COVID reporter gets a breakthrough COVID infection. His experience is of a mild cold. Following a very stringent quarantine and notification process after testing positive leads him to upend his and his family's life for weeks. (Everyone is vaccinated or very young, and no one is in a high risk category.)
By Alexis C. Madrigal
When I first received the invitation to the wedding where I would eventually get COVID, I was on the fence about attending at all. My best friend had gone through a tough divorce and was remarrying. I was thrilled for him. His wedding had been put off repeatedly because of COVID, and this was the couple’s second try at a real ceremony. As a bonus, the wedding would take place in New Orleans, where my friend lives. I hadn’t seen him since before the pandemic. New Orleans is a miraculous place, and my favorite city to visit in America. The notion of a trip there shone out of the fog and dreariness of this whole era of history.
The downside, of course, was the risk of exposure to COVID. Sure, I’m vaccinated—two shots of Pfizer—and the wedding’s other attendees would all be vaccinated too. But breakthrough cases happen, and we’d be in New Orleans in October, a place where cases were still high and vaccination was inconsistent. One could not expect to not get exposed to COVID.
But then I reasoned both with myself and with my wife. COVID was unlikely to kill me, a vaccinated 39-year-old endurance athlete. I would be fine, and even if I gave the coronavirus to any of my family members, they too would almost certainly be fine. My wife is vaccinated, and our young children’s risk of serious illness, while not nonexistent, is very low.
I went back and forth, looking at flights and realizing that I’d probably have to travel through Las Vegas and have a considerable layover. I put off RSVPing one way or the other, and thought I would end up passively not going, the slow slide into a never-booked flight.
But for some reason, one morning in early October, I got the “last call” email about the wedding and I revisited the prospect. Everything was beginning to seem more and more normal. The radio station where I host a show was encouraging people to come back into the office. I saw laughing, maskless people in my social-media feeds and in restaurant windows. The Delta-variant surge was easing in most places. Cases were coming down. The really vulnerable were getting boosters. Kid vaccinations were on the horizon. Filled with a surge of love for my friends and New Orleans and a sense that, you know what, I’m ready to nose out into a new tier of risk, I booked a flight; I’d be going solo.
As the day approached, my wife and I had not run through every scenario. I still was not precisely sure how the wedding would work, COVID-wise. My friend is a doctor, and I knew the crowd would mostly be New York and California people. There would be no anti-vaxxers among the guests, and the invitation said they’d follow the local public-health protocols. And I think I didn’t want to know too much. If I’m honest with myself, once I decided to go, it felt like I’d committed to taking on some risk. At the same time, my wife and I had been in lockstep on COVID stuff for so long that I don’t think I had the courage to really say: Hey, I want to go to this wedding, and it’s probably going to be maskless and … are we really okay with that? I don’t think she wanted to be the one to say no to seeing such good friends, if I was willing to do it.
And so I boarded my flight without the kind of real conversation and—as important—return plan that we should have made. I spent hours in an N95 mask in the Las Vegas airport and on planes before arriving in Louisiana and heading to the welcome drinks.
I walked in and saw that people were all inside, fairly densely packed in a big room. No one was wearing a mask. Everyone was celebrating like people who haven’t seen one another for a long time, ready for a wedding weekend in the greatest city in America. For some reason, I was shocked.
I don’t know why I didn’t expect it to look like that. Maybe I thought we’d be in a garden under some nice string lights, mostly keeping masks on, in that maybe it helps way. I almost turned around and begged off the night of drinks, figuring that the next day would be less risky. But I’d come all that way. Here were my friend’s family and closest friends, the woman he’d fallen in love with. I just couldn’t do it. And all the everyone is vaccinated reasoning started to play in my head. I ordered a tequila and soda, pushed breakthrough infections out of mind, made some new friends, and had a great time.
The wedding was maskless too. But in a huge, airy, gorgeous building. There was a second line through the streets, and people danced and waved white handkerchiefs with the names of the bride and groom. We wore tuxedos and listened to old-time music at Preservation Hall and made jokes and got a little drunk, mostly hanging around outside. When that part ended, a bunch of people went next door to a huge party spot, but I left as soon as I saw the piano-bar-and-club scene there.
My wife was rightfully getting worried. It seemed not unlikely that I’d get exposed to COVID. Had we really been thinking clearly? Had we really wanted to take on that level of risk? Honestly, once I’d been in the situation, the realness started to unfurl. Outside the wedding events, I’d followed our protocols from home, staying outside, masking inside, etc. But attending the wedding was much riskier than I’d wanted to admit before I’d done it.
Walking back across the city, the energy of wanting things to be normal was thick. I felt it too. After spending so much of my time studying COVID, being a part of the response with the COVID Tracking Project, and writing many stories about the pandemic, I was over it. I was done. I don’t know that I could have admitted that to myself, but I just wanted it all to go away. And there in New Orleans, for a few days, it seemed like it had. Just look at all those people singing at the piano bar, dancing to Lizzo, arm in arm with friend and stranger alike.
The next day, away from the wedding and visiting with my best friend, it became more and more obvious. My wife and I needed a plan for my return. I’d do a rapid PCR test at the airport. At least that would get me somewhere.
My kids were so happy to see me, and after my negative result came back, to hug me. Was I actually safe? No, I knew I was not. I should have quarantined. But I had stuck my wife with the kids for four days, and I wanted to get back in the mix and help. That seemed like the right thing to do.
On Monday, I felt fine, but I took an antigen test anyway (negative). I scheduled a PCR test for the next day. By the time my appointment arrived, I’d started to have some postnasal drip and what felt like a possibly psychosomatic tickle in my throat. Tuesday night—four days after the wedding—my PCR result came back negative, and despite having what felt like a cold, I figured I was pretty close to being in the clear.
The next day, my symptoms were about the same. I did an intense Peloton workout and it felt fine, though maybe my legs were a little slow. I wasn’t eager to test again; a negative PCR test seemed good enough. But my wife heard me cough—one of only maybe 20 coughs throughout my whole sickness—and said, “Couldn’t you take another antigen test?”
I was on the phone with a young geographer, talking about doing research at Bay Area libraries, and kind of absentmindedly did the swabbing. When I looked down a few minutes later, I had tested positive. Maybe a false positive? I immediately took another antigen test and the little pink line was practically red, it was so dark. Wrapping up the call, I packed my things quickly, texted my wife the result, walked outside with an N95 mask on, and waited for all hell to break loose.
I was able to find a long-term rental on our block thanks to an angelic neighbor. I set my bags down inside and tried to figure out what I had to do. The worst-case scenario that I’d imagined was that I’d get sick, mildly, as I did. I ended up taking one day off from work, and even that was more of a precaution. I felt pretty sick, like when you have a cold, but I’ve probably been sicker 15 times as an adult. As someone who has thought so much about COVID science, it was almost interesting to experience: Oh! That’s what losing your smell is like.
But the real worst-case scenario was everything that happened to the people around me. My kids had to come out of school and isolate with my wife. A raft of tests had to be taken by everyone I’d had even limited contact with. (I was one of at least a dozen people at the wedding who got sick.) I had been with several older people, including my mother-in-law. For my wife and children, the tests went on for days and days, each one bringing a prospective new disaster and 10 to 14 more days of life disruption or worse.
But for me, the very worst part was my children. They knew, cognitively, that I was vaccinated and unlikely to get really sick. That said, COVID-19, for them, is a terrible thing. The past year and a half of their lives has been disrupted by this virus. They take precautions every single day not to have this happen.
They reacted in different ways. My nonbinary 8-year-old was so mad and maybe so scared that they could barely look at me. My 5-year-old daughter proved her status as the ultimate ride-or-die kid. She brought a chair down the street so she could sit 20 feet away from me outside in her mask, as I sat on the porch in an N95. I’m not sure which reaction was more heartbreaking. It was as if one never wanted to see me again and the other didn’t want to let me out of her sight.
These vaccines are amazing. I was and am fine. But as The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang described in her recent article “America Has Lost the Plot on COVID,” we have developed the least logical system around them. “The least vaccinated communities have some of the laxest restrictions, while highly vaccinated communities … tend to have some of the most aggressive measures aimed at driving down cases,” Zhang writes.
In the communities where ignoring the pandemic is the norm, COVID testing may not be standard—and even when testing takes place, the required isolation and quarantining procedures are sometimes ignored. As I’ve found, you really are on your own to set the limits of what you do. And given the requirements and difficulties of isolating, I can imagine that few people are willing and able to follow the letter of the law.
A positive test sets in motion huge hassles and anxieties for anyone you’ve been in contact with. This is how we slow the spread, right? It makes sense. And also, families and businesses and schools and event venues are trying to return to normal. Perhaps the risks of going into an office every day are far less than those of going to a wedding in New Orleans. But in the course of actual normal life in the places that have fought this virus the hardest, there will be more positive tests. Just in the past few weeks, I’ve seen more and more of them around me here in the Bay Area.
For people pondering edging back into normal life, or trying to jump in headfirst as I did, it’s easy to do the risk calculation only about physical health; that’s really what this was about for so long. But the vaccines changed that, and we need to update our mental spreadsheets. The life disruption—the logistical pain you cause those around you—is now a major part of any bad scenario. As I write this, I’m now 10 days past my first symptoms, but I continue to test positive on antigen tests, and so I have not returned home. I haven’t hugged my kids for 10 days. They missed a whole week of school, and my wife’s work life got turned upside down—even though they never tested positive or got sick. I blame no one but myself for this. We cannot will this pandemic to be over. Lord knows I tried.
I understand that my scenario is far better than could or would have played out in a pre-vaccination world. So many communities were hit hard. I have enjoyed tremendous privilege to keep my risk low before now. We got lucky that I didn’t infect anyone vulnerable. I’m so grateful my wife insisted that I take just one more test.
In social worlds like mine, though, where most people do work from home, where people have minimized risk and gotten vaccinated, we’re at a weird moment. Things aren’t likely to change that much for quite some time. Even after however many kids get vaccinated, there will still be breakthrough infections. Other variants could spread. Maybe we’re in this space for another year or two or three. One way to put the question of endemicity is: When do we start treating COVID like other respiratory illnesses?
I don’t know the answer. And I’m not even sure who should be trying to answer the question. There are many outstanding mysteries about long COVID. There are still so many unvaccinated Americans, and that number seems unlikely to shift a lot anytime soon.
Right now most policies appear designed to make life seem normal. Masks are coming off. Restaurants are dining in. Planes are full. Offices are calling. But don’t be fooled: The world’s normal only until you test positive.