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When I got a breakthrough case of COVID

Some visitors to Faneuil Hall Marketplace with their masks and some without in Boston on May 29, 2021 as Massachusetts operates under the new Covid-19 restrictions, including the mask mandate, being lifted. (Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Some visitors to Faneuil Hall Marketplace with their masks and some without in Boston on May 29, 2021 as Massachusetts operates under the new Covid-19 restrictions, including the mask mandate, being lifted. (Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Christmas, its most famous cheerleader declared, is “a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt and Abundance rejoices.” I’m rejoicing this season after my recent breakthrough bout of COVID-19.

Don’t misunderstand. Having completed vaccination in April, I was distressed to be among the luckless fringe who got sick after the jab. Breakthrough cases have nosed up, but the unvaccinated remain far more at risk from COVID and 11 times more likely to die from it. I’m 62 and in good health. Yet two vaccinated friends who also came down with breakthrough infections had an easier time than my case, which mimicked a bad cold — hacking cough, congestion, brief loss of taste and smell, fatigue.

The COVID chapter of my future memoirs began on Monday, October 18. I’d made the hour-long trip to work by public transit, largely because I’d scheduled a COVID test first thing upon arrival. (My university employer requires weekly testing.) In retrospect, I should’ve gone straight home afterwards, because I wasn’t feeling well. But my teenage son had just tested negative after having similar symptoms — he just had a cold. After 19 months COVID-free, what were the odds my luck had run out?

The testing center reached me on the bus ride home that evening with the unpleasant news of my result. Like lepers in antiquity, I’d be isolating myself from my community — 10 days in my case.

Still, I’m thankful.

After 19 months COVID-free, what were the odds my luck had run out?

First, I dodged the coronavirus until after the miracle of the vaccines. Many weren’t so fortunate, including 385,000-plus Americans who died in 2020. (Some 784,000 Americans have now died from the virus.) Someone pointed out that, as sick as I felt, my symptoms might have been much worse had I been unvaccinated. Survivors who fell into COVID’s harrowing grip before the vaccines will confirm my luck. I was actually able to work remotely throughout my isolation, needing to steal cat naps against fatigue only for the first day or two of my illness.

Second, I appear to have infected at most one (and possibly no) close contacts. I got lucky. After the discomfort of physical illness, racking your brain for those to whom you might have passed the virus is one of COVID’s hardest side effects — time-consuming and guilt-inducing.

Following my positive test, I immediately notified my family and co-workers. I next alerted professors who, the previous week, had led a class of 20-plus students on a field trip that I’d covered for a story. Then I realized: Two days before my test, with unfortunate timing, a fellow congregant at my church had recruited me to help deposit the collection money in the rectory. We were briefly together unmasked.

COVID taught me a lesson in this season of lessons cum carols. If you have any symptoms, banish any confidence that it’s just a cold.

I frantically emailed the pastor, who assured me he’d tell the man, who subsequently tested negative. Then I remembered that I’d attended a conference two weekends prior — indoors, unmasked at dinner, with 100-plus other invitees, and sometimes unmasked during sessions. (Vaccination and avoiding COVID for 19 months had lowered all our guards.) I alerted the conference organizers that they might have a super-spreader event on their hands. Mercifully, no one else reported falling ill.

My third reason for gratitude is that my sensory recovery means I’ll savor holiday food and drink this yuletide. We take these primal joys for granted. More than a year after testing positive, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was still without them. On his tongue, lemonade tastes like gasoline, and his loss of smell is potentially dangerous for a man who restores vintage cars and is unable to sniff any gas leaks. (COVID may have stolen the olfactory sense long-term from hundreds of thousands of Americans.)

One last gratitude: COVID taught me a lesson in this season of lessons cum carols. If you have any symptoms, banish any confidence that it’s just a cold. I was incautious.

Work remotely if you can — my boss requested this in our office following my test — or call in sick. If symptoms linger, get tested. As borders slam shut against a new variant that could touch off another COVID surge, testing and vaccinating are as vital as ever.

Almost two years into this damnable pandemic, it has left devastating "Want," pace Dickens. I grieve for the victims and for families who will set empty places at holiday tables this year. As someone luckier than they, blessed with the "Abundance" of recovery, I rejoice.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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