My covid scare

2021-11-24 23:10:46 UTC

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I’m one of the most cautious motherfuckers on the planet about this damn virus.

  • I was wearing masks in public before it was cool, and have been ever since—first an N95 from my wildfire stash, then cotton masks of increasing sophistication, and then back to N95s this year now that they’re plentiful again.
  • I got vaccinated as soon as I was eligible and could get an appointment. I became eligible April 15; my first shot was the following Monday. I got Pfizer, and got my second shot exactly three weeks later.
  • I’ve continued to mask up everywhere outside of my home and car, even after being fully vaccinated, and have been a persistent advocate for this layered strategy—vaccination and masks are complementary; they work together to provide better protection than either alone.
  • And I never, ever dine inside of restaurants. I get drive-through, or occasionally take-out, or I eat at home.

I was planning to get my booster on Friday, November 12, the day after I arrived back in Huntington Beach.

When I got back to HB on Thursday, shortly before heading to bed, I got out a BinaxNOW test kit (I’ve made a video on how to use those) and made myself another covid test lollipop, as I’ve done proactively twice a week for months.

(Yes, that’s expensive, here in the US. These kits come in two-packs for $24 each and are often sold out in many areas. In other countries, similar tests are free or close to it. Here’s some analysis of what the US has done so far and how far remains to go. Plentiful, cheap-if-not-free tests would be a game-changer for helping people detect infections early and hunker down before they spread the virus to all their coworkers or classmates.)

After the 15 minutes were up, I got a surprise: A very, very faint positive.

If I hadn’t known to look hard, because the manual makes a point of telling you that—among other things—even a very faint positive is still a positive, I might’ve missed it.

But there it was.

Photo of a BinaxNOW covid test card, showing a very, very faint positive line.

I had had a mild but persistent cough on the drive down, starting Thursday evening. I’d chalked it up to dry winter air. Maybe not.

The cough had mostly resolved about 24 hours later, though it’s come and gone since then.

Even so, I did my duties of notifying friends I’d hung out with over the previous weekend, and I booked a mostly-unproductive telehealth appointment on Friday.

I’d hoped to be referred for a PCR test, but the physician’s assistant basically told me since I was young and healthy and vaccinated and mostly fine, just self-isolate and self-monitor and contact them if I worsened. He even said I could go to the grocery store, a permission I availed myself of (with mask, as always), at least for a big stock-up run; anything else, I’ll order for delivery.

Since I didn’t get a PCR test that way, I instead tried my local pharmacy chains. CVS didn’t have shit. Walgreens had appointments for Saturday afternoon.

Saturday afternoon it is.

The PCR test is important not just for being a second opinion to the rapid test, but also for getting the authorities notified. I want to be counted in the number of new cases recorded in California in November. I want to set off the exposure-notification system.

As I write this part, it’s 15:30 on Saturday; my appointment is in about 40 minutes.


It’s now Monday, and I’ve received my PCR test result.

Negative.

Huh.


It’s now the day before Thanksgiving, almost two weeks to the day after my positive test. I completed my self-isolation and have returned to my normal routines.

Few things, if any, are truly binary; even the positive/negative division can be fuzzy, depending on a number of things:

  • Sample interval: The BinaxNOW manual notes that you shouldn’t use both test cards less than 36 hours apart, which is one reason why I wasn’t terribly mad about not getting a Friday appointment. Each sample is a snapshot of that moment in time; things can change in between.
  • Vaccination status.
  • The tests sample your nostrils; this is a proxy for whatever might be in the depths of one’s lungs.
  • PCR tests, which are basically just genetic matching, can have false positives if your nose is a viral boneyard; rapid tests are notoriously prone to false negatives, but can also have false positives.

Nothing is ever perfect or absolute.

My mask reduced the amount of virus that (might have) infected me. My vaccine primed my immune system to mount an effective defense quickly. (Maybe more quickly if I’d already had my booster.) So maybe I was truly infected, but only briefly—a true positive, in the strict sense that there was virus in my nose, followed by a true negative. A glancing blow off my layers of armor.

The only things I know for sure are the test results themselves and my minor, possibly irrelevant cough. I tested positive; then I tested negative. The possibilities:

  • The rapid test gave a false positive, and I was never really infected.
  • The rapid test gave a true positive that was cleared by the time I took the PCR. (Thank you, vaccine!)
  • The rapid test gave a true positive and the PCR test a false negative (rare, but it can happen), and my hunkering down for 10 days was completely warranted.

I will never know which is the truth. So it is; we don’t always get to have perfect knowledge even of things that happened to us.

So learn from my experience:

  • Yes, you should absolutely get vaccinated. If you did already and it’s time for your booster, get it.
  • You should also wear a mask, any time you’re outside of your home or car.
  • You can still get the virus despite doing both of those things…
  • … but you’re still much less likely to get it, and more likely to come through without serious harm, if you do them.
  • Get tested, but don’t expect perfect knowledge. Err on the side of caution.

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