Twenty-fourth in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
By now, deep into the third year of the COVID pandemic, we all know what is meant by “it”: “It” is the coronavirus that ignited a public health crisis worldwide. And the “everybody” who will get “it”? This is not only the conventional wisdom, it is also voiced by the medical establishment itself, including the vaunted Dr. Anthony Fauci, who himself finally got COVID.
But some of us, those with compromised medical conditions, still adhere to what can be called “the Passover strategy”: the Biblical reference to the forces of destruction sparing a household, or passing over it.
That describes this household’s mission: adherence to the Passover strategy. What follows is an account of “mission-creep”: how the Passover strategy met head-on with “Everybody will get it,” weathered it, then reset to the initial strategy. Not one to share details of my 45-year marriage, I write this, with my husband Larry’s assent, as a public service announcement. Because, as another bit of conventional wisdom goes, “We might want to be done with COVID, but COVID is not done with us.”
I live with cancer and have done so for 17.5 years (I count decimals). If you have to get cancer, my kind — thyroid — is the one to get. I am grateful I have the good version of this cancer, not the bad: Seattle Cancer Care Alliance assures me I will not die of it. Still, as the cancer has moved into the lungs (I keep it impersonal: It’s “the” cancer and “the” lungs, not “my”), it would not be good if the cancerous nodules in the lungs, small and few as they are, were invaded by the virus. Because, as the mantra in this household goes, “We know what COVID does to lungs.” When Larry sent me a video of COVID’s ravaging action on human lungs, I said, “No, thanks,” not with my operatic imagination that I have purposely reset into a more controlled space, knowing the opera is always playing behind the double-doors
Of course, we both are vaccinated and boosted, most recently with the “bivalent” booster that’s reportedly good at countering COVID’s newest, highly transmissible subvariant. We mask whenever in public — always — especially in crowded spaces. If we dine out, we ask for patio dining; more often than not, we order take-out. If we have guests in, we open the windows. We eat right and exercise, me speed-walking and Larry biking. While our gym has reopened, we have not returned, given the multiple subvariants, though if the rain is too much with him (we live in the Pacific Northwest), Larry goes to walk its track, masked, while I bundle up and face the rain (anyone who knew the “before” Carla, tailored lady, will find this surprising). My only travel was our drive to a family funeral in another state; Larry flew to a family reunion. Neither of us minds the isolation: We both are writers and have our projects. Larry keeps up his civic activities via Zoom, phone, masked in-person gatherings. In lieu of the pre-COVID coffees I enjoyed, I indulge in email exchanges with a half-dozen friends daily.
As to the mortal toll, a friend has died from COVID: She partied too soon, unmasked. (Her husband, at the same party, survived.) And many friends have contracted COVID, some seriously enough to send them to the hospital, one seriously enough (he has long-COVID) that he was forced to take early retirement. In fact, I did not know — until we ourselves were visited by Doctor Plague — just how many friends had come down with it, so commonplace has the virus become. Everybody is getting it.
Such were the conditions obtaining in this household until mid-October. The instigating event, we think, was an 18-hour weekend seminar Larry taught at a local college. All 17 students were required to be vaccinated and boosted, though same-day testing was not specifically required. The classroom was large and well-ventilated, so masking seemed unnecessary. In the class photo, all look exuberant; arms are around shoulders. Yet while nobody presented as sick (asymptomatic), someone must have been infected: By the time Larry got home and joined our gathering of five (all family), he was stuffy. (Happily, no family came down sick.) Through that week, he fought what he thought was a cold, but by the weekend he was so sick, he decided to test himself: He tested positive for COVID. He let the college know immediately that the class had been exposed.
Terrified of infecting me, Larry absented himself from the house to Ocean Shores, to a motel, for however long it took until he tested negative. It was strange to treat my dear husband thus, but as soon as he departed, I opened the doors and windows, and got a fan going, to air out the house: The current subvariant is transmitted aerially.
Meanwhile, I notified our closest circle and learned, in detail, how many had gotten COVID. Knowing about my cancer, our circle urged I get the therapeutic Paxlovid now, to fend off infection: “You can’t get this stuff, Carla, not with your compromised lungs.” (Much medicine was being practiced without a license here, but in this pandemic, we all are making medical decisions; plus this advice was given lovingly.) I did call my doctor and was told I first had to show symptoms and test positive, also be interviewed by the doctor via tele-med, but, yes, I would get the Paxlovid. During that tense week, that assurance helped. Larry asked about Paxlovid, but was advised against it for its side effects. That he ultimately made it through COVID without Paxlovid should assure readers: All is not lost without Paxlovid, though I now read it helps prevent long-COVID months later.
(Note: I coped with the anxiety of that week, and after, by upping my work-tempo: With the midterm elections bearing down, this commentator had material galore, also fear of MAGA violence and Democratic rout checked my fear of COVID. Work really is the best medicine.)
Finally, after a week, Larry tested negative and came home. We agreed to mask and isolate in the house, dine separately, then meet up, masked, to discuss our day. It was also time for mission review: How did the virus invade our household and, importantly, how to prevent its reappearance?
Larry began with the observation, the conventional wisdom, that “Everybody will get it.” I was, shall we say, surprised: “Not me,” I said, “not with the cancer.” In response, he noted, “It’s only realistic — ” I had to interject: “Excuse me, Dear, but: Screw ‘realistic.’ I’m not getting COVID!” This, Dear Reader, is how we discovered we’d succumbed to “mission-creep”: Our Passover strategy had morphed, over these months now years, into acceptance that we’d not be passed over anymore. How to get back to Passover, the only place I can (literally) live?
To get there, this now-cool customer allowed the operatic back in: I spoke of “my” cancer and “my” lungs.” I related to Larry that, in the interim, I had learned lots from our friends who’d gotten COVID: how fatiguing it is, how post-COVID they are “not up to par.” One friend says he “used to go 14 hours a day nonstop,” but now needs naps, “lots of them”; another described her COVID as debilitating as the mononucleosis she got back in college, causing her to drop out temporarily. “Dear: I operate at 50% anyway,” thanks to thyroid-fatigue. “I am not willing to sacrifice a scintilla more energy, not if I can help it — and we can.” I described again how just making my breakfast requires a lie-down before I get to work. I invoked another joint mission of ours: of working and writing “until The End.” “The work before us both is immense, we have miles and miles and miles to go yet. We can’t be cut down by a virus, and we certainly don’t want to be lumbered with long-COVID, because that effectively would be The End.”
Over the next few days, as I continued to mask in the house, Larry became exasperated. Did my mask exacerbate his guilt, at being the agent importing the virus, at unilaterally altering our mission? But I said: “Dear, I keep hearing Dad’s voice” — my father was a doctor — saying, “‘A few days’ extra caution wouldn’t be a bad idea. Even though you’re both testing negative, you’re not out of the woods yet.’” Both my parents (Mom was a nurse) understood contagion, its insidiousness and unpredictability. I noted again how the only time I ever saw my even-keeled father upset was when a patient failed to follow his post-treatment instructions “and landed back in my office or the hospital, worse than before.”
Finally, by the fourth day, I felt secure enough to remove the mask. But first, I asked Larry: “So, are we agreed we go back to strictest COVID protocol?” Agreed: We mask, always, when out in public. “And are we agreed: Carla is not getting COVID.” Agreed, though Larry noted my odds are not great. “My odds are fine, Dear. During the bubonic plague, not everybody got it. Some of us ornery ones get through.” I also noted that, after being exposed to him during the week while he became infected and yet I did not, I am more impressed with my underlying health, “the cancer in the lungs notwithstanding.” (Back to the impersonal “the.”)
In closing: The COVID pandemic slogs on — how many subvariants have there been by now, how many surges? Katherine Wu of The Atlantic, who with Ed Yong has done outstanding monitoring of the pandemic since its onset, now asks, “Will We Get Omicron’d Again?” Even into the third year, the data should compel: Every day still, there are over 39,000 new cases diagnosed, almost 28,000 hospitalizations, and over 300 COVID deaths in the U.S. And yet: Only one-third of all children aged 5 to 11 and only 4% — repeat: only 4%(!) — of all Americans have gotten the new bivalent booster. Without more getting boosted, COVID experts fear “potentially a very serious wave is coming this winter,” as Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor University told “PBS NewsHour.” Thus he found President Joe Biden’s declaring the pandemic “over” to be “cringeworthy.” This pandemic is not over. Get boosted, people, please.
Likewise, as we tired pilgrims slog along with the ever-mutating pandemic, here in America and around the world, the easiest thing — the most natural thing for a pilgrim who’s tired — is to let down our guard, relax, relent. But as we learned in this household, it just takes a moment’s inattention to welcome in the virus. Those of us “of an age” do wonder, though: Will we spend the rest of our natural lives donning the mask? Is this why I dream of coffeehouses: of meeting up with friends, holding long philosophical conversations, and — when oh when? — laughing together again?
Households come by their policy stances in myriad ways, some consciously, some not. Larry and I got back to our status quo ante, eventually, with care but also with about as much tension as I want to see in this long and deep marriage. But when life itself is at stake — when the fear my favorite poet Emily Dickinson described as “Zero at the Bone” enters into the equation — compromise is not possible. I did not move, because I couldn’t: More than my conscious mind was in play, my whole Life-loving being was. We had to get back to the Passover strategy, we had to bury the “Everybody will get it” idea. Larry, because he loves Life as much as I, did the compromising. But I’ve done it too in our marriage, compromise, and no doubt will again.
The point is: Life! We carry on here — blessedly virus-free.
For info on where to get the bivalent booster, see this CDC site. For current info on COVID, see the CDC, New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard Medical School (“Lessons from a Contagion”), Yale School of Medicine (“Lessons from COVID-19”), University of California/San Francisco Medical Center, and STAT. For the Johns Hopkins COVID global tracker, see here. For earlier posts in my series, “Notes from a Plague-Time,” see here.
Image: “Plague Doctor,” by Anon, circa 1656, during the bubonic plague.