I Caught COVID Toward the End of the Pandemic
The urgent care doctor entered the exam roomed and sighed. “Well, technically you were right about the sinus infection. They’re infected with COVID-19.”
Wait, what? How could that be? Twelve months into a pandemic that seemed to be on the downswing? My face flushed with shock, and frankly, slight embarrassment. Where did I go wrong?
Like all good hypochondriacs, I had spent the entirety of this past year working myself into a complete state of panic about the ongoing global health crisis. Although cases in New York State fluctuated, the sinister virus never felt far away — stalking like some kind of malevolent ghost. I was always looking over my shoulder, waiting for it to squeeze me in its breathless grip.
For the first several months, I had the privilege of working almost entirely from home. I reduced my outings to the supermarket, to neighborhood walks, and to a very tiny “bubble” of relatives. I doused myself in sanitizer, washed my hands until they cracked and bled, and never, ever entered a public place without a mask.
Each time the pandemic seemed to enter a lull and restrictions would ease, or I headed back to work and to limited interactions with a slightly larger bubble, an infection would hit close to home — a friend, relative or colleague — jolting me back into reality and sending me scrambling to the urgent care for a rapid test. I’d grown accustom to having my nose swabbed, to waiting anxiously for an exhausted P.A. to appear with a negative test in hand fifteen minutes later.
And then, towards the end of 2020, a light appeared on the horizon. The Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were finally approved, and before long, the rollout was going full steam ahead. I waited patiently for front-facing nonprofit workers like myself to become eligible in NYS (March 17th), and jumped on an opening the moment I could.
March 28th, I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Aqueduct Racetrack. In retrospect, I was not feeling 100% that morning, but there were circumstances that could explain away some of that funky feeling; for starters, it was cold and rainy, and I was a bit jittery about the potential side effects, so it was no wonder that I walked in experiencing some chills. As it turns out, I also mistook the start of body aches for what I thought were normal lady cramps. Having cleared the temperature check at the entrance, I made my way upstairs and got shot numero uno.
The 36 hours or so that followed were pretty typical based on feedback from those who went before me: a little fatigue, a few unusual naps here and there, and a slightly higher body temperature, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary.
But by the 48-hour mark, something strange happened.
I woke up with a tickle in my throat, and by midday, my sinuses were clogged and enflamed, and my head was throbbing. Great, I thought, I’m getting a sinus infection. I made an evening appointment at a local urgent care, fully expecting to leave with a prescription for Z-Pak if the doctor was down to clown, or a lecture about the over-prescription of antibiotics if they weren’t.
I received neither. At the request of the nurse, I submitted to another rapid COVID test, but was adamant that it was unnecessary. My last negative rapid test was three days prior, and my bubble remained tightly stretched around a small group of colleagues and family, most of whom were fully or at least partially-vaccinated at that point. Surely this was something else.
Fifteen minutes later, the doc entered the exam room and delivered the shocking news. I left, white as a sheet, confused as hell, and incredibly frustrated that twelve months of caution were suddenly flushed down the drain.
At this point, there’s no use speculating about how I got infected. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on April 7th that the highly-contagious UK variant is now the dominant strain in the US, so I’m inclined to believe that it’s the same one that found its way into my noggin. I can run through scenarios in my head until it drives me crazy, or angrily try to find a scapegoat whose negligence I can blame this on, but it simply won’t undo my infection. Alas, despite all my hypervigilance, it still found me.
Per NYS regulations, I immediately began my 10-day isolation, and my fully-vaccinated fiancé (who tested negative and remained symptomless the whole time) was required to join me in quarantine. I think of the many people who were forced to endure a similar situation without any company, and I remain eternally grateful for having someone there to calm me down throughout the stressful ordeal — even while trying to follow the challenging task of socially-distancing in an apartment.
My symptoms — although deeply unpleasant and anxiety-inducing — were far from severe, and I don’t mean to equate my experience with folks who were hospitalized, or worse. I truly recognize how lucky I was to have what would be considered a mild-to-moderate case. Fortunately, my infection only manifested itself as an intense head cold, never traveling down to my lungs or chest.
Still, the loss of taste and smell (anosmia) for three weeks and counting is truly one of the freakiest sensations I’ve ever experienced. Unlike a typical head cold, which dulls the sense of smell and taste, SARS-CoV-2 is more malicious, affecting the function of the cells that support the olfactory nerve. For the first two weeks, it felt like someone had opened my head and flipped off the switch on one of life’s most basic pleasures. Eating became a chore, and my mind raced with worse-case scenarios (What if I never taste again and I’m forced to endure a flavorless life, the taste of ice cream or pizza only existing in my memories? What if I don’t know I have BO and develop a reputation for being stinky? What if there’s a gas leak and I’m alone and can’t recognize the danger?) Even now my sense of taste and smell have not fully returned, though fortunately, they grow a bit stronger each day. I fully understand that my symptoms could have been worse, but losing 40% of my senses for almost a month now is enough to leave me with a certain degree of trauma. Perhaps it is no wonder that a recent study from Reuters shows that a third of COVID survivors are experiencing some kind of neurological or mental disorder in the aftermath of their experience.
After 10 days, NYS gave me the all-clear to rejoin the land of the living, as my symptoms (minus the anosmia) had long subsided. Sunday, April 18th, I was able to get my second Pfizer dose and join the rankings of other fully-vaccinated New Yorkers.
So, what now? If the internet proves anything, it seems like lots of fully-vaccinated people (and even more concerningly, many unvaccinated people) are taking it to mean that they’re free to go back to normal, or even compensate for a year of solitude by dubbing this the season of globetrotting, huge parties, or, God help us “White Boy Summer.” As I recuperated on the couch two and half weeks ago, I saw one social media post after another — people gleefully flashing their vaccination cards and indicating their plans to go buck wild in the coming months.
And listen — I get the temptation. I haven’t seen my extended family or friends in ages. I have my own wedding to worry about in seven months, and there’s nothing I fantasize about more than reuniting with them all for a sloppy midnight dance floor rendition of “Piano Man.”
But I worry that the encouraging speed of the vaccine rollout has mislead people into recklessly abandoning a year’s worth of public safety efforts. Dr. Anthony Fauci, fully vaccinated since December, still advises against indoor dining and going to movie theaters. Cases are down in many places, but they’re also on the rise in others. Children are still ineligible for vaccination, and distrust prevents a frightening percentage of eligible Americans from seeking the shot as well, undoubtedly made worse by last week’s Johnson & Johnson scare. And, although the risk is “very low,” the possibility of a vaccinated individual contracting the virus and passing it to an unvaccinated person is still there.
So am I saying to remain fully locked down? Absolutely not. The vaccine was created not only to save lives but to save livelihoods, and we should absolutely celebrate the fact that we’re moving in the direction of safely reopening businesses and having small family and friend gatherings (which do have Dr. Fauci’s blessing, provided attendees are vaccinated).
But we have to remain smart, attentive and not go overboard. When I see videos of healthy grandparents, sobbing as they hug their grandchildren for the first time in over a year, I am reminded why we hunkered down in the first place. I feel like I can finally exhale the breath I’ve been holding since March of 2020. But when I see the maskless spring breakers, back again for a second year of shameless partying, I’m reminded why we’re still in this mess.
I titled this story “I Caught COVID Toward the End of the Pandemic,” and I sincerely hope that title isn’t premature. There’s a lot of debate surrounding the concept of “herd immunity” and whether it’s even possible, but some scientists are feeling increasingly hopeful that with the current rate of vaccinations and — most importantly — continued social-distancing, we’re finally on our way to getting things under control.
Until then, heed my warning; the pandemic is not yet over, and if my unexpected encounter with it taught me anything, it’s that COVID-19 is still very much a threat. If we can all make responsible choices, and hang on just a bit longer, we may finally be on our way to some sense of normalcy.