The completely true and very accurate story of my NYC Covid Christmas.
Our story begins with a Lithuanian Christmas Eve.
A week before Christmas, my cousin, who always hosts Lithuanian Christmas Eve (12 dishes all fishes, artsy bread breaking, pink salad, poppy seed milk and other soporifics…) informs me that she is still having the event, but that four attendees are anti-vax and will be driving up from out of state.
We rescheduled to do a gift exchange on Dec 19th: just her, her adult daughters and her husband.
She arrived that day alone with worse news: her adult daughter had Covid (or “the Covid” as she called it) and her other daughter’s live-in boyfriend also was very sick, while her husband was isolating upstate. The daughter living with the Covid-positive boyfriend had repeatedly tested negative.
Covid plays by no rules.
I handed her a large bag filled with gifts for all of them. We hugged, sorry we would miss each other for Christmas Eve. I quickly invited some close friends to take part in the Lithuanian traditions at our place. Living nearby, they agreed. Just the two groups of four — theirs and ours. Seemed safe.
Remember, we live in the center of spiking Omicron. My immediate circle embraces science; we accept that it is imperfect. We read articles, listen to podcasts, try to sort through the inconsistencies, expect breakthrough infections. In short: we are clear-eyed and adaptable. We are survivors.
We arrive at friends’ homes, restaurants and cafes wearing masks and everyone gladly reveals their immunization/booster status before entering. We are up front and amicable. If we are to socialize with people who are not boosted or who might be vulnerable, we opt for outdoor cafes and restaurants (of which Manhattan has thousands, most with good ventilation, heat lamps and fairy lights, some even have heated seats!) or masked walks. In short: we trust science and use our own best judgement.
On December 22nd, around 6pm, I noticed I felt a little..I dunno…like I might be coming down with something, maybe. Or rather, that’s how I would have diagnosed it in 2015. Because this was 2021, and Omicron was on the rise, and I live in a tight Manhattan apartment with fewer doors than people, I thought to myself, dang. Better get tested. Took my temperature that night: 97.8, and really I felt fine.
But the next day, just in case, I spent the morning reducing my annual Christmas gathering from its usual 30+ people to a reasonable 5 (just Nana, our 2 lovely neighbors from across the hall, and a newly-divorced friend with his teen daughter). Emails were sent, invitations were accepted. Everyone responded with windows of time they would arrive (Nana at 1, the neighbors at 5, the guy & his daughter around 3…) and it all seemed very manageable with masks and open windows and a buffet you could stand six feet from and nosh….and I remembered to get that Covid test.
I got on line around 4pm. Waited two hours in the cold, fingers shaking and going numb because I forgot gloves. The line inched forward. At 5:30pm I reached the front.
Here’s the fun part: no idea who is sponsoring this testing site. There’s a desk without branding. A plastic tent that looks like it came from a dollar store. Some folding tables. Handwritten signs ask people to smile and beg them to be nice. There are two French women in this tent and nearly everyone else on line is also French. They offer antigen swab 15 minute test results as well as follow up via email for PCR test. Both free. You are not allowed to do just one.
Got to the front. Handed a swab and a spit tube. Told to photograph the QR Code and register. Hand over your photo ID which they will hand back with your 15 minute rapid diagnosis. Step over to where the Grub Hub delivery guys congregate.
Spit in the tube. Swab each nostril 8 times. Stand around until the front of the tent clears of French people asking questions in French. Hand the stuff to a lady. Go find something to do for the next fifteen minutes. Most people go inside of Fulton Center and get a donut and stand around eating it. Some go for coffee. A couple stand right in front of the tent entrance and ask questions in French.
And then the 15 minutes are done and you try to ask if the test is ready without seeming pushy and without interrupting the flow of people dropping off their samples. Luckily there are two women working in some kind of overlapping way so one answers French questions and the other hands tests results saying “you’re negative” with a glorious French accent “nay-gah-TEEV” so that you feel like you not only won the lottery but you deserved to win.
I went home negative December 24th. Felt great. Made fish. Set the table. Entertained my friends. Woke up Christmas morning. Felt terrific. Opened presents. Entertained other friends. The night passed with lots of candles and copious amounts of ham and leftover pink salad, and lots of smiles and swift hugs and at the end of the night we cleaned dishes and congratulated ourselves for being responsible and safe. Told everyone of our exciting trip to see friends the next day and bragged about how safe we were all going to be.
On the morning of the 26th of December, we opened a self-testing box and read the directions like we were learning a new board game.
“Let’s do Science!” we announced, bags packed, ready to walk out the door and go to the rented inn where 40 of our closest friends were to gather for a week of isolated game playing and daily testing (not kidding: there were 180 rapid antigen tests waiting in the house for us to test each room, every day of our stay). But first we all had to test negative.
We put the test tube thingy in the tray, lined up the test strip, swabbed eight times in each nostril, put the q-tip into the test tube thingy, inverted it, dripped 3 drops of the solution into the tray and voilà!
A long period of disbelief. I stared at the two lines on the strip like it was an unwanted pregnancy. I read the directions again. Looked at the test again. It was impossible. I’m not sure I even spoke to my family, I was in shock. I went out to the same line where I had been cleared on Dec 23 and I stood in the line one hour to test again.
The French woman’s partner is not there today; she is alone and people have been yelling at her all day. As I inch my way to the front of the line, I have seen at least three people completely ignore the clearly stated instructions. While people freak out around her, this overwhelmed French woman is keeping her cool and is being kind. I want to help her. I wait patiently for my test. She meets my gaze and I already know the news is going to be bad. She leaves the tent and the line of dozens of angsty people and quietly says “Eet eez okay. Zey will wait. I must speak to you.”
She is imparting bad news and has left the tent to do it as privately as New York City will afford, in front of a taxi and behind a line of pedestrians waiting to cross Broadway.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. And she genuinely sounds sorry. “You are poziteev.” Her tone is gentle but final. I nod and grit my teeth. “Come back tomorrow,” she says. “I will test you again.”
I want to cry but I hear her say to the irritated person at the head of the waiting line “do not complain for the wait — I have not eaten all day.” And I say to her, “Can I bring you lunch?” And she is profoundly grateful even though I am the current-day equivalent of a leper. I assume (rightly) that she is vegetarian and bring her a falafel salad and she accepts the bag with so much joy I feel I have earned something, but I have no idea what I have earned.
“Come back tomorrow,” she says. “I will test you again.”
I spend the rest of the day on hold, waiting for the NYC Covid Department to pick up the phone. I had heard on NPR just that morning that free hotel rooms were being offered by the city to Covid-positive New Yorkers in living situations where family or roommates were unable to isolate. I called the minute I got in the house and was on hold for hours. I used a second phone to call 311 and the operator told me that yes, it took a long time for that line to pick up but not to give up. So I waited on hold on the second phone as well.
At 9pm the office closed. And I hung up. My phones were never answered. I was on hold over six hours.
My husband found a small air B&B cabin in upstate New York so that he and the kids could stay Covid-Free. I said goodbye to them early the next morning (my husband slept on the couch — ironically, he had a terrible sore throat and a cough — but the three of them tested negative again that morning.) Off they went.
I tested positive again that day. It had occurred to me that the kind French woman might give me a false negative since I’d gotten her lunch, and while I wanted a negative I didn’t want it through falafel-bribery, so I went to a small locally owned pharmacy with a Santa Claus in the window.
Here’s where the nightmare begins. The line only had about 10 people in front of me, but none of them knew for sure what the line was for — the woman in front of me thought it was for testing but the young man in front of her was waiting for a vaccine. After half an hour of standing around and shivering, she scampered inside to inquire — indeed — the line was for “anything Covid-related.” So we waited in the cold to see if we had colds or Covid. Ten people, how long could that take?
Two and a half hours later, we were still outside. The young man who wanted a vaccine was next, but we still hadn’t figured out if someone was calling people in, or if people were going in on their own or what was going on. The guy behind me was a city worker who was there because his daughter had Covid. He seemed like he didn’t really believe in the virus, but was happy to take a day off work to stand in a line. The guy behind him was older and was taking a Covid test because he was supposed to watch the game with some other older friends and he didn’t want to infect them. He said he got a test every Monday before the game. The woman had symptoms and wanted to make sure she was clear. The guy getting the vaccine vanished into the pharmacy. Now I could see inside I wished I had gone anywhere else.
A woman came out, furious because the tests were not free. Most of Manhattan is giving away these tests for free because hello — the City offered to pay for them! — but not this pharmacy. The older guy in line said yeah, he knew that, he just didn’t want to get up early in the morning to wait in line at the City MD. “6am!” he said with a thick Brooklyn accent, “Whoze gonna get up for that? I’d rather pay the thirty bucks.”
I did what I do when I’m appalled at misinformation and I walked down the line and told everyone waiting that the tests weren’t free like they were nearly everywhere else. The rapid antigen test was $30 with insurance and $55 without insurance and the ‘rapid PCR’ test was $175. Some people left the line. Most stayed because they’d already been standing there a few hours. I also returned to my place, second in line. Sometimes, the bad guys win.
The pharmacy was chaos. For once the customers were not the problem. A manager-type beckoned the woman inside. He wore a mask exposing his nose. He had you write your name and phone number and then choose from four expensive Covid tests. I needed to know for sure — it could make or break my next ten days! — so I coughed up the $175. The manager raised his eyebrows but said he would text me when it was my turn in line…in about half an hour or so.
I went home and then turned around and came back when I got the call. I showed up at the pharmacy and all my old friends were packed into the same aisle inside the stuffy store: both of the men and the woman and the unvaccinated guy. Eventually the woman got her rapid antigen test. I knew I was next.
I looked around the corner at the makeshift “lab” (a folding table in the middle of a blocked-off portion of Aisle 1 with test kits on it) and the young pharmacist wearing a full face plastic mask with a smaller K95mask beneath and a white lab coat was straightening the test papers. She looked hard at one and threw it away. Looked hard at another paper and placed it carefully at the left of the very clean table. Adjusted another paper hanging in front of her. Moved a pen. Moved it back. Sighed. Moved the pen again. She looked so anxious I was worried for her. Then she seemed to make a decision and fled to the back of the pharmacy. She came back with a slightly older co-worker.
“Please,” she begged, “Remind me how to do a rapid PCR. I forgot.”
This is not what you want to hear when you are next.
The pharmacist said “just do it like the others;” and I got a nose-swab and paid $175 for it. Perhaps the lab tested the sample differently. Perhaps not.
Thing is, we don’t know — we trust that these testing sites are doing everything right, we trust that our diagnoses are correct. I trust science, I really do — but what I have seen makes me long for the days when we also all trusted authority. No one seems to be in charge, no one seems to be organizing these testing sites or making sure that they are behaving ethically and efficiently. I am certain I had contagious Covid that day. It is a fact that the guy getting his vaccine should have been nowhere near me, certainly not packed into a narrow aisle in a pharmacy for half an hour.
I came home with my positive diagnosis and no symptoms and did not leave the house again.
I was ready to quarantine for ten days, but the following morning, my phone lit up with texts that the CDC had issued new guidelines. I only had to quarantine five days. I didn’t need a negative test to go back out, in fact the CDC was recommending no testing after having Covid because now, positives were likely. I was conflicted and confused and I could suddenly understand why people less trusting than me felt like tossing science by the wayside.
Mind you, I knew they were wrong, but I was having a hard time trusting all these changes.
It took a long phone call with a trusted friend who is a doctor at NYU to work out the logic of the new rules. It was about being contagious, not being cured. Two days before a positive test and three days after are the “hot” times of contagion. The virus load is high enough that it is very likely that anyone in contact with you will get enough of your sloughed-off virus from regular breathing (doubly so if you are sneezing, coughing or have a runny nose!) not to mention laughing, conversation, and other communal trading of air during that time that they will come down with Covid. Of course if they have been vaccinated and/or boosted, their symptoms might be mild…but even if six boosted people pass the virus among them and none of them come down with anything serious, eventually some person who isn’t vaccinated will come across them and possibly land in a hospital on a respirator, or lose their sense of taste and smell for months, and no one wants to be the cause of that! So the safe thing is to stay away from humans for five days after the test…just to be sure.
And this is what I did. On the fifth day, like clockwork, I tested negative. It was incredible. My symptoms were so mild that I thought I had imagined them. A runny nose but not really? possibly just dust? A stuffy head that I thought was more likely caused by being in an unventilated apartment for several days and which went away when I started opening the windows every morning. A headache one day when I didn’t drink enough water. That’s it. Five days of crossword puzzles, TV-binging, eating leftover ham, bleaching all the surfaces, and seeing photos of what the rest of my family was doing in their cabin upstate. It was lonely. It was boring.
But thanks to science it wasn’t lethal or even painful. I highly recommend vaccinations, boosters, and frequent testing. Masks in public and indoors when in company. We can beat this thing. We can. We have science.