Faced with twin COVID diagnoses, in-home care provider and her centenarian client moved in together

Instead of riding out the virus alone, a personal care assistant and her 101-year-old client decided to quarantine together — and beat the odds

Two women sit at a table and talk.
Debra Howze, right, looks through a care record book as her client, Polly Mann, eats breakfast inside Mann's Minneapolis apartment on Dec. 15, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Debra Howze was more worried about her clients than anyone else.

She’s a personal care assistant, helping vulnerable adults and the elderly with things like bathing, dressing and cooking — all in an effort to help them keep living in their homes. Contracting the virus and bringing it with her into their homes was top of mind for Howze.

So when Howze tested positive for the coronavirus in early November — despite masking and taking other precautions — she immediately went through the list of people and places she may have picked it up, but remains perplexed.

“It’s a vicious circle, we don't really know,” she said.

“No, we don't know,” chimed in Polly Mann, Howze’s 101-year-old client. She came down with the virus around the same time Howze did.

“We can't blame anybody,” she said.

Howze and Mann were both diagnosed with COVID-19 in November, just as case counts skyrocketed statewide. It forced the two women into a tough set of options: Ride out the virus alone — or try to stick it out together.

In the end, Howze ended up moving in. She quarantined with Mann for 20 days. Because, as she put it, Mann needed Howze's help now more than ever.

“Who else was going to come in here and take care of Polly?” Howze said. “So we quarantined together. That was the best choice.”

Two women in an apartment.
Debra Howze, left, and Polly Mann inside Mann's Minneapolis apartment on Dec. 15, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Howze slept on an air mattress. Polly kept up with her writing. They spent Thanksgiving together and enjoyed an abundance of food delivered by Polly’s children.

And in the middle of their quarantine, Howze was even able to arrange a socially distant birthday celebration for Mann, who turned 101 on Nov. 19.

“People came out, and she waved at them from the balcony,” Howze said.

“I waved,” Mann interjected. “Like a queen."

Mann said her course with the illness wasn't too bad — no trips to the hospital, no trouble breathing. She just didn't feel great.

Howze said the same, that it was a mildly uncomfortable but manageable few weeks.

But even as Howze and Mann say their experience with the virus was , they are well aware that they beat the odds.

"Well, we were lucky,” said Mann.

Elderly people like Mann — and in Howze's case, people of color — are more likely to experience severe cases of the virus, and are more likely to die from it.

Howze said her experience with virus also underscores the tenuous health care grey area she and other PCAs exist in: They don't work in a hospital, and at times that has made personal protective equipment hard to come by, she said.

And while Howze herself does get paid sick time off because she's part of a union, many in her industry don't. Pay remains low, too — about $12 an hour, according to a survey conducted by the University of Minnesota.

As Howze reflects on the last year, she says that her greatest hope for 2021 is for state and federal officials to do more to recognize the role she and her PCA colleagues play in keeping older and vulnerable adults healthy and in their homes — especially in a year when the pandemic has ripped through long-term care facilities across the state.

"PCAs are a force to be reckoned with. Because we are keeping people safe in their homes,” Howze said. “We want them to respect us … and recognize us.”

And while Howze and Mann agree that living together wasn’t so bad, they say they’re both ready to see — and hug — other friends and family in 2021.

Looking back, looking ahead: As 2020 comes to a close, several MPR News reporters have been checking back in with people they met earlier in the pandemic — about how their lives have changed, and about what they're hopeful for in the new year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.