A buzzing, churning, roiling, banging, grinding machine has been just outside my door for fifteen months. Inside the house, I hear it less, but I know it’s there, and even there all I have to do is open my computer or pick up my phone to hear other people’s reports, see the numbers. How much destruction is there? How many machines? How many lives disrupted? How loud is the noise in other parts of my neighborhood, the city, the country, the world? How many farewells? How many funerals?
“Your test results will be back in less than 30 minutes”, they tell me at the SAPU, a kind of community emergency room about 3 miles from my apartment in Santiago, Chile. I have come here after a few days of progressively worsening symptoms, despite much isolation, despite consistent and aggressive masking, despite all the handwashing and no hugs since March of 2020 and never going inside with anyone unless it was for medical or dental care and despite not taking off my mask even to sit on a bench outside to drink a cup of coffee and having nearly everyone I know tell me that I am the person they know that has observed the strictest protocols since the very beginning.
The SAPU nurse who has invasively swabbed my nose (both nostrils, while I breathe only through my masked mouth, which is harder than it sounds) for the antigen test turns to the alcove where the tests are set out on a table. She names two patients who need to be told they are negative, and turns to me and says, “Eileen, you’re positive.” Thirty minutes turns to two and my test line glows pink. Positive.
And the world goes silent. The crunching maw of anxiety that has been buzzing in my head and out my window and every time I go outside, that swelled to near bursting as I waited in line to get the first and then the second of the vaccines that would keep me safe, keep my neighbors safe, keep the population at large safe. All the noise stops.
I am guided to an examination room where I chat through my K95 plus surgical mask and listen through the doctor’s K95 plus surgical mask plus visor as we talk about how I have managed to get COVID despite all of my best efforts and being double vaccinated, and how no, I have not had contacto estrecho (close contact) with anyone in the days before my symptoms started. In fact, I have not seen anyone at all in days and days, unless we count when I biked to the feria and picked up some vegetables. And we were all masked and outside and it was very brief, so that doesn’t count, and I’m glad for anyone I might have spoken to. And I’m also glad I went to the feria because I’m about to start a longer stint in my house than I ever have before without leaving, and it’s good to have fruit and vegetables in that case, even if I’m not particularly hungry as I’m hearing this news.
We kibbitz, the doctor and I, about the vaccines and how they work and how well they work, and how we both got Sinovac, the dead virus vaccine, which Chile (where we are) obtained in great supply, and the obtaining of which is what allowed our cohorts to even be vaccinated. If we’d all waited for the MRNA vaccine, he points out, the two of us would likely still be waiting. At this point (last Tuesday) I am two vaccines and about six weeks vaccinated, yet wholly positive. And I find myself trying to breathe in and out in small sips because I know I am a walking virus bomb and I do not want to give the doctor COVID. But when he listens to various parts of my lungs, I have to inhale and exhale deeply. He declares my lungs limpiecitos (clear) and sends me home with my discharge papers, which is two slips of paper, one which says positive and one which lists my symptoms, congestion, achiness, tightness in the chest, intermittent fever, headache (nausea and dizziness and loss of taste and smell are yet to come at this point) and the medical instructions, which are to STF-at-home and take Tylenol a few times a day for 4 days.
I bike home, woozy and feverish, and lock up my bike downstairs, bidding a silent, tight-lipped farewell to outside, panting up the stairs and coming inside to take off my masks and ponder the new meaning of life now that I am back to the regular, back-inside-hand-washing as opposed to the plague-level handwashing. I cannot mask my way out of Covid. I cannot wash my hands out of Covid. I am Covid. It is in me, plowing through my blood vessels and inhabiting my organs and picking and choosing where to go and what to do (disclaimer, I don’t know how viruses work, infecting my cells? changing my mitochondria? No idea). It is completely out of my control, despite the cornucopia of remedies and vitamins I swill, pretty much everything except Tylenol, which I’ve never really been a fan of, though a temple-to-temple headache that seems to be just under the front of my skull sends me for Aleve and a bucket to throw up in, should it come to that on that day of really bad symptoms.
Just like that, positive and paperwork and clicking the door behind me, and the anxiety machine turns off, and I am peaceful. Sure, I am concerned about the cytokine storm, which as a person with asthma I am more likely to get. I am concerned about mast cell activation syndrome, because as a person with histamine intolerance it might be something I already have, and it could get worse. And I’m worried it could get lung-y or that I could get long Covid but all of this feels faint and in dappled light, a soft focus of far away as I sink into bed and start messaging friends, concentric circles of people that already knew I was sick and those who would want to or need to know and those whose reactions I can deal with right now, before drifting into a feverish sleep with a blood pressure that is almost double my normal pressure and a tachycardic pulse that goes beep-beep-beep-beep when I take it, rather than my normal pottering beep… beep… beep.
I sleep and bumble and check in with myself, check my vitals. Tell a client I cannot make an online meeting a few days’ hence. Early in the pandemic I bought a pulse oximeter. The thermometer I had taken on a weird whim when we were cleaning out my mother’s house after she died in November 2019. It seemed practical more than anything. And in brief moments when I felt the kind of sorry for myself only illness can bring, I sort of imagined her cool hand on my head when I was a child, and also the taste of green Jello scooped from the yellow bowls of my childhood home.
But the Jello would have tasted like nothing because on day 6 after the symptoms started, I am brushing my teeth one evening when I realize that though I have chemesthesis, the feeling of freshness (or other chemical response) on my tongue and cheeks and gums, I cannot taste my toothpaste. I open the very perfumed handwash I have at the bathroom sink, take a deep inhale and find there is only the slightest whisper of smell left. By 4:30 in the morning when I wake up to pee, my sense of smell is totally gone.
And yet, I am not worried. Not worried despite the fact that food is one of my great pleasures, and a cookbook is one of my great accomplishments. Not worried even though I write about food, cook food, Instagram food, enjoy food as part of work and free time. Not worried because I have reinvented myself before (see: histamine intolerance) and I can do it again. Not worried because it seems a bit like my worrier is gone, has shuffled off hand in hand with that anxiety machine to places unknown. And every day I’m getting better. On day seven I could listen to a 30 minute podcast and on day 8 I could read some pages in a book. On day 9 I opened one of my puzzle boxes, and sorted a few pieces before I wandered off, disinterested. Healing is likely and probable. And with the groaning crush of anxiety somehow absent there is room for me to just be. So much of the pandemic has been living in the past and in the future. But for these days, it looks like the four walls of my apartment and the present is where you will find me.
In the mornings I am good, spry even. Every afternoon around 3:30 I crash, sometimes feverish, sometimes not, very sleepy, often dizzy. Even when I feel well, I have vertigo if I stand up, and sometimes even while sitting down. In the afternoon I have to take a nap, and in the late evening I feel pretty unable to think, and before writing this it had been a week or more since I’d written anything more than an Instagram or Facebook post, but here I am and this too is a sign of getting better, and certainly this mild Covid is giving my body and brain a run for its money but there is no reason to think I will not one day be mostly who I was before, and I’m so very lucky and pleased about that. I am quite confident that without the vaccine my body would have had to fight much harder, and I have no idea how that would have turned out. But I’m on day 10 since the first symptoms, and I am addled in the brain and dizzy on my feet, and I am so very lucky.
So many people have suffered, are suffering, will suffer. My case is mild. I was double vaxxed with Sinovac, and I could easily isolate so I could not have given Covid to anyone else and I am so thankful. I have another friend that’s a few weeks before me in Covidland but she was not yet vaccinated, and there are a million variables, but she’s still coughing and weak and I’m dizzy but otherwise ok, it seems. As an aside, I highly recommend getting a Covid buddy. They will remind you it’s ok to sit and do nothing, even if people in the United States are going to the state fair and sports events and sitting in beer gardens and visiting their parents. We are not at that phase in Chile and likely won’t be for a long time. Also, I’m not allowed to go outside for eleven days and have I mentioned the vertigo? I’m doling out the apples so they last even as I want to eat all of them at once because I believe I can taste them, even as evidence points to the contrary.
So the anxiety is gone, but everything is still up in the air. I still don’t know what’s going to happen in the world or in Chile (where vaccinations are rising, but cases are holding steady and/or rising depending on the day). I don’t know how people will pick up and move on even amid so much loss. I don’t know if or when it will make sense for me to travel to visit my family (it has been 18 months since I snagged that thermometer), and the borders here are mostly closed, though there are some exceptions.
I don’t know when I might see the ocean, or be able to really smell something that I cook or eat or encounter. I hope that somehow I will not consume accidentally anything spoiled, despite the lack of sense of smell (looking at you, milk that goes in the coffee) and I keep on finding partially-eaten plates and bowls of food around as it turns out taste is part of why one eats. I still haven’t had a hug or sat in a room with someone or laughed with my face out in the world. And I still don’t know when any of that will change.
A friend asked me if I was pissed because I’ve been so careful for the past 15 months, and yet I got Covid anyway. The answer is absolutely not. I had been double vaccinated plus a month before I tested positive, and it was really only the last two weeks after the two vaxes plus two weeks that might have seemed extra cautious. Except that they don’t, because these precautions I took, they were not just for me, but also for everyone around me, and to the best of my knowledge this infection did and will stop with me. Also, these “breakthrough infections” tend to be much milder than unvaccinated infections. I will happily continue to take precautions to keep you from getting what I got, or getting something way worse than what I got because your body didn’t build immunity from the vaccine or you weren’t able to take it. I’m so glad I had the protection I did have, and didn’t meet the virus in a strong enough form to get infected until after I’d been double vaccinated. Go infección irruptiva! I mean, if you ‘re going to get one, it’s the one you want.
Also, and maybe strangely, although the vertigo and general reduction of the olfactory-gustatory senses are most unpleasant, I feel somehow like they are related to the reduction in anxiety. And though I wouldn’t wish a Covid infection on anyone, I’m enjoying the floaty feeling of not being in a flat panic for the first time since early March, 2020. The silence is kind of beautiful. I still worry very much for Chile, and especially for India and Brazil and many other countries where infections are on the rise and vaccinations are few and far between. I wish we could have come together as a global community to stop Covid before it got to where we are now. I wish you a million happy reunions and I feel deeply for you for the empty seats at your table, on your team, in your concert hall.
I pondered writing this, as nearly 175 million people in the world have reportedly tested positive for Covid, with probably way more than that actually being positive. What is one more story of Covid? My grandfather lived through the 1918 influenza pandemic and never mentioned it to us, and we never thought to ask. Maybe the next next generation will read some of our missives and get a better idea of what we thought of this madness, or how to proceed. I certainly hope they are not doomed to repeat it. Also speaking of doomed, please note that because Sinovac is 67% effective in preventing symptomatic Covid, the masklessness you see in the United States is still not the order of the day here in Chile. We still need more more, easier, free testing and better contact tracing, and to stay masked up and following or exceeding all the precautions. Yes, I’m saying it, just because it’s open doesn’t mean it’s a good time to go, looking at you Fantasilandia and indoor malls.
Before I end this, let me say I hope you are doing well, and getting enough to eat and enough hugs if they are possible and enough respites from however Covid anxiety affects you. I feel a whisper of something just around the corner, and I can’t tell if it’s the excitement that soon the Seremi de Salud (the front facing part of the health department) will call me and release me from my home, or if maybe it’s the anticipation of the return of my much-missed sense of smell. I’m sure both are imminent.