I Lost The Game

I’m unreasonably proud of my excellent rapid antigen test results. Look how clear that line is! Nailed it.

So, here’s the deal: two weekends ago, my wife Maj started having flu-like symptoms. A first rapid antigen test initially gave us a negative result for COVID-19, but a second test on Monday morning gave a positive. She was doing well and in good spirits, so we decided that I should take our kids to our cabin to isolate while she was contagious, rather than trying to isolate in our city house. Unfortunately, I and my daughter were already infected, and by Thursday we had positive test results ourselves. We did a brief reunion and reshuffle, and now my wife and son are back in the city while my daughter and I isolate and recover.

I know how lucky we are. We are all vaccinated — 2x for the kids, 3x for me and my wife — and we have access to free home tests through the Quebec government. We have space to separate and isolate, we have warm beds and enough food, we have people who take care of us when we need help, and we have jobs that are flexible enough to let us take the time off to get better. We have relatively mild symptoms that don’t require hospitalisation (knock on wood).

But it’s hard not to feel like I fucked up. We’ve spent the last two years as a family with COVID-19 safety as our top priority. Now, we have COVID-19. It feels like, after all this time, we somehow blew it. When you spend all that time trying to avoid something, it’s hard not to think it’s a failure when it catches up to you.

Where it came from

We didn’t have a big moment that we could point to and say, that’s when SaRS-CoV-2 got into our family circle. Our kids started back at school at the end of January, where they wear masks and have social distancing. We’ve been driving them to and from school so they don’t have to ride on public transportation, although they’ve been taking the bus more in the last few weeks. Both parents work at home. We haven’t seen family in person since the pandemic started, haven’t traveled outside Quebec since March 2020, rarely visit friends. We get our groceries delivered, don’t go into restaurants, don’t go to bars or cafes.

Every COVID-19 story starts with, “We were so careful…”, I know. We were careful, but we also knew it was a matter of reducing probabilities, not eliminating them. And case numbers have been raging in Quebec for months now, so those activities that seemed low risk a few months ago, like going into a pharmacy with a mask on, are now higher risk, just because there’s a higher chance that someone walking around in that pharmacy has the virus. Our behaviour hasn’t gotten worse, but the environment has.

I don’t know what kind of behaviour would have counted as “careful enough”, but we weren’t ready to do it. We’ve talked on and off all during the pandemic about pulling our kids out of school to home-school, which would have significantly reduced our risk surface, but it always felt excessive. And our options to split the difference — staying in school but doing remote learning, for example — were pretty limited.

I feel bad blaming it on our kids being in school, anyway. They’re both extremely careful, and they think about how to keep people safe all the time.

I feel more bad about exposing them to the virus in the first place. I’m angry and disappointed that they’re in a world where this is a problem at all. And I’m guilty that I didn’t protect them from it. It was the main thing I’ve been trying to do for this whole time. That’s what parents do when there’s an emergency; we protect our kids.

It also feels a little shameful to have gotten COVID-19 at this point in the pandemic. There’s a narrative that only “bad” people get the virus — anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, irresponsible jerks who put momentary fun above their own health and that of their community. I’ve been reluctant to talk about it with people, because I don’t want to be judged. I don’t want to be on the other side of the us vs. them divide around COVID-19; the irresponsible side, the thoughtless side.

I wish I could say that it was only a matter of time; that Omicron and the Nth wave we’re in made it impossible to avoid. But we’ve had 913K reported cases here Quebec, in a population of 8.45M people, which is about 11% of the population. Even if you think that the real numbers of cases are double or triple that, it still means that about 1/4 to 1/3 of people here have gotten the virus. We are still in the bottom quartile of performers in the crucial task of avoiding COVID-19. We get an F in pandemic.

Weirdly, it also feels bad that we tried so hard. We missed out on so much in the last couple of years; travel, connection, friendships for adults, friendships for kids. We said no out of caution, and now it feels like all that was for nothing.

This all sounds really self-critical, I know. I’m really proud of my family and the hard choices we’ve made during this time. I’m proud of how responsible my kids have been. I was so proud the day they got their vaccines, the way they’ve gotten used to masking and distancing. I’m proud of my wife for staying so well-informed, keeping everyone’s spirits up, making tough choices.

I think if there’s anything to feel happy about, it’s that we stretched it out for a while. We didn’t get COVID-19 until after everyone was vaccinated, meaning all our cases have been relatively mild. We didn’t burden the healthcare system. We didn’t, as far as we know, spread it outside our family. We could have done a worse job.

Anyway, if you’re looking for the comforting silver bullet in the story about why my family got COVID-19 and yours won’t, I don’t know what to tell you. I mean, you’re right, of course. Obviously there’s something, but we don’t know what it is.

COVID-19 House

Having COVID-19 in the house has been a tough experience. At first, because we were trying to prevent transmission between family members, we spent most of our time in our private bedrooms or offices, and we wore masks in our common areas like the living room and the kitchen. Meals were solo, plus the things that we usually do together for mental health like exercise and TV and board games and reading and fireplace time.

Separating people who are symptomatic and tested positive from people who test negative and are asymptomatic has helped a lot. Now, me and COVID-positive daughter get to hang out and watch movies in the evening over supper. Post-COVID wife and never-COVID son are having a grand old time in a separate house. That’s a luxury I’m grateful for.

Physically, it’s been hard but manageable. Everyone got a fever, chills, headaches, cough and sore throat, but everyone was able to take care of their own physical needs, make meals, etc. We’re all taking naps and getting rest, dressing warm, taking Advil. You know: we’re sick.

The tech

I had a little disappointment in the technology part of testing positive.

One thing that surprised me about using the rapid antigen tests was that they’re not actually very effective if you don’t have COVID-19 symptoms. They’re best at telling you, yes, the cough or sore throat you have are because of the virus. They’re not actually great for telling when you’re done, or if you’ve got the virus and you’re asymptomatic. I think we had been using the tests as a preventative measure before meeting people or going to school. And they’re just not made for that.

We weren’t able to get a follow-up PCR test; those are now reserved for people in high-risk groups in Quebec. But I was able to report our positive home tests for data tracking. So the little blip in cases last week on the Quebec COVID-19 data site is me. Finally, made it to the big time!

The thing that really bugged me about the reporting aspect is that, when you report a positive home test, you can’t also report it to the contact-tracing COVIDAlert app. COVIDAlert is the app that tracks the Bluetooth signals of other people’s phones around you, so that when you report a virus infection, those people can get automatically notified. The fact that you can’t use it for home tests, and that most people in Quebec can only get home tests now, means it’s not really a useful tool.

But I think that has probably been the case for a while. There have only been 57,704 positive reports to COVID Alert since the program started in July 2020. With 3.25M cases in Canada, that’s a pretty abysmal participation rate. And there were a lot of app installs; almost 7M, in a population of 38M. If catching asymptomatic people early and getting them isolated stops infection, it’s hard not to see this as a wasted opportunity.

But I digress.

We had enough masks and enough tests to make isolation within the house possible. If there was anything I wish we could have had when we were trying to isolate between people in the family, it would be a home air purifier. Letting a COVID-19 positive person use the kitchen or the bathroom and then running an air purifier to clear out any viruses would have been nice. If you don’t have one already, and you’re thinking about getting COVID-19, I’d recommend getting one.

What’s next

This week, I’m doing a little work but mostly resting. Hopefully by next week — spring break for our kids — we’ll be all symptom-free and in the clear.

I think we’re going to take things easy, but as Quebec opens up its economy, it’s hard to imagine that we won’t be participating a little more than we would have before getting COVID. Those of us in the family who’ve been through it are immune for at least a couple of months, and some studies show vaccination plus breakthrough infection gives a kind of “super immunity”. Of course, that’s just until the next Greek-letter variant emerges or whatever other curveball SaRS-CoV-2 decides to throw at us next.

We’re going to follow the rules, and we’re probably going to be more strict than the rules, but we might not be much, much more strict. There are a few events, like the Nuit Blanche, that we would normally skip, but now we’re thinking about going.

And we’ve put off travel to see family and friends in California for too long. This seems like the right chance to go. We’ll never be more immune, and we’ll never be less likely to get people we care about sick.

2 thoughts on “I Lost The Game

  1. Sending you good vibes hoping you get through this in a breeze. Don’t be too hard on yourself for catching it. I caught it as well before the holidays (no symptoms but did a rapid test just before the Christmas family dinner and it came out positive) and also felt that feeling of having failed at avoiding it. Luckily, I’ve succeeded at not propagating it further (as far as I know). That’s a win, right? Focus on that part and you won’t “get an F in pandemic”. Prompt rĂ©tablissement my friend!

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