Queen of corona
Did I actually have COVID-19? I might never know for sure.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Shibden Hall, Halifax, UK
Back in February, when word of the rapid spread of a novel coronavirus reached the U.S., I began to feel a kind of creeping, untethered anxiety. It kept me awake at night. It buzzed along my nerves during the day. It kept whispering: What’s going to happen?
That sensation increased in early March, when it became clear that the virus had reached this country’s shores. Many of my fellow New Yorkers, however, were shrugging it off.
Are you really afraid of catching it? I was asked. They say most people have very mild cases.
I’m less afraid of the virus itself, I responded, than of what will happen to this city when it hits.
But nothing was happening yet. I started avoiding subway poles and trying to stay a safe distance away from other people—as much as was possible in Manhattan’s crowded spaces—but I was still living my life as usual. I had planned to spend a mid-March week in Hartford, CT, staying with my mother in the house I grew up in, working on a writing project. I had a gap in my schedule and I’d been wanting to get out of the city and it seemed like a nice idea.
You know, I said to my mom one day, if this virus thing gets bad, I might just stay up there for a while.
I’ve been in Hartford for fourteen weeks.
This virus thing got bad.
On the evening of Wednesday, March 11th, I felt a tickle in my throat. Well, not my throat exactly...more like the base of my neck, as though a tiny feather were floating around in the center of my clavicle. Soon the tickle morphed into a light burning sensation. I could feel it when I breathed.
I knew immediately. But I dove straight into denial.
This has got to be psychosomatic, I thought. The virus, after all, had gone viral. Just reading about it was enough to trigger chest tension. And I’d been reading about it a lot.
My first thought upon waking the next morning was: What’s up with my left eye? I looked in the mirror. Crust, mucus, redness. Conjunctivitis? But I haven’t even touched any subway poles! I went to the eye doctor. She prescribed antibiotic drops, but said to wait till the next day to use them, as it didn’t really look like pink eye. She thought maybe something had irritated it.
The next morning, my eyes were fine. The rest of me was not.
I canceled everything I had planned for the next three days and stayed at home, nursing an aching body and a mammoth case of fatigue. My limbs felt like they were filled with sand. I’d awoken on Friday morning with a temperature of 99.5, but it went down after that, and 36 hours later it was back to normal. I had no cough, just that occasional burning sensation in my lungs. (But it hardly extends below my collarbone and it only makes me cough a tiny bit so is it really in my lungs? Such was my frantic thinking.) I looked up the symptoms of COVID-19 as they were then being broadcast. High fever. Persistent dry cough. Shortness of breath. Chest pain.
I didn’t have any of those. My illness was behaving more like a weird cold than this mysterious new virus. Perhaps the stress of wondering whether I had The Thing had caused me to feel sicker than I actually was?
On Monday morning, I woke up feeling perfectly fine from the neck down. Congestion had descended by then, but it was just swelling in my nasal passages, not excess phlegm. Other than that, I was symptom-free.
Except for one thing: over the weekend, I’d lost my sense of smell.
I first noticed it on Saturday night, when I realized that I couldn’t taste my food. I thought it was odd, as my congestion was still very mild, and in the past I’d only lost my (normally keen) sense of smell when congestion was heavy. But I chalked it up to my ‘weird cold’ and went about my business.
Fortunately I didn’t have much business left to do. By Monday the 16th, virtually everything in my life had been canceled or moved online. So on Tuesday the 17th, two days before I’d originally planned to go, I took a near-empty Amtrak train to Hartford. I told my mom that I didn’t want her catching my weird cold, so over the course of that week—as my congestion worsened, then improved, then plateaued at a mild-but-annoying level—I avoided sharing food, utensils, and close quarters with her.
On the evening of Sunday, March 21st, I sent my doctor an email with the subject Possible sinus infection. I asked if she thought I might have one, as I’d never known congestion to linger for so long. I described my various symptoms, including the fact that I still couldn’t smell anything.
The following morning, I received my doctor’s reply. As I was descending the stairs to tell my mother, she emerged from the kitchen holding her phone.
“The Times just published a piece saying loss of smell is a symptom of the coronavirus,” she said.
“My doctor thinks I have the coronavirus,” I replied.
We began at-home social distancing immediately. Since I’d already been in the house for a week, my mom decided it would be absurd to confine me to my bedroom, so we simply spent most of the day in different rooms and sat as far apart as possible at the kitchen table during meals. It must have worked, because my mother never got sick. (I’ve since read that patients are likely to be most contagious in the first five to ten days, including when they’re pre-symptomatic—so it’s likely that by the time I got to Hartford, I wasn’t a huge spread risk.)
The morning of March 27th, I emerged from my room and was ecstatic to find that I could just about smell the pancakes my mom had cooked. I’d finally dropped my denial about the burning in my lungs, which continued to come and go for more than three weeks. My sense of smell returned in fits and starts, and was fully restored by April 4th.
I’ve been symptom-free ever since.
On June 3rd, my doctor took a sample of my blood and submitted it for a coronavirus antibody test. To her surprise and mine, it came back negative. But she explained that even the best antibody tests—and the lab that did mine performs one of the most thorough—can only detect a certain level of antibodies. If a patient hasn’t produced enough antibodies to reach that level, the test will be negative. She said it’s also possible that, since my case of COVID-19 was merely an upper respiratory infection and not an invasive one, my body might have produced a type of antibodies that this test wouldn’t detect at all.
“Clinically, you had it,” my doctor assured me, stating that my conjunctivitis (which was identified in April as an onset symptom of COVID-19) and loss of smell (which was found to be the primary symptom in a large percentage of mild cases), along with my other symptoms, were too COVID-classic to be anything else in the midst of this pandemic. She hopes that in six months’ time, more advanced tests might be available that will detect lower levels of antibodies.
In the meantime, other than a top-notch doctor’s provisional diagnosis, I have no medical evidence that proves I had the virus.
The reason for this, of course, is that I couldn’t get tested for COVID-19 in the first place. In mid-March, testing had barely begun in New York City; people were being told that if their symptoms were mild, they were better off staying home than trying to get tested. Test kits were so scarce, some people who did show up were turned away if their symptoms didn’t require that they be hospitalized. In other words, my denial was understandable: I knew that even if I did have the virus, I wouldn’t be able to find out. It was easier to believe that all I had was a weird cold.
This situation is, as numerous writers have lamented, absolutely disgraceful. This pandemic has exposed all of the flaws in our deeply flawed healthcare system—the most flagrant of which (other than the millions of people who are uninsured) is that its costs are almost entirely unregulated. Some people can get a COVID-19 test for $100, while others could pay over $2000—whatever the market will bear. The idea that we have government officials who don’t believe that access to healthcare is an essential human right is beyond comprehension. (People in European countries that have long had universal healthcare find it particularly mystifying.) As for the pandemic, the current administration continues to make catastrophic errors at every turn.
I happen to have excellent health insurance, obtained through my union, which paid the full cost of my antibody test and would have paid for coronavirus treatment if I’d needed it. But tens of millions of people in this country are not so fortunate.
This is unacceptable.
I’m lucky: I survived the coronavirus. As our country’s healthcare problems go, the fact that I might never be able to prove it is just a drop in the bucket.