I had COVID-19. Or did I?
Uncertainty among those who have recovered leaves us all stuck at home
JUST OVER TWO weeks ago, I scrambled first for the medicine cabinet, and then for bed. After an ugly 15-round bout with the illness, I’m feeling much better. I had … well, I had something, but don’t know for sure what it was.
I had something that shared the symptoms of COVID-19: sore throat, fever, chills, fatigue, dry cough, congestion, and even pink eye. Now that I’ve emptied the medicine cabinet trying to fight the symptoms, and tried every home remedy YouTube served up, I’m still not completely sure what it was, and I don’t know if I ever will be. That’s because, despite my best efforts, I’m one of the other statistics, the ones who couldn’t get tested.
Having whatever I had also turns out to be the secret handshake for a rapidly growing underground society of people and families who have had the symptoms but still don’t know their actual diagnoses. Some thought they had COVID-19 but couldn’t get tested. Others had whatever it was weeks ago, before symptoms were well known. Now, they are looking back to that nasty nearly-but-not-quite-flu-like illness they had a while back that now sounds suspiciously like COVID-19.
Now, we’re back to healthy, and ready to help. The closest thing to a scientific consensus at this point is that those who recover from COVID-19 have immunity against reinfection — at least for some period of time. If so, we can serve our community without worrying about new infections. We can go to the store, buy things, sell things, go to work, check on our parents, care for the children, help out the homebound neighbors, and cavalierly touch our faces just because our nose itches.
That may be changing, but the pace is frustratingly slow. There are tests beginning to appear in the United States which can detect antibodies that show past coronavirus infection, but they are not yet broadly available and the news so far is about approval of new tests rather than rolling them out to the public. Germany is planning large scale testing and is even planning to issue “immunity certificates.”
While people in Germany who have recovered can help to restart their economy, here in the US, we’re still glued to the couch watching “Tiger King.” The safest response here is still to treat everyone like a potential threat, and a potential victim. Everyone has to take the most draconian possible steps toward isolation, rather than figuring out who is a danger, who is in danger, and who is neither. This means all of the promise that newly immune people might have cannot be realized.
Test rationing also means those charts you’ve seen of coronavirus’s reach are almost certainly wrong in important ways. We know official figures are undercounting people who are infected today. But it seems likely they are also way off on how many people were infected in past periods as well. This means we don’t know what kind of growth trajectory we are actually on.So can I help? Can I go out of the house? Can the others who have been baptized in feverish fire into the society of the undiagnosed pandemic survivors? Or should we all just sit here and wait?
Steve Koczela is president of the MassINC Polling Group.