I spent months strictly isolating before I tested positive for the coronavirus in June, when I was 19 weeks pregnant.
Since then, I've struggled to understand the mystery of my infection.
I now count myself among the fortunate survivors of this virus, but I feel little lasting relief.
I really believed that with enough disinfectant and social isolation, I could avoid the coronavirus.
So for months, I stayed away from people, washed my hands constantly, and wiped down everything in sight. Countless times I sat on my porch with neon yellow gloves pulled up to my elbows, and systematically unboxed, unbagged, and disinfected groceries and packages before I carried them across the threshold of my front door into my heavily sanitized home. Once inside, I would scrub my fresh produce in soapy water, then rinse it clean.
During this time, I rarely left my house. When I ventured outside for a doctor's appointment or to pick up groceries curbside, I wore my mask. I never stepped foot inside a store or a restaurant.
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My husband, 2-year-old son, and I were exposed to only three other people regularly for the purposes of child care. These people were all taking similar precautions against the virus, and none were the source of my infection (they all later tested negative).
I developed these strict quarantine systems because I was terrified of the virus. I found out I was pregnant at the start of the pandemic and at that time — as unfortunately remains the case today — doctors had little knowledge concerning the effects of the virus on fetuses and pregnancy.
But I had read enough horrifying anecdotal stories of premature births in COVID-infected mothers, women being separated from their infants at birth to avoid infection, and signs of the virus crossing or damaging the placenta to make me very, very worried.
Then I got a positive COVID test.
I woke one morning in June with a headache and sinus pain and went to a doctor. I was diagnosed with a sinus infection and prescribed an antibiotic. I inquired about COVID, and the doctor said that there was almost no chance I had the virus.
Infection rates were relatively low in my area of Virginia, and I had no known exposure to anyone feeling ill. The doctor said she had seen only one positive case in the previous two weeks of testing patients. Besides, I still had my sense of smell and taste, and I had no cough or high fever, which are among the most common symptoms of the virus, she said.
I asked for a COVID test anyway out of an abundance of caution.
Two days later, my husband got a severe headache and mild fever. He visited the same doctor and was also told that COVID was highly unlikely to be the cause of his symptoms. We felt reassured by the doctor's certainty that whatever we had was not the coronavirus.
Then, five full days after getting tested for the coronavirus, my results came back positive.
We were stunned by the results. The following hours and days were a blur of terror, anxiety, and utter confusion.
By then, I had spent months consumed by COVID news for my work as a journalist. What had become my biggest fear over those months had quietly breached all my defenses and infected us, and was potentially harming my unborn child.
From my research, I knew that if my blood oxygen levels dropped — a common issue in severe cases of COVID — my baby would be in grave danger. He relies on oxygen in my blood to survive, and even a couple hours of low oxygen can cause serious problems.
It was hardly reassuring that my symptoms had so far been somewhat mild. COVID is wildly unpredictable and frequently patients can start to feel better before ending up hospitalized on breathing machines. Some patients have even suffered "silent hypoxia," meaning their blood-oxygen levels have dropped to dangerous levels without them knowing.
These fears gripped me all day and night, as I compulsively checked my oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter. At the same time, I was trying to safely care for my active toddler and shield from him the debilitating fatigue and panic attacks that struck me without warning.
Throughout the illness, I was also tortured by the possibility that we could have infected the three people whom we regularly saw for childcare. Fortunately, that fear faded after we found out — following a week-long wait for results — that they all tested negative.
Another moment of solace came when I could finally get an ultrasound of my baby, where I learned that he appeared to be developing on track. My appointment was delayed three times after my 14-day COVID quarantine ended, as my doctors — who had not yet dealt with a COVID-positive patient at my stage of pregnancy — struggled to decide on when they would feel comfortable seeing me. This wait was excruciating.
My husband and I now count ourselves among the fortunate survivors of this virus, but we feel little lasting relief. There are still many unknowns regarding whether we will face long-term impacts, and I'm already fearing reinfection given recent news about the short life span of COVID antibodies that provide immunity. I also recently learned that a baby who was infected with the coronavirus in the womb was born with inflammation in his brain. I am haunted by how little I actually know about how this virus will affect my unborn child.
But I hope our story serves as a stark reminder to never overlook mild symptoms or believe that you don't pose a threat to others because you've been vigilant. Research shows this virus can impact all our major organs and we know it can kill. But even if you survive — even if you have no symptoms at all — scientists simply don't have enough data to know whether the damage it inflicts will be permanent.
What's certain is that the mystery of our infection source will never be solved.
Did an infected runner exhale on me while I was out on a walk? Did we contract it through surface contamination from the mail — which experts have deemed an unlikely source of infection?
We'll never know.
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