Coast Lines - November 2020
- by Ellis Anderson
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I texted my colleague/friend back, telling him I was on a tight deadline and asking if I could call him in a few hours, around 10 am.
My anxiety ratcheted up when his reply popped right back. “This can’t wait. Please call.”
In the moments before he answered, my mind conjured up several work-related scenarios, so I wasn’t expecting his first sentence.
“I’ve just got the test results back and I have Covid.”
My friend went on to explain that he wasn’t experiencing any symptoms. He’d only gotten tested after his partner hadn’t been feeling well and tested positive. He was performing his own contact tracing and thought he should let me know.
I flipped back through my calendar and saw that our meeting had been 12 days before, which eased my mind somewhat. Then my friend pointed out it was impossible to pinpoint how long he’d been infected.
I thought back over our meeting. We’d walked through the neighborhood then had an early dinner at a local restaurant. It had been a chilly, breezy evening. We had debated on eating inside, but stuck with our resolution to get an outside table. We’d spent a good two-hours there with our masks off, catching up and going over projects.
I understood in that moment how many people’s lives may have hinged on that one little, seemingly minor decision on where to sit.
Wait. What about the dear friend who met me for lunch, the first time we’d had a good visit in many months? We’d also eaten at an outdoor table, but had we lingered too long? Stood too closely together when I walked her to her car? What about the people at the small dinner party she attended a few days later?
Oh, and there was my doctor’s appointment. The grocery store trip. The pharmacy. I’d worn a mask for all the visits, but would it have been enough if I’d actually had Covid?
It dawned on me that I could inadvertently be a super-spreader.
The entire process took less than 30 minutes. I pulled my car up to the testing table and two masked/face shield-wearing guardsmen with disposable gowns and gloves approached the car. One carefully explained the process. The guardsman wasn't a health care worker, but had been specially trained to perform the tests. He wore a mask and face shield and was suited up with paper scrubs pulled over his camouflage uniform.
I’d be given two tests. One was a rapid result and afterward I could pull into the parking lot to wait and learn the results within 15 minutes. The second test is called a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test. I was told the state would email me results from this more accurate test within two to five days.
Here’s why they give two: the rapid test is highly accurate if you test positive. However, if you test negative, you still might have the virus, because the rapid test is more likely to give a false negative. That’s why a PCR test is also administered. It detects the virus’s genetic material.
The guardsman giving the tests then explained that the rapid test uses a nasal swab, but it doesn’t have to be inserted very deeply. He truthfully told me that the second test – the PCR – was "uncomfortable" for most people because it had to be inserted more deeply into your nasal cavity. He warned me that I might want to cough as a response.
He was completely accurate. The first test was a breeze. I pulled down my mask and it was administered through my car window. The second test didn’t cross the line into painful, but I felt extremely “uncomfortable” for a few moments. When I reflexively started pulling my head back, the guardsman coached me to hang in there and the sample was obtained. My sinuses stung for about five minutes afterward.
I pulled into a parking space and after a quarter hour, the nurse approached with my rapid results. “Negative.” I hadn’t even realized how tense I’d been until she said the word. She also stressed that there was a small chance that it might be a false negative. I should still self-quarantine until the more accurate PCR test results came back. Since this was a Thursday, she guessed the results would arrive in my in-box on Monday.
However, the PCR test results arrived on Saturday morning, only two days later. Another negative. I was thrilled, as were my husband and my friend. My colleague’s relief came through on the text, “GREAT NEWS!” he wrote. I tried to imagine how I would have felt in his position, knowing that I might be the unknowing cause of someone else’s illness.
We know all that. We hear it daily. And mostly tune it out.
Yet, if we as a country don’t make major behavioral changes, the approaching holidays could become doomsdays. The natural human yearning for contact - especially with those we love most - tempts us to ignore precautions. Throw in increased alcohol consumption that lowers our inhibitions and we have a Covid powder-keg.
Here’s a sobering tool that can help you make plans in the upcoming months: to understand what personal risk you’re taking for a holiday gathering, this “Risk Assessment Planning Tool” by Georgia Institute of Technology is indispensable.
The map allows viewers to look at every US county and see what the chances are that someone with Covid will be attending an event. The map is constantly updated, based on the most recent Covid reports.
"This map shows the risk level of attending an event, given the event size and location.
You can reduce the risk that one case becomes many by wearing a mask, distancing, and gathering outdoors in smaller groups
The risk level is the estimated chance (0-100%) that at least 1 COVID-19 positive individual will be present at an event in a county, given the size of the event."
Right now, throughout the Midwest, a majority of counties have an over 99% chance that someone will have Covid at a gathering of more than 100. Lower the setting to 50 guests and there’s still a 50 – 75% chance in much of the country.
While I might feel my chances of survival are good if I catch Covid, I understand that I could be responsible – unintentionally, unknowingly – of infecting others who won’t fare as well, those who might be hospitalized or even die. And some of these might be the most meaningful folks in my life.
Will those people blame me? Probably not.
The question is whether I’ll be able to forgive myself.