The Case of the COVID Chronicler

After more than 100 stories, a reporter tests positive for the virus he covered since early March 2020

| 15 Apr 2022 | 02:59

It had to happen eventually, right? I tell myself that, in any case. After more than two years of chronicling COVID-19 in these pages, I finally contracted it.

Perhaps all my exposure to dedicated public health and medical workers – the experts who actually made those stories worth reading – had induced just enough wise behavior on my part to reduce my exposure to the virus.

Or maybe, I was just lucky for the longest time.

It certainly is true that I, like most of us, according to surveys, had let my guard down in recent days. I went to a dinner party Friday night and hosted a second Saturday, by far the most socializing I’ve done in a weekend since the start of the pandemic.

It is also true that these latest variants of Omicron are the most contagious yet. I seem to be in growing company. Infection rates are up across the city, and most of all in Manhattan, possibly because testing rates are higher and rates of infection were lower earlier in the pandemic.

The top five neighborhoods for new reported cases in the city are all now in Manhattan — Chelsea-Clinton, Gramercy Park, the Upper West and East Sides and Greenwich Village.

I knew all of this on Monday, after my socializing weekend, when I took a long planned trip to Los Angeles. I wore my mask for the entire flight, as required, but began to feel a scratch in the back of my throat somewhere over Kansas. By evening, having arrived in California, I felt like a damp dish rag, not that I actually know what a damp dish rag feels like. Tuesday I took a rapid test. It was positive, the first time in dozens and dozens of self administered tests that I’d seen that double line, pink and blue.

It would be missing the arc of history, or the flattened curve, if you prefer, to say my luck had run out. I know I am still immensely fortunate to contract Sars-CoV-2 now, rather than two years ago, when the variant was more virulent and the treatments were essentially non-existent.

Risk Categories

Four doses of vaccine were not enough to prevent infection. But I’ve quoted health experts repeatedly as saying they make the infection less dangerous. The highest rates of infection, hospitalization and death are all among the unvaccinated, they point out.

I certainly hope they are right. If this is what the version mitigated by vaccine feels like, I am really grateful I did not get it before the era of vaccination and other treatment. Lethargy sure beats intubation.

I am in more risk categories than I care to linger on. Male, 67, probably a bit overweight (there, I admitted it) and under treatment for cancer.

Within hours of that positive test, my doctor, Peter Charap, had prescribed one of those new COVID treatments, Paxlovid, which restrains the ability of the virus to replicate. Paxlovid was introduced during the height of last winter’s surge and was for a time in very short supply.

But now officials say they have enough for anyone who needs it, and expect to, so long as the present slowly rising case rates don’t surge back to those earlier levels.

Because I am out of town, Dr. Charap had to go to great lengths to help me fill the prescription, hanging on the phone for twenty minutes for the pharmacist to pick up at a CVS on North Figueroa Street.

Privilege is more then just having health insurance. It is having an excellent general practice doctor who will do things like that for you. I feel guilty I’ve never shelled out for his concierge service.

Earlier Stories

For now, I have little to do but complete my five-day course of Paxlovid and sit in the sun, resting. And remembering all those earlier stories, more than 100 of them. In March of 2020, the editor, Alexis Gelber, had asked me to look into this Novel Coronavirus, as we called it then, and see what I could share with readers.

It rapidly went from being an assignment to a mission. I would have been little use in the ER, where well trained people were working heroically. But explaining what was happening? That was something I was trained to do. So I did what I could to be of service.

I still vividly remember that very first story in early March of 2020. A friend who worked at Mount Sinai told me to watch the video the hospital had posted on March 10 of Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, then the Deputy Commissioner for Disease Control at the New York City Department of Health, briefing the hospital’s medical staff.

“It’s already here,” Daskalakis said of the coronavirus, which at the time seemed like a distant threat happening in China or Italy. Deslalakis knew better because he was watching reports of “flu-like symptoms” climb at local emergency rooms.

Suddenly COVID-19 was a clear and present danger and our lives were all about to change far beyond anything we understood.

“Until a very few days ago, social distancing conjured for most New Yorkers an image of, say, the rich and famous rising above the rest of us as they sashayed up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum for the fashionistas’ Met Ball,” I wrote in that first story.

“But in this time of coronavirus, social distancing has taken a far more physical, and urgent, meaning. Keep your distance, regardless of social status, class, wealth, race or celebrity. It is as if the public health experts are warning that to protect ourselves and our fellow New Yorkers we all must, immediately, stop doing many of the things that more or less define what it is to be a New Yorker.”

Our Lived Experience

That sense that the pandemic might be a social leveler was quickly disabused by the disproportionate impact the virus reaped on the old, the ailing, the poor and the frontline staff who did not have the luxury to work from home. The unimaginable became our lived experience.

Some 40,128 local deaths later, our ability to maintain precautions has frayed markedly.

“Americans are taking fewer personal precautions than they were earlier in the year,” the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reported just the other day.

Just one in four Americans are extremely or very worried about themselves or a family member being infected with COVID-19, the center reported, down from 36% who were worried in January during a spike of cases wrought by the omicron variant. Forty-four percent are regularly masking these days, down from 65% in January 2022 and 82% in February 2021.

Concern remains somewhat higher among urban dwellers, like New Yorkers, said Marjorie Connelly, a senior fellow. Those who bothered to get vaccinated also continue to take more precautions. But all groups are less cautious than before, Connelly said.

A week ago I could have recited all this with appropriate journalistic distance. In the very last story I did before contracting the virus, I quoted Dr. Dara Kass, the regional director of Health and Human Services, explaining how the pandemic would be with us for a long time to come.

“But we will be less and less vulnerable to that,” she added. “We will see our protection layered. Every time we are infected and get post infectious immunity. Every time we get a vaccine. We increase our protection and that’s really important for our community to move forward.”

I had not expected, however, to move so quickly from scribe to medical case study.

The top five neighborhoods for new reported cases in the city are all now in Manhattan — Chelsea-Clinton, Gramercy Park, the Upper West and East Sides and Greenwich Village.