The impact of a single COVID infection

This piece started out focusing on the impact of colds on our lives, particularly if COVID is now “just a cold.”

But now it’s personal.

My husband and I escaped COVID until now by being very careful until we got vaccinated. Once vaccinated, we focused on living our lives safely – no eating at indoor restaurants (there are plenty of outdoor venues to choose from), masking indoors and testing when gathering with others. We did not live in fear but rather with informed caution. We did not live in “lockdown” (nor did anyone else in the U.S. … please ask someone from Shanghai if you want to understand what lockdown really means). We watched the local infection rates and adjusted our behavior accordingly. We attended plays, concerts, a wedding, and even the Final Four in New Orleans (where we were pretty much the only masked people in the 74,000-person arena). We stayed infection-free.

But Friday, I got a runny nose and scratchy throat. I was gathering with work colleagues the next day to make a video, so I tested, and it took about a nanosecond for that pink line to show up.

Where did I get it? I recently took a cross-country flight to attend a writing retreat with twenty other writers. I wore my KN95 religiously, but most of the people around me on the plane and at the retreat were unmasked. Those are the most likely culprits.

I took measured risks, and I lost.

In the days I incubated this thing and before I developed symptoms, here’s what I did:

  • I had dinner outside with my 40-year-old daughter and toddler, and infant grandsons.
  • I attended my book club, where I sat around a dinner table with four other women my age or older (I’m 64).
  • I had dinner with two new friends and attended an outdoor concert.
  • I met my college-aged nieces for an outdoor breakfast.
  • I sat next to a colleague for four hours while we recorded a video. Another colleague was across the room, doing the recording.

So, now what? While I recuperate (even for the vaccinated, this virus can be a bear), this is what happens:

  • I will not be able to speak at a medical conference where I was scheduled to give six lectures. This impacts the conference and puts stress on my colleagues.
  • I will not be able to do the recording session, which must now be rescheduled; no easy task with everyone’s busy lives.
  • If I don’t clear this virus in 10 days, I will not be able to take my husband to the surgery he has scheduled … and if he gets infected, he will have to postpone it altogether.
  • I may have infected others, which has been my worst nightmare since this pandemic started.

All the while, I feel awful, physically and emotionally. My trash can is overflowing with tissues, my bedside table looks like a pharmacy, and I am concerned about developing long COVID. And while I sit here alone in isolation, I worry that I may have infected or inconvenienced any of those people on the lists above.

And yes, it’s “just a bad cold.” The thing is, Americans aren’t so crazy about having a cold. A quick stroll down the “colds and flu” aisle of any drugstore gives a view into the annual $11 billion we spend on over-the-counter treatments for these illnesses. Upper respiratory infections (a medical term for colds, flu, and the like) account for up to 100 million visits to health care providers each year. People stay home sick from work, and even more work time is lost if your child needs to stay home from school. So, for an illness we toss off lightly, we apparently don’t think it’s so minor after all.

My one case of COVID impacted dozens of lives. If any of those people get infected, their illness will potentially impact dozens more. COVID infection may now be “just a cold,” at least for the vaccinated. But no one should think this “you do you, I’ll do me” approach to the pandemic affects only them. Not by a long shot.

Diane Birnbaumer is an emergency physician. 

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