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The Immaculate Infection
Testing positive for Covid despite all the precautions
It started with a sneeze.
Then a cough.
Then a tickle.
The sneeze happened in the morning—a single “achoo!” into my mask covered by my elbow as I lay on my acupuncturist's table (luckily he hadn’t started the treatment yet; I can’t imagine my body convulsing with needles in it). The cough hit me mid-afternoon during a phone call with the vet, and I had to excuse myself for a moment before I was able to talk again. Each of these events was unremarkable; perhaps an allergic reaction to a stray dust particle.
It was the tickle that worried me. As soon as I felt the suspicious sensation in my throat that evening, I paused the TV show I was watching with my husband, got up off the couch, and went to the kitchen to put on my N-95 mask.
“What is it, honey?” Seth asked when I disappeared into the other room.
“I have a tickle in my throat, and I don’t trust it,” I told him. “I think I should take a Covid test just in case.”
I returned to the love seat wearing my mask, several feet from where he was sitting on the couch, and we finished the episode of the Yellowstone prequel “1883” and watched another one. When it was bedtime, he set up the Covid test and brought me the swab, and 10 minutes later there was a faint pink line next to the blue control line, indicating a positive result. I made him take a test too, and it came out negative.
“How in the world could I have picked up Covid?” I said. “I haven’t been anywhere in the past two weeks except for acupuncture and the gecko store!”
This is the second time I’ve tested positive for Covid, and both times it came out of nowhere. For the past three years of the pandemic, my husband and I have been in a twilight zone of perpetual quarantine, taking every precaution to the extreme because we’ve been trying to have a baby. For three years, I haven’t had friends over or been in anyone’s house; I haven’t set foot in a grocery store; we’ve only spent time with our parents if they agreed to a strict 14-day quarantine before visiting. The only exceptions I’ve made for in-person human interaction have been for medical and dental appointments and, obviously, my fertility treatments. But I hadn’t had any of these in the past two weeks, except acupuncture.
And the gecko store.
Last week, I noticed a sign for a geckos at a store front below the acupuncture clinic, and I got curious. Because I’ve been housebound so much during the pandemic, I hadn’t noticed until now several new shops around the corner from Main Street. Now I was parking in front of them every week for my acupuncture appointment and thought it would be fun to pop in and see what’s new in town.
I came down the stairs from the acupuncture office and peeked in the window of the gecko shop. I didn’t see anyone inside, but there was an “Open” sign, so I pushed on the old wooden door. The room was ringed with a dozen glass terrariums containing fake rocks and water dishes but no reptiles in sight. The owner, a friendly blond woman in her 50s, came out from behind the counter to greet me and introduce me to her lizards, who were hiding under their rocks. She pulled some spiny, yellow-and-peach-patterned geckos from their hiding spots and told me their names and their stories, then told me her entire story, beginning five years ago when her stepson started collecting snakes, and they attended reptile expos, and she discovered geckos, and she and her husband bought this building, and opened the store, and created an online shop. Judging by her enthusiasm, I suspected I was her first drop-in customer in days, perhaps weeks, perhaps ever.
Before I knew it, I’d been standing in the gecko store for a half hour while this unmasked woman stood a few feet away showing me her geckos and telling me everything there was to know about them and about her. I was too polite to leave, and my attempts to inch backwards and wrap up the conversation were unsuccessful. This was the most time I’d spent indoors with an unmasked person in three years, and I was extremely uncomfortable, but I also saw it as a step toward trusting that my N-95 mask would protect me; a small attempt at returning to the world that most people reentered in 2021 when vaccines rolled out and mask mandates expired.
I never reentered that world. In fact, my Covid anxiety spiked when people shed their masks and went back to business-as-usual; I felt safer in 2020 when social-distancing was required. My panic was so extreme the summer of 2021 that I refused to use a port-a-potty at an outdoor concert and got busted by security when I left the roped-in area to pee in the bushes. I showed up at an outdoor 4th of July gathering of my husband’s family and drove away in tears five minutes later, panicked because he had put our cooler in their garage without wearing a mask. My world became so small, and my anxiety so fierce about following Covid protocol. I got every vaccination and booster shot as soon as I was eligible, though I knew even before the studies came out that I couldn’t trust the shot to prevent infection, so I kept masking and distancing. If I pushed my boundaries and got too close to people, I ended up shaking, or crying, or running away screaming, so I learned to stay safe in my bubble, in my house, or alone in the woods. For three years, nearly all of my human interactions have been through Zoom.
The root of my Covid anxiety lies in my fertility: trying to have my first child in my 40s is hard enough, and I’ve had four miscarriages in the past two years. At any given moment I could be pregnant or a week away from becoming pregnant. Fevers can be deadly for a developing fetus, especially in the first trimester. Since I’m already high-risk for pregnancy loss, my brain decided early in the pandemic that exactly zero additional risks were acceptable while I was trying to conceive. I had to keep my hypothetical baby safe at all costs, even if it meant continuing to live like a hermit after the world opened up.
So it was a big deal to stand in the gecko store with this unmasked woman talking to me for a half hour just days after my latest fertility treatment, but I convinced myself I would be fine; what were the odds that this one random asymptomatic person—the first I’d spoken to in years—could get me sick through my well-fitting N-95 mask, three years into the pandemic?
However minuscule the odds were, the faint pink line on my Covid test suggests that I should try my luck at the lottery. And if it wasn’t the woman at the gecko store who contaminated me, who else could it have been? My acupuncturist is the picture of health and wears a surgical mask with all his clients. I asked the furnace guy to wear a mask when he came last week for our annual inspection, and I put on my N-95, even though I only saw him for the 5 seconds he walked across my kitchen before disappearing into the basement. The only other humans I’ve seen in the past 14 days besides my husband are the handful of people I’ve cross-country skied past on an uncrowded trail in the woods, or the lady I handed my money to when I bought my ski pass. I carry a bottle of hand sanitizer and a packet of alcohol wipes everywhere I go, and I immediately disinfect my hands and any objects I touch, not caring if the person handing my credit card back gives me the side-eye when I wipe it down. I have a bag full of disposable plastic gloves I wear when I pump gas, and I always use a tissue to open a door knob. If a psychiatrist were to follow me around when I leave the house, they would almost surely diagnose me with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
This seems to be a case of the immaculate infection—catching Covid in the absence of any identifiable exposure to the virus. Like the Virgin Mary conceived the baby Jesus, I seemed to get Covid out of nowhere (or purely by the will of God?). Seth and I coined this phrase when he tested positive for the virus last year, despite working an outdoor construction job where no one else was sick. The only possible exposure he could pinpoint was the time he took his mask off, alone in a gas-station restroom, to rinse his face at the end of a long work day. He got the tickle on a Monday and moved into our 1991 Winnebago to quarantine, but I was sick by Friday. I was also pregnant for the third time, and two weeks later, our baby’s heartbeat stopped.
This Covid test is not the faint pink line I was hoping to see this weekend. We are now two weeks out from our last fertility treatment, and I took a pregnancy test this morning that didn’t have any hint of a second line. Then I tried a different Covid test, of a different brand, and it came out negative—though according to the box, the test expired two months ago.
So for now, I’m trapped in my bedroom with the door shut. My husband slept in the guest bed last night, and I haven’t seen him all day. No Saturday morning snuggles. No good morning kisses. No hopping in the car for an adventure with the dogs (who are curled up on the bed, one on either side of me, waiting for something fun to happen). At the moment I feel fine, but it’s like waiting for the tide to ebb and flow: will the tickle get worse, or will it go away? Will the next test produce a faint line or a dark line or no line at all? Do I need to isolate myself from my husband even though he’s been kissing me and hanging out with me in the days and hours leading up to my positive test? Do I need to stay in my room if the last test I took came out negative, and I feel fine? If I am sick, will it cause me to miss my next fertility treatment? And if I don’t get my period and my pregnancy test comes back positive in a few days, will it kill my baby again?
Anxiety is what happens when our brain thinks the worst-case scenario is inevitable. One of the best ways to untrain the brain from anxious and obsessive-compulsive behaviors is to do the scary thing (go into the gecko store!) and prove that the bad thing does not happen (I can talk to someone with my mask on and not get sick!). So it really pisses me off when I take those small steps and instead of proving me safe, the universe gives a fist-bump to my anxious brain and tells it that it was right all along: “She’s never safe. She never will be safe. If she participates in the world, her babies will die.”
Even if this positive Covid test turns out to be a false alarm, my nervous system won’t forget about it. And it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve gotten sick despite following all the protocols. I’ll never know for sure if I miscarried due to the virus or something else, but I will always wonder, and I will always worry.
“How much longer can I live in fear?” is one of the questions that swirls through my brain when I ask myself how many more months I’ll keep trying to conceive. My instinct to protect my unborn child outweighs my desire to live a normal life. But I know that if Seth and I stop trying for a baby and decide to adopt a school-aged child, that colds and flus and all manner of germs will enter our home on a daily basis, and I will learn to live with it. Perhaps I’ll even welcome the Covid, the flu, and the RSV when they are coughed out of my sick little kid into my loving arms. I would appreciate these viruses a lot more if they were a reminder that I was a mom, instead of representing a threat to ever becoming one. I would gratefully snuggle in bed all day with my snotty kiddo as we blew our noses and read story books. I hope that day comes, whether it’s with my biological child or my adopted child.
Until then, I live in isolation.
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UPDATE: Many thanks to those of you who reached out to see how I was feeling! Oddly enough, I took two more Covid tests the next day that were both negative, and I had no further symptoms. So I guess I got a false-positive on the first test?