I Caught COVID-19, and That's Okay
After 18 months of living through and covering the COVID-19 pandemic, I finally caught the disease that's changed the world as we know it. And that's okay.
How can I be so calm about contracting COVID-19, a disease that how now killed more than 4.6 million people worldwide? Because I was ready for it. I maintain a healthy weight, I exercise, I eat a balanced, varied diet, I sleep pretty well, and – most importantly – I am fully vaccinated.
Thus, my symptoms, which started last Friday, have been relatively mild. I was extremely congested. My nose ran. My nostrils incessantly stung. For a time, I had the slightest fever. I coughed a bit. I sneezed a lot. My head and back occasionally ached. And, most annoyingly, I fell victim to COVID-19's signature sign: an almost complete loss of taste and smell. Most of my symptoms have already subsided, although my taste has yet to return. Studies suggest that the vast majority of COVID sufferers regain it within 30 days.
How would I describe my bout of COVID-19? Overall, it is a bad cold. I've certainly been sicker.
How did I contract COVID-19? It wasn't from working out at the gym, nor from going to the movies, nor even from attending weddings or other packed gatherings. No, it was from a family vacation of fully-vaccinated individuals, staying in a rental house on the outskirts of a national park. One relative came with what she mistook for a very minor cold. It wasn't. Six others, including myself, have since tested positive. We are all quarantining and doing fine.
My vaccine "breakthrough infection" adds another data point to the hundreds of thousands already documented. Studies conducted so far suggest that infections in vaccinated people are much rarer and far milder than infections experienced by unvaccinated individuals. Symptomatic illness duration is shortened by roughly half, and sickened individuals report vastly fewer incidences of fever and persistent cough. There also appears to be fewer instances of "Long COVID," a condition which, while real, has been overly sensationlized by the media. As researchers from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health wrote, "Most infectious diseases with severe symptoms will to some extent be accompanied by long-term effects. Most infectious diseases with mild symptoms will cause few short-term effects." In other words, persisting symptoms aren't unique to COVID-19.
Being sick is no fun, of course, but it's a risk we've accepted for other common respiratory viruses, and it's one we will have to accept for COVID-19 going forward. When no longer infectious, I look forward to attending packed concerts, raucous sporting events, and crowded movie theaters, with a COVID-ready immune system bolstered by both vaccination and infection, which seem to produce equally robust immunity.
Those sorts of activities might not be to others' taste, but Americans in general should feel safe carrying out their pre-pandemic lives. Almost 179 million Americans are now fully vaccinated. As of September 7th, 2,182 vaccinated individuals have died from COVID-19, 87% of them over the age of 65.* Let's put that risk in perspective. If we conservatively assume that all of those deaths occurred over the past three months, primarily during the ascension of the nefarious Delta variant, the death rate for vaccinated individuals is about 1 in 80,000 over that time. Stratifying by age, the risk to those over age 65 is 1 in 20,000. For individuals aged 12-65, it's 1 in 400,000. Over that same three months, 1 out of every 2,000 Americans died of heart disease, 1 out of every 34,000 Americans died in a car crash, and 1 out of every 36,630 Americans died from the seasonal flu (if seasonal flu deaths were spread evenly each month). So vaccinated individuals are currently about twice as likely to die from a car crash and the seasonal flu than from COVID-19! When Delta wanes, the risk from COVID to unvaccinated individuals will fall even further.
On the other hand, 1 out of every 2,700 Americans who aren't fully vaccinated have died from COVID-19 over the past three months! Their risk will remain greatly elevated compared to vaccinated individuals.*
Though it might be hard to believe at times, the pandemic will eventually cool to an endemic phase, in which the coronavirus will circulate as a seasonal flu-like malady or persist as another cause of the common cold. And we will have to learn to live with it, accepting the fact that infection will likely come for all of us someday, rather than relying on onerous restrictions and closures to avoid it indefinitely. Safe and highly-effective vaccines are the answer, granting us all the license to live our lives normally. At the same time, they don't do away with one's responsibility not to spread the coronavirus – or for that matter, any contagious illness – once infected. If you're sick, stay home or be outside well away from other people. If you need to venture out to perform essential chores, wear a mask. These actions constitute common courtesy to your fellow citizens. You aren't entitled to knowingly spread your infectious disease.
There are lessons to be learned from this pandemic, some political, but others simple: Heed scientists, not hucksters. Be courteous to your fellow human beings. And, as ever, take advantage of safe and effective vaccines, not just against COVID-19, but against the seasonal flu, and every other illness for which immunizations are recommended.
*Passages updated 9/15 to include new data, correct the death rate for unvaccinated individuals, and add clarity.