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Did I Have COVID-19?

by J.P. Prag 3 months ago in health
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I will never know if I had or will get SARS-CoV-2

Photo by CDC on UNSPLASH

» KEY POINTS

  • Although I have had horrific, mysterious infections and direct exposure to COVID-19, no test has ever given me anything but a negative result.
  • Every step along the way has only left me with more questions and potentialities with little to no answers.
  • Now that I am fully vaccinated, will there ever be any way to know if I ever had COVID-19, or if I get it now?

I can always tell when I am about to get sick.

Although I rarely come down with anything, once or twice a year I feel my lips get completely dry. No matter how much I drink, how much lip balm I apply, how much I steam and try to hydrate—my lips will just not stay moist. From there, the symptoms may move up into my sinuses and head. Other times, they will instead dive into my throat and maybe chest. In either situation, it is annoying and difficult to work; but in the past it rarely stopped me in my tracks. Even after all of this, I can still count on one hand the number of times I have been taken out of commission. Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, I was one of those people that literally had to be dragged off the worksite against my will. It was not in my nature to give in to disease.

While now I am much more cognizant of infection vectors and my potential to spread pain, suffering, and even death to others, that was not the case just a short while ago. On January 1, 2020, I started to have that feeling in my lips. By the end of the day, my throat felt completely closed in. But it did not matter; I was on a combined vacation and research trip (though mostly the former) in Washington, D.C. with my partner. We had been there since December 27, 2019, walking everywhere to take in the city and visit all of the sites. During that week, we put 50 miles on our feet, wearing ourselves down and lowering my immune-resistance.

Looking at the pictures now, I cringe thinking about the crowds of strangers from all over the country and world tightly packed together. There are plenty of photos of us touching everything, things everyone else was touching, too. There were no face masks, no gloves, no disinfectant, and no regular hand washing aside from trips to the bathroom. Picking up some illness seemed quite likely to happen, so I was not that surprised. Besides, we had a packed flight home the next day, so what else was there to do but tough it out and carry whatever I had back with us, infecting who knows how many others along the way?

Photo by GIACOMO CARRA on UNSPLASH

» SOMETHING IS TERRIBLY WRONG

Over the weekend after returning home, things continued to get worse. This was some truly tenacious infection, but I was determined to just beat it on my own. Despite how horrible I felt, I kissed my partner goodbye as she went into the office (I worked from home anyway, so it was no difference for me) and started to go about my day. Except I could not. Suddenly, I could not keep anything down and my body was rebelling against me. I was feverish and felt like I had food poisoning. My entire being was wracked with pain and I could barely move.

When I could move, I called my doctor’s office to get an emergency appointment. Then, I called my partner to come home and take me to the appointment. She was amazed that I had called and knew something must have been terribly wrong for me to ask for help like this. All I could say is that I had never had an illness like this—I was sick in a way I had never experienced before.

So there I was, more ill than I had ever been, just sitting in a waiting room with other people hoping to be seen. When the doctor brought me out back, he examined me without donning a mask saying he, too, had just gotten over something similar. He was seeing several patients like this and was hearing rumors of some type of respiratory disease going around. As such, he prescribed me an anti-inflammatory to ease the symptoms, and after a couple of days it mostly worked. Effects lingered for a while, but after a few weeks I was more-or-less back to normal. Still, I was shaken by the experience and the mysterious illness.

What, exactly, did I, the doctor, and those other people have? Even over the next couple of months I could not completely shake what had happened to me. But life moved on and so did I. After all, although it had caused me quite a bit of trouble, my partner was completely unaffected; she never displayed any symptoms at all. If I did not transfer it to her, then certainly it was not that big of a deal. The idea of an asymptomatic carrier had never occurred to me.

» THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL

My illness was far in the back of my memory when we went to New Orleans for a wedding on March 6, 2020. Yes, we had started to hear the warnings from the CDC and WHO about a potential pandemic, but it seemed fairly contained. Others were not as sure as our once fully-booked flights ended up losing a third of the passengers. At the airport, I started to see people wearing masks and wondered what they could possibly do.

Photo by EDWIN HOOPER on UNSPLASH

The wedding went off well even with some noticeably missing guests. There was even a little parade for everyone to participate in! We stayed tightly packed with many guests and the usual throngs of the French Quarter during our free time when not involved in wedding activities. Despite some of the weirdness around the airports, it was an enjoyable, carefree time.

Then, shortly after we got back, the bride was diagnosed with this mysterious thing called COVD-19. The recently married couple had only alerted some of the older guests and we found out through one of those. But as the days went on, others quickly joined them in going down for the count. Some of those people continued to have symptoms and effects long after the initial infection. But I felt nothing. As a matter of fact, I felt perfectly fine despite all of the same confines and high-contact situations.

How had I avoided COVID-19? Or did I? Was I an asymptomatic carrier? Did I get infected at all? Or, was that mysterious illness I had in January COVID-19? Did I have anti-bodies and was I protected? And if I was protected, for how long?

Tests for COVID-19 were spotty at best and only available to people with the worst symptoms. I was fine, so there was no way for me to get one. The lockdown had begun and all I would ever receive were unanswerable questions.

» SOMEWHERE NOT THE SUPERMARKET

As the lockdown started in earnest (and thankfully we had by happenstance bought a large amount of toilet paper a few weeks beforehand), we set up shop at home. Since my office was already there, it was not a big transition for me other than getting used to having my partner home during the day. We only went places together, and that was usually just the supermarket as infrequently as possible. Still, my father was going through a health crisis and I was trying to help him, so I did have my own trips to doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes for him.

My father actually caught COVID-19 in January 2021, two days before he was supposed to get his first shot of the vaccine. When I was sick that prior January, after I got back from New Orleans, and during all these other times, I could hardly avoid him. It was before regular mask wearing, before social distancing, before everything. He never displayed any illness like mine or like COVID-19 at that point, so maybe I did not infect him? Or maybe he did get it and was asymptomatic the first time, while the second time was much worse? Even then, with the drug regimens they had available by that point, he was mostly recovered in just a couple of days. His other health issues could easily be confused with COVID-19, even the long-lasting ones, so it was impossible to say where he stood.

Photo by STEFAN HEESCH on UNSPLASH

Prior to all that, though, in May 2020 I went in for my regular PCP appointment. I had not seen my doctor since that January bout and he brought no further insight to the table. However, he did tell me a serology test—a blood test—to detect COVID-19 anti-bodies had become available just the week beforehand. It was so new that there was no code in the computer to order it, so he had to hand write it out. I wanted the test both for my own peace of mind to understand where I stood and because—at that time—physicians were recruiting people with anti-bodies in order to help develop treatments for others. If I could assist in any way, I wanted to.

When the tests came back, I was negative for anti-bodies. But—as this very new test warned—there was a large chance of false negatives. Also, since they did not know (and still do not know) how long anti-bodies lasted, it was possible I had been infected and they were now gone. Thus, once again, I was left with questions.

If the illness I had in January was COVID-19, were all my anti-bodies gone? Had I gotten it in March and was in the same situation? Or had I not had it at all? Or was the test just a false negative? No answers were forthcoming, so like everyone else I went deeper into lockdown.

» EMERGING FROM THE CAVE

The rest of the Spring, Summer, and beginning of Autumn 2020 went on the same as it did with most conscientious people. We social distanced from everyone, we made limited trips for supplies, we built our life around our house and walks in the woods. Our masks got fancy and fun while we stayed relatively healthy. Avoiding the rest of humanity does have some tertiary benefits.

Yet in October I developed some type of chest congestion. I let it go on for over a week and half before I even considered trying to make an appointment with my doctor. Much like many people, I avoided even going to my doctor in order to stay out of small, enclosed spaces and away from others. Finally, I gave in. While there, I asked if I should seek out a COVID test. My doctor seemed unconcerned with my symptoms being COVID-related and said I could if I wanted to, but offered me no assistance or guidance on how to get an appointment. I thought they would set one up, but it was not to be. Even the medical office did not really know how it was done.

He prescribed me a steroid and it helped somewhat, but even today I still feel like I have not completely gotten over it. Instead, I just learned to live with it and work around it on the bad days. Most days are fine, but every once in a while I feel that same compression. If no answers are coming, I figured I would just manage. Maybe I have not learned any lessons?

Meanwhile, I began hunting down my first COVID-19 tests. Everywhere I sought was booked up for days in advance with no slots visibly available. I was advised to sit at the computer at midnight or 5am to see if a spot opened and try to grab it. Amazingly, I was able to find one at a CVS in what is considered a “bad area” a few miles away. It was a drive-through experience where I had to swab my own nose. Once I dropped off my swab in a slot outside the building, it became a waiting game of when the lab would get back to me.

Though the news was filled with people waiting over seven days for results, I got mine back in two. The results were clear as day: NEGATIVE. Yet how accurate was the test? Again, there was not an insignificant chance for false negatives, including a big question whether I administered the test to myself correctly. More so, the time frame mattered when you took the test. Take it too soon and you do not have enough of the virus to pick up. Take it too late and you have the opposite problem as anti-bodies clear your system. Had I just missed the window in the days it took to book an appointment? Or are my symptoms perhaps just left over from my earlier infection, so there is nothing to detect? Still, they may not be related at all. How can I possibly know?

» TESTING, ONE, TWO, TESTING

As we rolled in to 2021, testing started to become more readily available. There were even some walk-up locations that did not require appointments! On January 13th and 14th, I was able to get next day and same day testing—both the Rapid kind and the more accurate PCR type. Both of those tests came back fast and negative.

Photo by MICHAEL MARAIS on UNSPLASH

The governor of my State started encouraging people to get tested regularly, especially while waiting for vaccine availability to come to the masses. At that moment, the timeline had me getting my first shot in June, so my expectations were low. Beginning February 12, 2021, I proceeded to get tested on a near weekly basis, varying between Rapid and PCR testing, even picking locations based upon my errands. It just became a regular thing I did as I was out and about doing other stuff. Every single time the results came back the same: negative.

In reality, the testing availability was such that I could have gone daily! But why bother? Most of my time was spent at home interacting with no one else but my partner. If we were going to see anyone (outside, masks on), we would get tested en route. It was just life.

» VACCINES ARE NAMED FOR COWS

My partner worked administratively in a medical field and was able to get leftover vaccine at the end of the day pretty early on. Originally she struggled with the decision, but I encouraged her to do it. She was not stealing a vaccine from anyone; she was making sure it was not wasted and protecting herself and our loved ones while doing so. With each shot of the Pfizer vaccine, she had almost no reaction, just a little tiredness the next day.

People around us slowly became eligible and went through their own tribulations. Some people’s side-effects were worse than others, but no horror stories. Finally, on April 14, 2021 I became eligible and received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. Within a few minutes, the back of my head went numb, my blood pressure shot up 30%, and my body temperature soared. I could not stop sweating despite the coolness of the large mass vaccination site I was in.

The EMTs on hand monitored me and after about 45 minutes my vitals returned to near normal. After sitting outside for another half hour or so, I felt perfectly fine. I then walked the two miles home, including stopping off at the supermarket and carrying grocery bags on my shoulders. It seemed to me that it was nothing.

Photo by DANIEL SCHLUDI on UNSPLASH

However, six hours later, I could not move my arm. It was not pain (although there was plenty of that, too); it was immobilization. It took a couple of days before that subsided, but otherwise I was fine.

The second shot would be a different story entirely.

Four weeks later, I received that second shot and had no immediate reaction. I took a much longer walk home doing a bunch of errands I planned around the jab. Many hours later, my arm hurt but it was nowhere near as bad as the first dose. Overnight and through the next few days, though, things turned horrid. I got full flu symptoms, including fever, pain, delirium, lethargy, nausea, vomiting, and plenty more. I once again had to call my partner to return home from work (her office had pulled everyone back in months prior) to help take care of me. Eventually it all passed, but I felt as sick as I had nearly 18 months prior. It was like I had come full circle.

Why was my immune-response so bad with this shot? And why was it so similar to how I felt in January 2020? Could a prior infection of COVID-19 have impacted how the vaccine affected me? Or was it totally unrelated to that and just due to any number of factors from my blood type to body chemistry to genetic makeup? There were no answers coming; I had no way to know.

Despite my poor reaction, two weeks after my last dose I was considered “fully vaccinated”. At the time, it was a question whether a booster would be in my and everyone else’s future. Still, with what was considered complete protection and waning cases, my regimen of testing slowed down and eventually stopped, except in some specific cases. Overall, it seemed like our world was starting to take a turn for the better.

Of course, as with everything pandemic-related, things continued to evolve. When the variants began to rapidly spread and there were questions about the long-term efficacy of the vaccines, I returned to testing every week or two, never getting a positive result even when I had close contact with someone who did. Further, I received the first of what may be many booster shots in the years to come. Though it was only a half dose compared to my first two shots, my body’s reaction to it was the same. At least I was prepared.

What is more, even if I am infected after this point, I stand a high probability of never knowing. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci—director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and generally the face of the federal government’s response to the outbreak—on CBS’s Face the Nation on May 16, 2021:

Even though there are breakthrough infections with vaccinated people, almost always the people are asymptomatic, and the level of virus is so low, it makes it extremely unlikely, not impossible but very, very low likelihood they are going to transmit it.

Thus, whether I have been infected in the past or not, whether I had any anti-bodies of my own or not, whether any of these test results were accurate—I could still get infected between now and forever and never know.

It is frustrating. Did I have COVID-19? Will I get it?

There is only one thing I am confident about: that I do not and most likely will never know.

The above piece is an excerpt from Always Divided, Never United: And Other Stories During a Time of Pandemics and Politics by J.P. Prag, available at booksellers worldwide.

Have the troubles of our age ripped us apart more than any point in history? Or has it forever been this way?

Learn more about author J.P. Prag at www.jpprag.com.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Medium.

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About the author

J.P. Prag

J.P. Prag is the author of "Always Divided, Never United", "New & Improved: The United States of America", and "In Defense Of... Exonerating Professional Wrestling's Most Hated". Learn more at www.jpprag.com.

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