Normally, I spend the week reading and reporting in preparation of writing my newsletter. But I spent last week convalescing, so this week’s Galaxy Brain is about that experience.
It feels crass to say, but the moment the little red line appeared—and it appeared immediately—on my at-home COVID-19 test, I felt an unexpected sense of relief (immediately followed by dread). I’d spent the last two and a half years learning about the novel coronavirus. I’d seen friends and family and coworkers contract it. I’d watched from afar, in terror, as millions died from it and put themselves in harm’s way to care for others. I’d masked and vaccinated and taken precautions—but also largely reentered society with an expectation that, eventually, the virus would find me. I had all kinds of close calls and potential exposure events. But I somehow evaded it, and felt almost guilty.
So when the red line showed up (after I developed a very sore throat), it was expected but surreal. This horrible pandemic has always felt very real to me, but the core of it—getting sick—had been an abstraction. Feeling my body’s immune system kick in and seeing the red line appear was sobering. I don’t mean to say that I wanted to get sick. But it feels momentous when the thing you’ve been preparing for for years happens to you. It’s unnerving but also oddly grounding to add your name to a list that is 87 million Americans long (and that’s a drastic undercount).
I consider myself extremely lucky to have a healthy immune system, three vaccine shots, and the flexibility to get sick and not jeopardize my employment. But it sucked. I don’t have any way to prove it, but I believe I got the reportedly now-dominant variant of Omicron, BA.5, which, according to one account, is ”the worst version of the virus that we’ve seen.” I was certainly the sickest I’ve been in more than a decade; it was a couple days of bad flu symptoms, followed by a relentless, bone-deep fatigue. I consider myself very fortunate, but this was not the “light sniffles” version of the virus I’d heard so much about.
But what surprised me most about this illness—despite mentally prepping for it for years—was how I developed a peculiar obsession with rapid tests. In a moment where I had to give up any notion of control and let the virus run its course, the tests were my only way to orient myself to this illness. Testing myself became the only real “event” in a string of days that otherwise blurred together. Partway through, I started looking forward to each morning’s test and I had to stop myself from testing multiple times each day. Looking back, I realize that this odd behavior was likely because I was more scared, confused, and frustrated by my mild bout with the virus than I thought I would be. Here’s how it went for me.
On day four—the first day my condition slightly improved—I tested for the first time since day zero. Within seconds of the first drop hitting the test strip, an unmistakable pink stripe took form. As the rosy bloom darkened and deepened and thickened, and before my virus-laden sample had reached the “control” portion of the test strip, I began to feel like I was not only still infected—but that I was radioactive. The phrase “shedding live virus” echoed in my head, which in turn conjured images of my dogs, fresh from a swim, shaking off their coats in the sun, casting off beads of water in glorious arcs of moisture. I took a four-hour nap.
Day five. As someone with a resilient immune system—and as an adult baby—I was unaccustomed to, and deeply irritated by, spending this much time in the basement. I started to pride myself on being able to assemble and execute a rapid test with maximum speed and efficiency. The red line was instant and unmistakable.
By day six, the rapid testing had assumed the form of a grim Groundhog Day ritual. I spent a dazed hour wondering what the QR code on the side of the test strip did (my phone did not recognize it). The dark red line was appearing more slowly now, but the delay was just a cruel tease. Day seven was especially rude: A very faint line stayed that way for six minutes before turning dark again.
Around this day I realized my relationship to the iHealth at-home COVID-19 test was growing … unhealthy. A sure sign that you have hardly left an 8-by-10-foot bedroom is that you’ve developed an affinity for a specific brand of antigen test, and feel a pang of frustration at having to switch, say, from iHealth to Acon Flowflex. It’s a totally different line system, which could jeopardize the continuity of my results is not a thought I’m proud to report entered my mind in the last week.
On day nine, the line took a good two minutes to appear, and when it did, it was weak and splotchy. I’d like to be clear that I do not believe that being sick with the novel coronavirus is a failing in any sense for anyone, including myself. But I had a very difficult time convincing my lizard brain that the dulled, craggy pink line I saw was anything other than a profound triumph of good over evil.
Day 10. I dressed up to test (well, I arose and put on real human clothes for the first time in too long) with the intent of at last shedding my N95 and greeting the world again. Swab. Dip. Drop. Wait. This time I was certain. Five minutes passed. Then 10. Nothing. Until. In a 12th-minute buzzer beater, the thinnest, most obstinate pink hue emanated from the strip to crush my dreams. It was spectral, hardly even real. The Ghost of Infections Past. It would not be long.
I am not proud of the sound that I made seven hours later when, at last, a chromatographic immunoassay for the qualitative detection of specific antigens of SARS-CoV-2 present in the human nasopharynx detected no trace of specific antigens of SARS-CoV-2.
I only mean to make light of my own experience here. Due to innumerable failings of our government and other institutions, we’re still stuck with a virus that continues to circulate, mutate, hurt people, and upend lives. That suffering has never been evenly distributed, and any punch-drunk, flippant silliness I feel as a result of getting better is little more than disguised gratitude for my health. And still, those 10 days were more lonely, isolating, and unnerving than I’d anticipated.
I spent a fair amount of time last week messaging with other people who were also laid up with the virus. We all agreed that having COVID during this phase of the pandemic was a bizarre experience. So much of our culture and government’s current pandemic response is to downplay and normalize infections. Testing and surveillance are deemphasized to the point that we only have a partial picture of the virus’ current footprint across the country. More than 30 months in, it feels like we’re all mostly left to handle COVID on our own—something I felt even more acutely once I got sick. My irrational obsession with rapid-testing myself felt like the only available and responsible way to reclaim a small bit of agency in the moment.
Navigating these little red lines is now an unfortunate part of our lives. The experience of watching mine fade over the last week has been exhausting, dispiriting, and exhilarating. It was, for me at least, a real-time look at my body executing the small miracle of fighting off a foreign invader step by step. As frustrated as I am with our unequal and depleted pandemic response, I am currently grateful for so much—for science, vaccines, and tests, among other things. I’m grateful for the slow progress of getting better and for the small, but no longer taken-for-granted, pleasure of only one little red line.