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Data and gumbo.

That’s it. That’s why I went to the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, or NICAR, conference in New Orleans for four days in early March. I’ve always wanted to attend a data, computer-driven journalism conference to help better my reporting skill and thanks to Indian Country Today, the Knight Foundation fellowship, it happened. Plus, it didn’t hurt that all of the best tastes of New Orleans were within walking distance.

I considered it a win-win. Until it wasn’t.

Two days after returning to my Phoenix home, two airplane flights later, multiple nights in a busy city and hotel and among roughly 1,000 data nerds, I learned that someone at the conference tested presumptively positive with COVID-19. I barely began to digest the conference tools when I heard the news that my chances of catching the coronavirus went up.

NICAR sent each attendee an email explaining that the person who tested presumptively positive has “mild symptoms and is expected to make a full recovery.” The email also said people who were in close contact with the attendee have been contacted directly. Individuals in a pre-registered hands-on class with the attendee were also contacted. The good news for me is that I wasn’t contacted beyond the initial email.

I wasn’t surprised to find out someone tested presumptively positive considering how many people were at the conference and how many people were in that part of the city. The host hotel was at the doorstops of the popular New Orleans tourist destination, the French Quarter neighborhood and Bourbon Street. I waited to hear of a conference cancellation that never came, especially with all the events being postponed or cancelled in what now feels like routine.

I’m fine. I don’t feel any different. I haven’t shown any known symptoms like fever, cough or shortness of breath. It’s day three since I’ve been back and hopefully the symptoms don’t appear in the next two weeks, the timeframe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention give after exposure. NICAR recommended attendees to contact their health care provider and check with their local and state health officials and employer for guidance.

I’ve gotten great support from Indian Country Today. My editor Mark Trahant contacted me right away to see how I was doing once he heard about NICAR. Our Phoenix newsroom is at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. A March 11 note from the school’s dean Christopher Callahan said if you hadn’t come in contact with the NICAR participant who tested positive and are not showing symptoms that it was no need to self-isolate. This was good news for me because I could work at my desk immediately. Other journalists across the country couldn’t as many were told to stay home for two weeks.

One was my friend and fellow Native journalist Shondiin Silversmith. We were two of the few Native journalists to take part in the conference and we often shared that perspective to conference attendees. Shondiin is the Indigenous Affairs Reporter at the Arizona Republic and was told self-quarantine at home for 14 days.

“Before IRE and NICAR made the announcement, my editor reached out to me and told me that someone at the conference did test presumptively positive for the coronavirus,” she said. “After laughing because of the initial shock, I started to think about my time at the conference. I was unable to make any hands-on training sessions during NICAR, so the initial fear went down to just precaution. I don’t show any symptoms related to the coronavirus. I’m in the process of deep cleaning my apartment.”

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I knew a couple others at the conference but everyone else was new. I took precautions by washing my hands when I had the opportunity and not shaking hands or doing my best by not touching friends during a greeting. My greetings tend to be hugs, especially with people I haven’t seen in a long time. One of the more popular greetings at the conference was the Vulcan salute hand gesture.

I had my fair share of gumbo and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around all these data tricks.

The coronavirus is here and it’s among us. I’ve accepted that. I took that mentality to New Orleans and gave no fault to NICAR for a conference attendee testing positive. Apparently, this is our world now. The best we can do is to wash our hands often, especially after a cough or sneeze, stay home if we’re sick and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily.

Or, perhaps like journalist Dave Jorgenson, dance.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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