I HAD BREAKTHROUGH COVID, AND YOU CAN TOO — I was 20 months into covering the pandemic, yet when I started showing symptoms I was in denial. “Probably just a bad cold!” I texted friends as I sat on the floor with ginger ale because I was dizzy but too tired to get to the couch.
I don’t know whom I persuaded. (It wasn’t them.) I had already started isolating as I waited for definitive test results, sparked by breakthrough cases among friends I had seen five days earlier. So there were plenty of reasons I shouldn’t have been surprised when my test came back positive, and not all of them were my symptoms.
I’m lucky that I can count on one hand the number of Covid-19 cases among my family and friends before this August. I’d need three hands now. The Delta variant has played a major role, but so has our return to schools, restaurants, weddings and a near-sense of normal. I all but certainly got it because I had friends over for dinner.
It’s not a moral failing or mistake to get Covid-19, just an increasingly likely event as our return to normal collides with a patchwork of vaccination rates and booster shots. As I write this, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced she’s lifting the city’s indoor mask mandate on Monday. Even so, a mere fraction of young children newly eligible for Covid shots have received their first dose. Booster shots are not yet broadly available. And winter is coming.
Breakthroughs are more common than we know. There is an increasingly poor picture of what breakthrough risk and sickness itself looks like, garbled both by the lack of current federal data and how people simply handle their cases.
At-home tests, for instance, are a double-edged sword: convenient and essential as breakthrough cases rise, but not automatically shared with public health authorities. Most people aren’t thinking about the need for clear data when they see the little red lines.
And how many people know the best way to do it? The instructions with most at-home tests tell you to inform your health provider. That’s an immediate roadblock for the more than one-quarter of Americans who don’t have a primary care physician.
Even data the public can see from providers and testing centers are outdated. The CDC hasn’t updated its data on breakthrough cases of Covid-19 for two months, as Sophie Putka recently wrote in medical news outlet MedPage Today. CDC also tracks only severe cases like those that require hospitalization, which are still extremely rare.
Breakthrough infections with the Delta variant often start with symptoms that people haven’t associated with Covid-19 before — sneezing and runny noses that are easy to attribute to allergies or colds instead, as I did when my sneezing began.
I will admit that I was surprised by how my infection hit me. I’m testing negative now, but still have a bad cough and fatigue. My sense of smell is making up new rules every day. My longtime perfume now smells like grass. Other scents simply aren’t back.
Yet the worst of it was over in days, and throughout this experience I’ve had the means, job and community to get through my illness and sneak naps when I can. I also am all but assured that I’ll spend the holidays Covid-free, while that risk still looms large for millions of people weighing travel and seeing loved ones after nearly two years of Covid precautions.
This experience has underscored the bleak reality that we’ll be living with those concerns for another season. You still could get Covid-19 — though it is unlikely to be severe — if you are following all the government recommendations when it happens. But we’re also in a new era of coronavirus treatments, on the edge of broader booster dosing and finally making testing more accessible. With boosted immunizations, quickly caught cases and readily available pills, in a few months, for vaccinated people, Covid-19 really could be just like a bad cold.