well-informed decisions. In fact, a handful of family members chose not to come. That was totally fine.
I flew back to Washington five days after mom passed and returned to Tennessee with my oldest daughter two days later to prepare for the services and my family's arrival in town.
The last "mass gathering" I had attended was Friday, March 13, if you consider a busy newsroom a "mass gathering." It was the last day companies in Washington and the metro area would operate with business as usual.
So it felt unusual, eight months later, to be in a room among people who were hugging and shaking hands as we grieved my mother's death. We were all wearing masks inside the funeral home, but still very much in close contact with each other.
Despite my better judgment, I hugged. I shook hands. I felt more at ease going with the flow than being perceived as socially awkward and distant from my family and assembled friends.
It turns out, we unwittingly facilitated two possible "super-spreader" events. The first was in the hotel lobby where all my family had stayed in Dandridge. The second was at my father's house following the funeral mass. These gatherings were different from the funeral service and mass in that there was very little mask wearing among the attendees. Mask-less, face-to-face conversations were happening all over the place. My children had to be constantly and sternly reminded to keep their masks on while playing with their cousins.
My wife and I tried to stay as diligent as possible in keeping our masks on because we felt strongly this was the best way to protect ourselves. Professional medical experts within the government and in private practice were unequivocal that covering our face and nose was the single best thing we could do to prevent transmission of the virus.
Ultimately, we were among only a handful of people to NOT test positive for COVID-19.
Three days after arriving back in D.C., I was told one member of the family was ill and awaiting results from a COVID-19 test. That set off a chain of events that required me to immediately contact my news director, my daughter's school, our babysitter and everyone else we had been in contact with after returning from Tennessee.
They needed to know that my family and I had been in close contact with someone who was suspected of having the coronavirus.
At that point, I had not been in the newsroom for more than two weeks. That made me confident my co-workers had not potentially been exposed. Corporate policy required anyone traveling out of town to self-quarantine for two weeks after returning. I did not end up returning to work in person until Dec. 8, 24 days after having close contact with someone who had tested positive.
After hearing the news about the ill family member, I immediately arranged to have myself and my oldest daughter tested. My wife and the younger kids were tested just a few days later. Fortunately, we all tested negative.
Seventeen family members who came to my mother's funeral were not so fortunate. Those who attended from Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, California, Texas and North Carolina all reported symptoms and tested positive a short time later.
My father, who had just lost his wife of 45 years, tested positive for COVID-19. My brother tested positive. Aunts, uncles, cousins and spouses all got sick. Fortunately, to my knowledge, no one required hospital admission. It's my understanding everyone infected is recovering. It is not clear if any of them will suffer long term consequences.
I didn't choose to share this story to throw any of my family members "under the bus." We are all to blame for casting aside and ignoring the proven advice of medical experts. The resiliency and cheerfulness of my family's attitude continues unabated. No one in the family is pointing any fingers at a "Patient Zero" nor ridiculing them for introducing the virus and infecting more than a dozen people. Honestly, I have no idea who brought the virus with them, and I don't really care.
I chose to tell this story to highlight the fact that wearing a mask clearly works to reduce the chances of contracting the coronavirus. My immediate family and I didn't just get lucky. We aren't genetic superheroes whose immune systems simply absorbed the virus and annihilated it. The only common thread -- the only variable -- is that we wore our masks more consistently than anyone else who attended.
Read more about the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance on masks HERE.
As you consider gathering with family and friends for the holidays, it is truly a time to count our blessings and cherish what we have to be thankful for.
How could we not be thankful for the incredible advancements in medical knowledge that have enabled so many people to remain safe and healthy through this pandemic?
Let's all put that knowledge to good use and protect our family members by protecting ourselves. Avoid large gatherings. Closely consider how you will handle holiday season celebrations.
Wear a mask.
Wear it whenever you are in close proximity to anyone else, even if and especially if that person is a close friend or family member who you have not seen in a while.
To crush the virus we have to first crush our false belief that it's safe to take down our masks around the people we feel the most familiar with.
We had the best intentions, but that parlayed into a regrettable result. Learn from our mistakes and keep your family safe.
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