The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You finally got me, covid, after all I did to avoid you

Two years ago I would have been terrified. Now I’m mostly just angry.

7 min

After two vaccinations and two boosters, covid gets me. After 27 months of dodging the coronavirus by limiting my activities and much of my life. After all that hand washing. After missing holidays, graduations, birthdays, funerals. Years after I stopped disinfecting groceries.

The bars in my Greenwich Village neighborhood are more crowded than ever, as if the pandemic is over. I, too, grow weary of caution and let my guard down. Covid knows and is quick to attack. In Westchester, no less, not the New York City epicenter. I allowed myself a day of old-time freedom: swimming in an indoor pool, dinner in a restaurant followed by an indoor concert, albeit masked.

More surprising than careful-me getting covid is that I’m not scared. I’m far from a calm person and would have been terrified two years ago. Today I treat it like a cold. Checking the expiration date of the NyQuil in my medicine cabinet, I’m not unduly alarmed. Even though the New York Times reports a community infection level in New York City, where I live, averaging more than 4,000 new cases a day. Nationally, there are more than 130,000 daily cases, a 16 percent increase in the last two weeks. As New York’s caseload plateaued before rising again, the virus used its unlimited pass to visit the Mid-Atlantic, the South and the Southwest. The World Health Organization now reports that “the virus is running freely,” spiking in the United States and Europe.

Miraculously, I haven’t lost anyone to the pandemic. Even my 99.9-year-old mother-in-law, whom my husband moved into a Florida nursing home in the third wave of the pandemic, is thriving, anticipating her coming birthday.

I’ve dropped off gallons of chicken soup to sick friends’ homes, trying to assess their breathing levels through peepholes. I was ready to take one friend to the hospital at the worst of his bout. He was alone, his wife half a country away caring for her elderly mother. “I’ve never been that sick,” he wheezed through his thick metal door.

That was omicron. The Washington Post reports that omicron infections might not provide lasting immunity against today’s B-something-or-other, the most transmissible bug yet. The headline on NPR: “Don’t panic.” The surge this fall could be worse.

Remember when we thought it might be over in two weeks? Remember when we were afraid of bedbugs? Remember when we had never heard of monkeypox?

I still have canned beans I stocked up on in March 2020. Now I realize that when you have covid, the last thing you want is beans. A science writer friend advises me to drink 100 ounces of fluids a day. I count each ounce of bone broth as it goes down, hoping it blasts away my virus like a tidal wave.

Walking miles in a tiny urban courtyard as coronavirus curtails life

My first sign is an intense headache. I don’t know it yet, but it will last for weeks. My doctor prescribes Paxlovid, the controversial antiviral. On our telehealth visit, she’s set up her computer so I can see her only from the eyebrows north.

I hear her say, “Paxlovid will keep you out of the cemetery.”

She actually says, “It won’t shorten the virus, but it’ll reduce the risk of hospitalization and death for someone your age.”

Doctors have been using that phrase — someone your age — since before I entered the high-risk covid group. The pandemic began when I was 67, back when a friend sprayed her clothes with Lysol after each outing.

Antivirals can reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by 90 percent if taken in the first few days of symptoms. Yet this “lifesaving” drug is still unproven. It leaves my throat with a nasty taste, a blend of grapefruit juice and soap, as a woman accurately described it to Rachel Gutman-Wei in an article in the Atlantic. I’m grateful to still have my sense of smell.

I ask my doctor, “Is my husband safe?” He’s even older than someone my age.

Her advice: Don’t eat meals or sleep in the same room. Wear masks in the house. No need for Clorox.

Remove from list: Spray husband with Lysol.

My contemporaries count the number of friends, relatives and enemies who have succumbed in the past week, some for the third time.

When President Donald Trump had covid, I felt guilty wishing he would die. I’m an anti-gun lefty with a psychology degree who teaches college students to have values and empathy for others. I have never wanted to harm anyone.

“What about Hitler?” a friend asked during lockdown. “Would you wish him death from covid if he were alive?”

Of course. I thought about consulting a rabbi about my rage — except I didn’t have one. Instead I scheduled an extra therapy session.

“Anger stems from your past, from the unconscious,” my therapist said.

“So it’s okay?” I asked.

“Our time is up,” she said.

I email everyone I was in contact with prior to my symptoms.

“I had covid already!” one friend boasted in an emailed response. “I was thinking of how terrifying it would have been if you’d gotten covid two years ago in NYC. Now it’s just a small nuisance. Thank heaven for vaccines!”

I sipped my husband’s wine 12 hours before my first splitting headache. He keeps testing negative.

“Maybe he’s immune,” my doctor’s arched brows say.

I’m the one who exercises regularly and sticks to a Mediterranean diet. He eats a huge chocolate chip muffin every morning, joined a gym and went only once.

Yes, New York has changed. That’s what makes it New York.

I’m grateful my husband is negative, which is also his personality type. By Day 5, the official end of isolation, he dines yards away from my new meal tray at my desk. We watch movies in separate rooms, then text each other our reactions.

It’s lonely at the bottom. I keep reminding myself I’ve been fortunate, as I slurp potions of raspberry Emergen-C and all the sorbet I want without guilt. I still feel bad about my death wish to 45, even though on his watch, hundreds of thousands of people needlessly died from covid. Today it’s the third-largest cause of death in the United States.

My doctor grants me permission to take walks outside. I feel morally obligated to wear my mask everywhere, increasingly angry at vaxless, maskless people who continue to spread covid. More therapy.

My father was a fatalist, a mathematician who believed in gambling in the stock market while his own mantra was, “When your number’s up, it’s up.”

Experts fear that we will all have to cope with subvariants infecting people several times a year, but they dispute one another’s crystal ball predictions. I believe in science, but we’ve never traveled here before. I start to worry again about everyday concerns: whether my daughter is using sunscreen, shark sightings at the beach, cars that swerve dangerously on the freeway. Soon I segue into mass shootings, climate change, the tanking stock market, the war in Ukraine. I live a mile from Ground Zero and am skilled at new normals.

Before I finalize my new worry list, I test negative. I throw my mask up in the air the way a college graduate tosses her cap toward the sky, joyful and relieved, yet uncertain about the future. I start to panic. What if this headache never goes away?