My gym started a “challenge” in November. If you went twenty times between the second week of November and the new year, you would get a free hat. I signed up for the challenge, because I’ve never met a free hat I didn’t want to take home with me, even if I will never wear the free hat. When I signed up for it I wondered what would get in the way of this free hat for me. The last gym challenge I’d signed up for was at the YMCA, six years ago. I missed the free shirt because my dad was killed by a driver, and I had to leave town for the last week of the challenge, a couple days short. What would it be this time?
Well, I sprained my ankle badly the week of Thanksgiving. It was a good week before I could put enough weight on it at the gym, so I lost out on some days there. But then I was back in the gym, in the home stretch, sure nothing could get in my way. I was sneezing a little that Thursday, so Friday I popped over to the YMCA to get a free COVID PCR test before heading to the gym. I thought I just had what the ladyfriend had had the week prior, when she tested negative for COVID. I went from the test to the gym, and that was the last workout I got in before learning on Sunday that nope, I didn’t have a cold. I had COVID. No free hat for me.
Getting COVID has been really, really scary. First was the concern about all the people I likely infected at the gym, the grocery store, at my friends’ house that Friday evening, my partner, who had already left to visit her new baby niece in Michigan by the time I knew I had COVID. How could I be so reckless? How could I circulate in the world while sneezing, in a global pandemic? I was pretty sure I would be ok–most people who get COVID recover, a refrain that I found very helpful when sick–but what if I spread the disease to someone who wouldn’t be ok? This continues to haunt me.
Then I got scared for myself and my health. Was that anxiety, or was my heart showing early signs of permanent damage? Was the shortness of breath going to be permanent? Long COVID can emerge from mild cases–would it emerge from mine? I’m fat and a cancer survivor–what if these comorbidities meant I’d end up in the hospital? I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and on some parts of left Twitter, there are no mild cases, and to suggest there are is to be a COVID denier. Twitter really ramped up my fears, and if you are reading this and have COVID, I suggest you log off Twitter.
Next up was finding distractions. I wasn’t going anywhere for ten days, Christmas plans were canceled, and doom and gloom took over the house. So I got really into Love Island UK Season 5 at the recommendation of a friend. I watched all fifty hours in isolation, and these people became my family. Tommy and Molly-Mae are still together, and they are in NYC for the new year. That’s COVID central, friends! Turn back now!
I also dug even further into my nascent James Webb Space Telescope obsession. From a pure science standpoint, it is just the most exciting thing to happen in our lifetimes. I wept at the launch on Christmas morning, unsurprising, of course, since I’m such a crybaby. But we might get to see the beginning of time. It’s a big deal.
The other thing that made me cry was being so well cared for by my community. Neighbors dropped by food and beer and desserts. People checked in on me by phone and offered to bring by supplies. I live in a wonderful neighborhood surrounded by neighbors who care for each other, and in these moments of need, I am reminded again how lucky I am to have this community. It is why I’ve always wanted a porch–to sit and see and say hi to everyone on the block so that we know each other and can help each other, and that’s what happened, again.
I left the house for some light solo exercise in the last couple days of isolation. I wanted to see if I was still going to be able to ride my bike. And I could, albeit slowly. On one of those rides a teenager on a gas-powered scooter tried to run me down, knock me off my bike, and take it. As he rode up on me I just looked at him wearily and said, “Can we please not do this today? It has been such a long ten days.” A bit of haggling and yelling and he left me alone to continue on with my ride. Sigh. Teenagers, man. It was rough to have one of my first times back out into the world greeted like that, but at least I still have my bike.
Twelve days out I flew on a rescheduled trip to see family I hadn’t seen in almost three years. My anxiety was sky high. What if I was still contagious, even though I’d followed all protocols? How would it feel to be surrounded by people again? Why is everyone acting normal, like they aren’t going to get COVID? I made it on the plane in my KN95 mask and spent a couple of days breathing through the anxiety as my chest slowly released itself from the layers of fear. I am ok.
And then I was back in Baltimore and back on my business. Sunday’s ride took me up and around Guilford, through the Hopkins campus to say hi to Mission Control–I’m still obsessed with the telescope–and up to Druid Hill Park, packed with folks enjoying the 60+ degree day before today’s snow. What a timeline we are in right now. My bike ride, though, felt like the old days, and that was a huge relief. My heart and lungs are currently working just fine, and I hope that remains the case.
It is hard to have anything to say about COVID because it is all so charged. What I will say is that I am grateful for vaccines because they continue to keep the vast majority of those of us who are vaccinated out of the hospital. I have been in the hospital, and I’d prefer not to be there. Also, most of them are crowded beyond measure, and vaccination is one way to keep the pressure off our healthcare workers and facilities, though clearly that is not enough.
I do not know if the vaccine is why my case was so mild. That’s not something I think we can know on a personal level. Vaccination is a population-level intervention, and no individual case is “proof” of them working, or not. I have a number of unvaccinated cousins-in-law who are not vaccinated and have COVID right now. If they are “fine,” will that be proof that vaccines are unnecessary? Of course not. It is a dangerous road, as always, to individualize this disease, though when it’s your turn, it is very hard not to do that.
And that has been my thought throughout the pandemic–and before. How can we think collectively about collective problems? We have asked each individual to make their own COVID-related decisions about what masks to wear or not, when and how to get tested, what it means to quarantine and isolate. These decisions have been easier to make given my class status. I can get tested at my workplace. I can afford medical-quality masks. I isolated with no hit to my budget at all because I’m a salaried state employee. That is my reality, but it is not the reality for most people, and yet the choices we are offered pretend it is. This is a deadly perspective.
As we face this latest surge, I hope the trend separating case counts and hospitalizations continues. I much prefer endemicity to this pandemic business. I hope vaccines get approved for the under-5 crowd soon. I can’t imagine the challenges of parenting through these years. I hope treatments continue to be approved and get distributed widely. I tried to access monoclonal antibodies, but they stopped giving them–right after our governor got his. I hope testing becomes more accessible for everyone. Masks and tests should be showing up in our mailboxes and in our streets. And we need paid sick leave for everyone. A ten day isolation period is absolutely economically ruinous for the vast majority of people, no matter how “right” it seems to protect the larger public health. We can rail against shortened isolation periods, but we also have to make it financially feasible to stay inside for longer.
And the privileged among us have to recognize that much of our ability to stay safe from COVID relies on the outsourcing of risk to people who are poorer than us, whose labor we barely see when we order our groceries and food and rapid tests online for immediate delivery. We are all connected, but seeing that, and figuring out how to attend to those connections, is something our individualistic society is really, really bad at doing.
So, that’s what happened when I got COVID. It was scary. It was lonely. And I am ok. The bigger worry, of course, is the we, and how we get to OK.