November 18, 2022; updated November 27, 2022
It took me two years and eight months to finally contract COVID-19. But I did finally succumb, so I will share my story and the lessons I take from it.
Be Careful, Man
As a leader in our school district’s pandemic response, I was quite careful for the first two years of the pandemic. I routinely wore KF-94 masks, avoided crowds and indoor dining at restaurants, and had air purifiers at home and at work. Until we could get fully vaccinated, Wendy and I curtailed our in-person social activities to only a few outdoor gatherings and did not visit my parents. During the first winter wave before we had vaccines, I even shaved my beard for a better seal with my KF-94 masks. I was able to regrow it once Wendy and I received our primary doses of Pfizer vaccine in February and March 2021. We both had a Pfizer booster in October 2021, I was able to get the Moderna booster for those 50 years and older in April 2022, and we both received Moderna boosters in October 2022.
Those precautions worked. My 97-year-old father was a victim of the Omicron wave last winter and died while on oxygen in hospice about a month later, despite being vaccinated and boosted. The lower immune response of the elderly meant that his vaccinations helped but could not fully protect him. Thankfully, my mother, Wendy, and I were able to visit Dad in a crowded emergency room overwhelmed by Omicron and in understaffed hospital wards, with our KF-94 masks and basic handwashing hygiene preventing infection.
Riding the Waves
Wendy and I managed to avoid any known COVID-19 infection through its first five waves here. There was the initial wave in the spring of 2020, when outbreaks at multiple nursing homes in Bartlesville resulted in a high local mortality rate. Next was the winter wave of 2020-2021, then the Delta wave in the late summer of 2021, the tremendous Omicron spike in early 2022, and a wave this past summer. We know that over 70% of Americans had been infected with COVID-19 by autumn 2022, and that infection rate is no doubt even higher in Oklahoma, which ranked next to last among the states in its pandemic response. The IHME estimates that 95% of Oklahomans had been infected at least once as of mid-October 2022.
Pandemic fatigue and the lower mortality risk from Omicron, coupled with more treatment options, meant that most pandemic precautions ended by the summer of 2022. At work we have air purifiers running, with planned filter refreshes, and we still track and isolate reported positives. But there are no precautionary quarantines, and very few people choose to mask up. Wendy and I no longer shy away from indoor dining.
Letting My Guard Down
Last Thursday I attended a public event in a local auditorium. I considered masking up, but instead just sat up in a high section, several rows away from anyone else. I have no way of knowing for sure, but that may have been my undoing, as I had my first symptoms three days later. I knew it was a high-risk environment, but I am not immune from pandemic fatigue. I certainly wish I had worn my KF-94 mask!
I began to feel congested on Sunday evening, and when I awoke on Monday morning I checked, but I had no fever and got a negative result on a rapid COVID-19 test. I decided to go to work to do some budgetary analysis and play my part at a school board meeting.
But I began to cough that day, so I isolated myself in my office with the air purifier on high, and wore a KF-94 mask at the board meeting in order to protect others. When I got home that evening, I took sick leave on Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, another COVID-19 rapid test was negative, and I still had no fever. But I was still coughing and began that lovely contradiction of nasal congestion and a runny nose. I took another day of sick leave on Wednesday, and consulted online symptom charts. Below is one devised to help parents regarding cold, flu, COVID-19, and RSV.
My symptoms matched up to cold, COVID-19, or RSV. I had no loss of taste or smell, but that is no longer a symptom associated with Omicron and some newer variants. Wednesday night I had chills, but still no fever. My cough subsided a bit on Thursday, and I finally got my first good night’s sleep since Saturday. So I felt much better on Friday morning, but I had already decided to play it safe and stay home for a fourth workday, which set off alarm bells for those who know me, as I’ve almost never missed that many consecutive days in my 34 years in the school district.
Back when I was teaching, I only missed work when I was running a fever, had laryngitis, or an uncontrollable cough. The pandemic has changed my approach; now I don’t hesitate to enjoy the privilege of sick leave, both to help myself heal and to avoid putting coworkers at risk.
Although I felt much better on Friday, I decided to go ahead and take a third COVID-19 rapid test since Wendy and I were planning to leave for a vacation in Arkansas on Sunday.
Boom! The T test bar was dark long before the 15 minutes were up. We have plenty of rapid tests at home, so I took one from another manufacturer. The T bar appeared almost as soon as the fluid reached that location on the test strip. I was truly infectious.
I notified Wendy, my coworkers, etc. and cancelled our vacation cabin rental, forfeiting the deposit. Wendy came home and took a rapid test, but she still showed as negative. We had avoided most direct contact since my symptoms began, slept in different rooms, and I had been running our air purifier on high. Thankfully Wendy is almost a decade younger than me and was able to get a Moderna booster last month. So she may well have been infected and fought it off, or somehow she has dodged intaking too many viral particles.
I had already taken vacation next week for Thanksgiving Break, so I won’t be back at work until 15 days after my symptoms began, by which time I should be fully recovered and non-infectious. But if I were still scheduled for work, I would continue to take sick leave or work virtually until I got a negative rapid test.
I will also wear an effective mask when around others for at least 10 days after symptoms began and will continue masking after that if I have not both tested negative and been symptom-free for 24 hours. Thanksgiving Break 2022 will be very much in the pandemic mode here at Meador Manor!
Here are the things I think I did right:
- Keep your vaccinations up-to-date
- Check your temperature daily if you have any symptoms
- Take a rapid test at symptom onset and do another test later
- If you have any symptoms, wear an effective mask when around others and isolate as much as feasible both at work and at home
- If you have multiple symptoms or a cough, stay home even if you test negative
And here are things I wish I had done:
- Wear a mask when in a high-risk environment, regardless of the CDC Community Risk Level
- Go home as soon as a chronic cough develops (I isolated in my office and wore a mask when around others for the rest of the day, but I should have just immediately headed home)
- Do an additional rapid test every 48 hours until you test positive or your symptoms go away
Regarding rapid testing, I tested on Monday and Tuesday, but when I stayed home on Wednesday and Thursday, I didn’t bother to test again, so I didn’t find out until Friday that I had COVID-19. I wish I had tested on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday instead, hoping it might have been positive on Wednesday allowing me to warn my coworkers sooner. And if I were high risk, Friday would have been too late to begin Paxlovid. Those with insurance can still obtain 8 free COVID rapid tests per month at pharmacies in their plans, so we should each have a stockpile of them on hand both to confirm an infection and then later to confirm when you are likely no longer infectious.
And that’s my story of how at age 56, 32 months after the pandemic began, I finally joined the 95% of Oklahomans who have been infected by COVID-19. Be careful out there.
I finally tested negative 17 days after my likely infection, 14 days after my symptoms began, and 8 days after first testing positive. Our precautions at home worked, with Wendy never testing positive.
I likely had Omicron BA.5 or BA.4, which were dominant in Oklahoma. The 2022 COVID-19 mortality rate in Oklahoma for my age range was 70 times higher than for young adults. So although the Moderna bivalent booster on Halloween was unable to prevent my infection, it likely spared me from severe symptoms or worse. Bivalent boosters could be located at https://www.vaccines.gov/search/