March 2020. Administrators informed us that primary care physicians would be deployed to the “front lines” – either the emergency department or the COVID-19 wards. When I shared my news with my 21-year-old daughter, she cried and hugged me and said, “I don’t want you to die.”
Fate intervened, and I didn’t get deployed. By the time I was up, the numbers improved, and it was time to return to my office and see patients in person. I armed myself with an N95, a surgical mask to protect it, and a face shield each day. From the beginning of the pandemic, I erred on the side of safety. I washed off food and other supplies before putting them in the refrigerator and on my shelves, let the mail languish on the floor for days before I’d open the envelopes, tore off my clothes immediately upon entering my home, rushing into the shower before interacting with my family. I imagined the multitudes of infected people who had touched those items I’d brought into my home, and I’d sanitize my hands again.
When the vaccine became available not even a year after the pandemic began, I was ebullient. By the end of January 2021, inoculated, I anticipated some normalcy. But by that summer, another COVID surge as cases ticked up. Nervous, I proceeded with my trip to Disney World with my family. I walked around Disney, armed with an N95 mask, and ate outdoors wherever possible. During that trip, we also traveled to South Florida to visit my mother-in-law who was vaccinated. One hour after we arrived, deep into eating a delicious meal, she learned that a close friend she’d spent time with unmasked had just been diagnosed with COVID-19. Already hearing of cases of COVID-19 in people who were vaccinated, I caught my daughter’s eye. We disappeared into the bedroom, emerged with N95 masks and eye protection, checked in a hotel, and flew back to New York the next day. We remained negative after that trip. However, my mother-in-law became symptomatic; she was fatigued beyond belief and lost the desire to eat without her sense of smell and taste. She slowly recovered over ten days.
Fast forward to the holiday season of 2021. My daughter came home from college for Thanksgiving feeling congested, coughing, and fatigued. She’d been exposed to someone who visited who was sick. She and her friend remained COVID-19 negative on multiple tests. But I too felt ill opting not to join family on Thanksgiving, erring on the side of caution. I felt hopeful about Christmas. I was now “boosted,” and most of my family was.
During the pandemic, I worked hard at not letting my guard down, wearing an N95 mask during patient care. I shop for food with my N95 mask. I’ve gone to a restaurant with the closest of vaccinated friends/family maybe three times. I socialize outdoors and take long hikes. And then in mid-December, I went to a party. There were 14 of us. All of us were vaccinated and most boosted. We rapid tested ourselves the day of the party. I took off my mask; I had followed the guidelines.
But we were on the cusp of Omicron raging through the country. Had the party been planned only three days later, we would have canceled it. The next day one of us tested positive. Over subsequent days 75 percent of us became positive.
Day 0: the party. Day 3: I developed a mild cough, congestion, a scratchy throat, and fatigue. My symptoms waxed and waned for ten days. Day 5: My rapid antigen test turned positive. Day 14: My rapid test was still positive. It did not turn negative until Day 16. I isolated myself in my bedroom – the only room I took off my N95 mask. My daughter back from college, and I kept our distance from one another. Multiple rapid antigen and PCR tests later, my daughter remained negative.
What I learned from my sample of one is that good masks work. I learned vaccines work. I had what could be described as a prolonged cold. I was able to exercise on my Peloton bike, and I never needed cold remedies. I learned that if I wore my mask and kept my distance in small quarters, I kept them safe. I learned that when we make decisions about attending events, we must measure the possible impact on our work and other people. Fortunately, my illness coincided with a planned vacation, and while my work was impacted, it could have been worse. But all of us saw how Omicron decimated urgent care clinics, medical practices, and hospital coverage.
Personally, I needed to cancel my daughter’s birthday celebration. I was unable to see cousins that had flown to New York for the Christmas holidays: one in from Spain and another from Florida. If I had it to do all over, I would have either not gone to the holiday party or I would have worn my N95 mask the entire time.
The CDC has announced that isolation can be reduced to 5 days if one is either asymptomatic or symptoms are improving. My anecdotal data may back that up if we are willing to wear the best personal protection equipment and the N95 mask is the crown jewel. A shortened isolation period may work if people around us are vaccinated. While my holidays were not festive – I didn’t have the energy to put up a tree and didn’t see dear family and friends – I am grateful that I am well. I find that I am optimistic and hopeful in 2022. I believe we have rounded an important corner, and the time is coming where COVID-19 will become one of the benign players of illness. Time will tell. In the meantime, as we continue to evaluate the data, I recommend we wear masks, get vaccinated, and use common sense.
Maria Maldonado is an internal medicine physician.
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